Who Gets A Say In Cellular Agriculture?
The 4th Industrial Revolution is the use of technology that integrates digital, material, and biological expertise. One current example is cellular agriculture, or the creation of animal products through cultured cells. While it’s still a budding field, cellular agriculture has attracted recent attention in the media, technology, and advocacy communities.
When it comes to conventional agriculture, the largest farmers, input providers, processors, and retailers have accumulated the most political and economic power over time. Coinciding with this, the authors of this paper argue that elite technological expertise has largely displaced traditional agricultural knowledge and food culture. According to them, some experts worry that cellular agriculture will further concentrate wealth and power in the hands of a few people, thus reducing public participation in agriculture and erasing traditional knowledge.
In this study, researchers attended several cellular agriculture and alternative economic organization conferences to better understand the networks and power structures in the cellular agriculture industry. They also asked attendees about how cellular agriculture could be made more inclusive. Through this process, they identified two key concepts for talking about inclusive innovation in cellular agriculture: ownership and participation.
“Ownership” refers to the legal entities involved in the cellular agriculture community. Similar to other areas of agricultural research, cellular agriculture is dominated by three kinds of organizations. Universities tend to do research. Nonprofits advocate for the field and encourage stakeholder collaboration. For-profit companies figure out how to make cellular agriculture profitable.
Most funding for cellular agriculture startups comes from venture capital firms or large agribusiness corporations, although some comes from governments. Nonprofits and governments fund university research on cellular agriculture, but universities have less money. A lot of research and development occurs within startups, but these companies tend to be very protective of their discoveries.
Given the traditional ownership structures of cellular agriculture, the researchers suggested other types of organizations that could fuel and democratize the industry (such as cooperatives and open-source licensing). However, many researchers were unfamiliar with them or thought they would be too risky. Industry insiders typically argued that receiving venture capital and agribusiness funding is good, because those funding sources provide valuable knowledge and mentorship. However, researchers worried that venture capitalists and agribusinesses will stop funding cellular agriculture research if they don’t earn money.
Although nonprofits tend to support open research, the authors noted that many startups are hesitant to share knowledge as they worry about risking their profits. Coupled with the fact that they are often beholden to venture capitalist funders, shared innovation becomes more challenging.
“Participation” refers to collaborating and engaging with people affected by cellular agriculture. According to the authors, many cellular agriculture researchers who attended the conferences supported reaching out to community members and having them participate in decisions about cellular agriculture. Right now, nonprofits do most participation-related work and concentrate on making customers want to eat cultured products. Letting everyone affected by cellular agriculture participate in decision-making is hard while for-profit companies do most of the research and keep their discoveries to themselves. Furthermore, the study points out that it’s thus far been difficult to participate except for those with advanced scientific and technological expertise.
Arguably there isn’t a single solution to make cellular agriculture more inclusive. The authors suggest that new economic organizations and funding models could allow more stakeholders to have a say in (and a stake in) the industry. For example, community funds and participatory impact investing are two routes to consider that would make funding more open. Some cooperatives might enable consumers or farmers to vote on important decisions, thus spreading power to those beyond the funders and researchers. Websites where people can freely share relevant hardware, software, and data could also help to democratize the process. With cellular agriculture still in its early stages, now is the time to make it an exemplar of collaboration and inclusion in the 4th Industrial Revolution.