The State Of Cellular Agriculture Research
Cellular agriculture, a technology being developed to produce animal products without the need for conventional farming, has the potential to transform our food system while supporting problems like climate change and global hunger. However, to achieve this goal, much more research is needed on cellular agriculture’s technical development as well as its potential social and political effects. As research slowly gains traction, it is important to keep track of its status and to identify areas for improvement. In this article, a team of scholars uses a technique called bibliometric analysis to analyze the state of cellular agriculture research.
The authors analyzed data from 227 academic journal publications relevant to cellular agriculture published between 1981-2020. Of these, 93% (212 papers) were published as research articles within one of 135 academic journals. Just seven of these 135 academic journals published five or more articles on cellular agriculture within the study period, while 33 journals published two articles on the topic.
The journals with the greatest number of research articles on cellular agriculture were Appetite and Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, which together hosted 10% of all publications within the study period. Based on the content of the articles, the research topics within the field of cellular agriculture that received the most attention were food science technology, environmental sciences, nutrition, and agriculture. Collectively, 77% of published cellular agriculture research focused on these issues. There were also articles dealing with the philosophical, ethical, and historical considerations of cellular agriculture.
Though the study period extends as far back as 1981, the authors note that 75% of all publications on cellular agriculture came out in the last five years of the study period (2015-2020). They attribute this recent growth to increasing global concern over providing the growing population with a sustainable and environmentally-friendly food supply. These concerns are reflected in the articles that gained the most traction in the study. The article that was cited the most times by other articles (181 citations) was published in 2011 and addressed the environmental cost of cultivated meat production from start to finish, comparing this impact to that of traditional animal agriculture. The article with the second highest number of citations (117 citations) was published in 2014 and discussed biotechnological advancements in the context of food security. Likewise, major keywords associated with all of the publications involved technical production (e.g. developing cell cultures, tissue engineering); ethics (e.g. human and animal rights); food system reform (e.g. food security and sustainability); and consumer acceptance.
The authors identified 305 organizations and 607 authors involved with publishing cellular agriculture research. In general, each organization and author contributed only a small share to the total number of publications. For example, only eight of the 305 organizations had more than five relevant publications. The top contributing organizations were Wageningen University and Research from the Netherlands, the University of Oxford from the U.K., and the French National Institute for Agriculture, Food, and Environment from France.
Regionally, 45 countries were involved with cellular agriculture publications, with just 10 of these countries producing 93% of the current published research within the study period. The countries with the most cellular agriculture publications were the U.S. (26%), the U.K. (17%), and the Netherlands (12%). The most productive countries in terms of publications on cellular agriculture tended to have more financial, technological, and labor resources compared to developing countries.
Overall, the authors interpret these results as indicating that progress in producing cellular agriculture research publications has been relatively limited and slow. This means that there is a lot of room left for additional researchers, organizations, and countries to get involved and make significant contributions. They suggest that future researchers should focus their efforts on improving the production process of cellular agriculture while also tackling concerns of consumer feasibility and societal acceptance across different ages and regions. Furthermore, they recommend additional research on food safety, taste and texture, policy considerations, and identifying bottlenecks (obstacles that are preventing cellular agriculture from advancing faster).
Advocates can work to educate their friends, families, and local/online communities about the science behind cellular agriculture as well as the environmental, ethical, and practical reasons that food system reform is an urgent priority. This will involve working to understand others’ concerns in order to help ease their fears. Advocates working in organizations that fund research can create targeted grants for solving the pressing challenges of cellular agriculture production, such as those identified by the study authors. They can also help provide grants to countries currently underrepresented in cellular agriculture research.
Up-and-coming researchers in both technical and social science fields can ask their mentors for help with designing research projects relevant to cellular agriculture development or societal acceptance. They can also take advantage of new opportunities for collaboration, such as by participating in the newly-established Cultivate Tomorrow hackathon in the U.S. or creating similar opportunities in their home countries if none currently exist. Finally, both new and experienced researchers can reach out to alternative meat organizations (e.g., New Harvest and the Good Food Institute) for help in the field of cellular agriculture research.