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Limits to Growth on Precision Fermentation

Paul Wood

Monday, April 3, 2023

Chris Keefer  0:00  

Welcome back to the couple. Today I'm joined by Dr. Paul wood for a very exciting discussion at least one I've been looking forward to for a long time on the issue of precision fermentation and cultured meats. As you guys know, as a couple of listeners, we occasionally touched on agricultural topics. We had channa Prakash on an episode How to Feed a warming world really diving into biotechnology and genetic engineering. Kenneth Cassman. Look at precision agriculture. But this is a different area. Indeed. And one that there's a lot of excitement about in the Eco modernist community. replan it has a campaign going called reboot food. They've been flying, I shouldn't say flying actually. They've probably been putting him on a train. But they've been moving George Monbiot around Europe in the lowest carbon fashion possible to talk about this. And so I was cruising around LinkedIn and came across Professor wood. And he seems to have a lot of expertise in the area briefly, Professor wood adjunct professor in biotechnology at Monash University, fellow of the Australian Academy of Technology sciences and engineering, and in 2018, awarded an Order of Australia medal for distinguished service to science and global human and animal health. So, Dr. Wood, Paul, if I may, welcome to decouple

Paul Wood  1:26  

falls very good for us, Australians, we don't go on for melody. Okay, Paul, I

Chris Keefer  1:29  

mean, I've given you an I know there's, there's a lot more there in terms of your resume. And, you know, we'd like to keep it pretty short in terms of the introduction. But you know, what I enjoy about the people that I bring on the podcast is, typically there are folks who have worked in industry who, you know, have gotten their hands dirty in some way, shape or form, in understand supply chains understand a lot of the implications that lie behind some of the more glossy marketing based approaches to things like say renewable energy or re recombinant protein precision fermentation, I think it's, it's labeled now. So with that in mind, if you could sort of give us maybe your top three kind of qualifications to talk about this area, I understand I think you've worked in pharmacy, which are in pharmaceuticals, which which has some time, so So go ahead, give us give us kind of your top three.

Paul Wood  2:26  

Yeah, I think the things that are most relevant for today's conversation is that I've had a career of sort of for decades through academia through CSIRO, which is a national science body here in Australia, but also, probably most relevant is into industry. So companies like CSL then i was running the r&d for the animal health division there. And then they sold that to Pfizer, and eventually ended up in the US is Head of Global Discovery for Pfizer, animal health, and in Kalamazoo, Michigan. And that's the largest animal health company in the world. So we use fermentation was pretty standard. You know, we're vaccine manufacturer, drug manufacturer. So it was my familiarity with whole principles of fermentation. That got me interested in this topic. And what I find often when I'm debating some of this, is I'm actually debating with people who have never actually touched a fermenter. So I find it really interesting when the technology really, you know, fundamental technologies, or the ability to affirm it, you know, whether it's yeast or bacteria or mammalian cells. People, you know, have sort of skipped over that piece, and they're really relying on somebody else. And then when you when you track it back and say, Well, who, who was tech? Or whose statements are you relying on? It's can be very hard to actually find, you know, that. So that's what brought me in, because I started to see statements from, you know, the probably the big one was this three thing X report in 2020. That said that the, the red meat industry, the dairy industries, would largely be bankrupt by 2030, because of the that precision fermentation and cell based meat would transform those industries. And I looked at that, I thought, that's just not right. You know, that's, you know. So that's probably what brought me into the getting into sort of talking about it, because I just saw these statements as being completely false. And not because I've got a problem with the idea of alternative proteins. It's just that you know, from a technology point of view, these are really expensive technologies. So to use a really expensive technology and compete in a commodity market, to me is a business 101 failure. You know, if you've got an expensive technology, you really want a premium product, you want a premium price To justify the cost of the tech. So that's sort of what brought me in. And then I almost have sort of become the cranky old white guy who's sort of saying, Whoa, this, you know, this tech is not as not going to transform things.

Chris Keefer  5:15  

I mean, there's a very compelling narrative, that the proponents of these technologies are, you know, basing, I think a lot of their energy on and attracting a lot of the venture capital with, and that is, you know, this potentially 1000 fold reduction in land footprint, you know, the end of animal cruelty, these are all things that I think most people can identify with and think are wonderful. But, you know, certainly there is, you know, I, in terms of the whiff test here, there is a lot of, of wishful thinking, you know, I had to look through that rethink report as well, the word Disrupt is all over it, and one can't help but notice that a lot of the venture capital for these companies, a lot of the companies themselves are, you know, based in or around Silicon Valley. And, you know, we've seen in energy, the ways that, you know, the thinking from the digital economy, is not well applied to the physics of, you know, building power infrastructure, for instance. And so, you know, the application of Moore's law, for instance. And this, this expectation that solar will become infinitely cheaper. I think I've also heard, particularly in that rethink, report being applied to the technologies we're discussing today, George, mom, Bo, as well, amazing speaker and an advocate and activist. But I think someone else who's who's never I know, he's been in one of these plants, but I don't think he's familiar with with the fermenters.

Paul Wood  6:41  

Yeah, generally, what I find is people, you know, firstly, the these groups are very articulate, they often media savvy. And so they set, they tell a story that sounds pretty convincing, you know, they tell that all, these are all the problems, and have all we have the solution, if we do a bit of modeling, of course, will bring the price down. So if we unpick some of that, one of the ones I've, I particularly have a problem with his, he will start with Well, we're going to have to feel see 10 billion people by 2050, or, or 2100. And of course, we'll have to use these technologies. Now. The reality is we know exactly where those people will be, you know, the look at the who sets, they're in Africa, they're in India, they're not in New York, they're not in London, they're not in Sydney, we actually produce plenty of food for the Western, we just don't distribute it very fairly. So that's the first question I ask people is, is your solution, a solution for Africa? You know, when we're 90% of the food that's produced in Africa, is produced by smallholder farmers. This is someone who is earning less than $2 us a day, it's probably got a couple of cows. I was in Kenya three weeks ago, visit a typical dairy farmer, she had two cows. But she's producing about 20 litres of milk a day, which is pretty good, actually. So they're the people that I look at and go, Well, are we providing a solution for you? Because we actually don't provide solutions for Africa, we actually won't solve food security. So that's the first premise that's completely wrong is that you know, these are not people looking for an expensive burger, you know, then we get into the issues around energy, etc. Look, these are fermentations in energy, hungry process. So again, not just myself, but lots of others have actually pointed out that if you didn't use completely renewable energy sources, wind solar, then you actually wouldn't be more sustainable, then conventional meat production. And that's largely looking at the feedlots, etc. Because, you know, the reality is, if you're running your animals on native pasture, you're pretty sustainable in the first place. So yeah, we can get into a lot of a lot of those sorts of debates, that yeah, let us use less land. Absolutely. If we put it in a factory and it's vertical. But transformation, as you said, is used very liberally. And I think, fundamentally, because of these issues around cost of goods, etc. We're looking at a very expensive product, you know, somewhere in the vicinity of $100 a kilogram. And we're not talking about a beautiful steak. We're actually talking about meatballs, hamburgers, sausages. So we're talking about the commodity ends of the meat market. You know, so that's the other. Just a practical reality is There's a what there is one product on the market, people may have heard of it, you know, in Singapore, you can get a, a cell based chicken nugget. That's $20, a chicken nugget. And they don't make money on that they lose money on on that. So that sort of gives you the sort of idea now, now, as you said, they'll say, hey, Moore's law, you know, everything the cost comes down. The interesting thing about Moore's law is it's never been applied to a biological system. It's actually, it's, it's actually physical science, you know, so they'll look at it and look at the cost of sequencing DNA. And you have to point out to him, that's actually a chemical reaction. That's not a biological system, the way we sequence. And so biology is really complex cells won't grow above a certain density, you know, they don't like to sit in their own waste, they need a range of growth factors, they won't grow in basic media. These are the things that make mammalian cells difficult to grow, fussy, a lot slower. mammalian cell doubles in about 24 hours, yeah, was a bacterium in about one hour.

Chris Keefer  11:12  

Before, before we go too much further, I just want to define a few terms. You know, I did some cell biology as part of my medical education, but it's having to dust off the textbooks here. And we are talking about two processes that have something in common, but are also quite different. So maybe, if you can just, you know, again, an a pretty kind of 30,000 foot view, some definitions around, you know, what is cultured meat versus precision fermentation, and maybe some of the similarities and differences, you know, the recombinant technology, from which, I guess precision fermentation comes, just to give an overview, or listeners a bit of an overview of

Paul Wood  11:53  

No, we have died, we have dived into it. And without defining the terms, I agree, let's just say so cell based meat is the concept that rather than eating the meat of an animal that I've grown, and I, I slaughter, that I take a biopsy from that animal, I isolate out the muscle cells, and I grow them in tissue culture. So starting off quite small, but eventually I get up to a 10, say, a 10,000 liter fermenter. And I'm growing those as a single cell suspension. At some stage, I then change the media and I and I allow the cells to differentiate into myofibers starting to form muscle cells, and then I harvest that material. And then I use I produce products from that. That sort of cell base, so itself, now we use this technology, very successful in the pharmaceutical industry, monoclonal antibodies is what mostly so we grow cells, and they secrete the molecule and we don't eat the cells. So we do know about how to grow cells at at large volumes, yeah, generally around about 10 to 20,000, to the sort of maximum size. And they're the top drugs in the world. So and vaccines, you know, some of the recent COVID vaccines were cell based. So we grew viruses in cells, and we harvested those. So the technologies have been around for a while. And we know how to do it, as I said, but it's expensive technology. So that's sort of the concept of cell based precision fermentation. Well, when I was a young biology student, we call it recombinant protein production. But precision fermentation is a lot sexier term. So that's what we get, it gets called now. And it's essentially I take a single gene, something like myoglobin, and I put that inside another organism, generally a yeast because that we know how to manipulate them very well. That yeast cell grows up, and it produces this. It's a bit like the Trojan horse sort of concept that, you know, it believes this the gene is its produces that protein, and then I harvest that protein generally by rupturing the cells and separating out the Protein Protein. I've now got a recombinant protein. It's what Impossible Burger uses for its product, you know, they use theme like they grow up, and they produce a recombinant heme. And they put that into their burger to give the burger that the presence that it looks like it's bleeding. It has the smell of meat, because it's the heme molecule that does that. But people also doing it with dairy proteins. They're doing it with enzymes. So precision fermentation. That's the concept there. The cost issue is not anywhere as big as it is with with cell based meat. So there are a range so perfect day is making a range of products with dairy proteins. For instance, and rennet, which were used for making of cheese, that we've been doing that for decades, you know, so they're the, they're the basic technologies.

Chris Keefer  15:12  

And so I mean, what you see a lot, and we see this in energy as well is, you know, for instance, within, you know, green hydrogen production, you see these great pilot projects, they attract a lot of media, usually, there's a bunch of venture capital behind it, there's a little bit of a moral hazard there, because there's certainly a reason why journalists might have an incentive in one shape or form to to hype a technology, whether it's commercial, or whether whether it's just, you know, listen, we're facing a number of potentially existential threats in the form of climate or the biodiversity crisis, I think there's a very natural human impulse towards hope, towards finding hope, you know, in an environment of doom. And, but these pilot projects have real issues with scaling. And I think that would probably be one of your your big criticisms of sort of the errors and how we think about them. But can you tell us a bit more about the mention the chicken nugget and Singapore,

Paul Wood  16:07  

the chicken nugget, so this is a product that is produced by a little manufacturer in Singapore, on behalf of good meat, but they only really use sort of up to 510 litre fermenters. So it's, it's what we'd call pretty small scale, and they only produce a couple of 1000 pounds of the product. So it's, it's really a PR exercise. One to demonstrate that we can get a licensed product in the market, the final product actually is a combination of those cells, the chicken cells, they harvest and plant products. So it's about 70%, chicken cells and about 30% plant based materials. So it's a, what we'd call a Hybrid Hybrid product. And the reality is, most of the products that will come on the market will be these hybrid products. Because the trouble about when you have a sales at the end, you've got this wet, massive, what we call a sell slurry, you know, and you got to get the, you got to get all that water out. But then you've got to gently put some structure in it. So you, you generally add plant base material or fiber, to give it some sort of structure. You know, when I was a young kid, you know, meat wrestlers were popular, you take a bit of mince, they mix it with, with carrot and other plant produce proteins to create a result, you know, all we're doing now is taking that cell slurry and mixing it with with other other compounds largely plant based. The other interesting thing is, of course, I'm only growing a single cell, most people, you know, the concept was we grew muscle cells. Some people have moved away from that we can talk about that. But remember, a piece of steak is lots of different cells. So there are muscle cells there, there are fat cells, there's connective tissue, there's is blood cells there. So what people do have to do is actually, to get anywhere near the nutrition of meat, they actually have to add things back that add some source of fat. Now they can grow fat cells and add that back. But that's another expense. Or they can add plant based fats. Left add minerals, there'll be no big 12 there, for instance. So that's the other really interesting thing is people make the statement, our cell based meat is like real meat. Well, I'd say it's actually not like real meat at all, it has no structure of real meat, it it only has certain components of, of meat. So nutritionally, we have to also be very careful in the end, that we don't end up producing a product that is less nutritious than red meat. And that often gets forgotten.

Chris Keefer  18:44  

Walk me through what these factories look like and what's being suggested and proposed. You know, what, what's the biggest thing that's been made so far, I understand start small batch and work your way up. But I really like as hard as it is to paint a you know, a kind of verbal representation of what these what these installations and factories look like. So do your best to walk us through that and describe the production process.

Paul Wood  19:10  

Alright, so let's, let's talk about what, like if I've got a 10,000 liter fermenter let's just talk a little bit. Now no one's using that scale for cell base at this stage, but let me just, that's where they're going. You know. So I've got a it's stainless steel, you know, because it so it's a large stainless steel vessel. It generally occupies it's across a three floors of a building. So what you do is, is you build it such that at the top, you can access the top of the tanks where you have all your, your sort of monitoring equipment. The middle sort of just sits in a in a space you don't don't need access to the middle of a tank, and then the bottom is where the effluent flows out. So often that's how you construct a factory um, If that's the sort of scale that people are going to no one's near that scale at this stage to cell base, but that's fairly routine in the pharmaceutical industry, what I also have to do is I have to filter all the air, you know, and and the staff that work in there, generally all completely in in like a hazmat suit, you know, because what we're trying to do is protect the cells from us, because this is sterile culture. This is long term sterile culture. So the worst thing we can do is, us as humans contaminate, I have to have positive pressure. So when I open the door, the air flows out of the room, because in that air, is a whole lot of fungal spores, you know, you only have to take a slice of bread and leave it out on your bench at home for a little while and see what happens, you know, you can't see these fungi. So it's, it's very clean rooms, what you call it, you know, we talk about in the biotech, we talk about very clean room, that is the surfaces are coated with particular resin so that they're easy to clean down, the air is filtered, all the water is filtered. So it's a fairly sophisticated. Now, what these people have said at times is, oh, we won't need to have all that stuff, all that extra tech that you pharmaceutical guys use. But I point out that that's actually to protect the cells, you know, so you actually will need and, and the biggest factory probably was has a pilot facility built by upside. So in the US, and they can produce I think it's about 50,000 pounds of meat a year out of that facility. Now, if you think about that, that's actually about 1000 pounds a week. And then if you think about the weight, you know, let's issue of comparable to red meat. That's about three carcasses. So that's about the weight of three carcasses. So that's from a meat production. That's a backyard butcher. So that's we got to put scale. So people say, Well, look what we've done, we've scaled, we actually haven't you know that they call it a pallet. But that's so that's sort of where it's at. Now they need to go well beyond that. People like good meat people, they've actually gone out and commission 250,000 litre fermenters. And they're saying, Well, we're gonna go to scale, but we've never grown cells above 2010 or 20,000. So there's no scientific rationale to suddenly jump to that scale.

Chris Keefer  22:45  

When there's there's risk, there's risk to that I think you've mentioned, right? If you get a contamination events,

Paul Wood  22:51  

yeah, I use the sort of trying to get that risk across to people to sort of like, you know, this guy that I know, and he builds five, five storey buildings, you know, and I suddenly say to him, Well, I'd like you to build me a 250 storey building, which he's never done before. And then I'm going to put my family on the top floor. You know, I mean, we're talking about tech that we haven't scaled. So to build a facility before you've demonstrated as even feasible, is really high risk. As I said, cells settle down. So we actually generally in tanks, we have to have some way of steering, we can use propellers, or we can use air. But of course, the bigger the tank, the more the air pressure we have to use, and cells will rupture, you know, these are mammalian cells, they don't have a hard exterior, so that they're, you know, one of the problems of growing mammalian cells is they there was looking for a way to die, or rupture. And then, of course, we don't have a product at all. So I think going above 10, or 20,000 liters is really not sound science and, and some of the other cell based meat people have called that out. So So you know, it's not just me, but it's other people like the, you know, the CEO believer me, he's also said, you know, it's just from issues of sheer force on cells, you probably can't go above 10 or 20,000 liters. And that that then becomes a problem in scale. You know, you can freeze your fermentation, you know, for because you're looking there at yeast, etc, but a lot hardier. So people do those ferments already at say 100,000 liters, and that's sort of where that has to get to. So we're seeing liberation labs in the US is commissioning a facility where they're going to have for 150,000 liter tanks. So that's quite doable that that but that's yeast fermentation, not mammalian cell. So the the issue the technical issues are different for mammalian cell growth as they are for yeast cell growth.

Chris Keefer  25:08  

Let's stick with it seems like the harder of the two the cell cultures. So you get up to these large bathroom said 10,000 20,000 liters seems to be the maximum of the system allows. But you start, you start small and need to do all these transfers and tell me about the risk of, of bacterial fungal contamination and the consequences.

Paul Wood  25:28  

Sure, so what you generally do is you do transfers that one in 10. So if I start, I've got one liter, I translate that to 10 liters, yeah, because cells, they're social creatures, they signal each other, you know, so so I can't take one leader, and put it in a 10,000 liter tank, it's not going to work. So you generally scale up in orders of magnitude of one to 10. So we have what we call a fermentation train, you know, I've got my one liter fermenter, and it goes to 10 or 20, then that goes to 200, you know, 2000, and, etc. So I generally have those sort of steps, I've got maybe say, five fermenters in a row. As I move cells from one to another, I've got to make sure that I don't contaminate, so you generally have all of those connected with with tubing. So that it's it's a contained system, I've got to have sterile media. So I have to filter everything, I start as that sterile water. The other interesting thing, if that sometimes people forget is if I've got a 10,000 litre tank that I'm going to grow my cells in, I actually have to have a 10,010 liter tank that holds the media that I would pump in there, before I add myself, then I need another 10,000 liter tank when I harvest the cells that I pump the cells into the harbor. So you can start to see how big this factory is. And people, you know, none of these exists. But people have done estimates, you know, and they estimate that a decent size factory would cost about 400 million us to build. Now I had a couple of other people have a look at that and said it's probably closer to 600 million, but let's not quibble about

Chris Keefer  27:16  

hundreds of millions.

Paul Wood  27:18  

And hence what happens in the end is the facility cost which people never think about it, you know, these people were talking about cell based meat, never talked about facility costs, the depreciation on that becomes a major cost part of the cost of goods. So we've been saying that from the start, you're not thinking about, you know, what your costs are going to be on the facility. And very interesting, just in the last few weeks, someone's actually come out in engineering group, have used a bit of design software. And they came up with an estimate that the facility costs would actually be 48% of the cost of the product. So from being told, No, we won't worry about that. We're now actually saying, Well, wait a minute, it could be 48% of your costs. And that's probably reasonably accurate. I think.

Chris Keefer  28:02  

I mean, part of part of the things I've again heard George mom Bo say is, you know that I think this is the category or is comparing this, particularly the cell culturing to, you know, your local craft brewery, and hey, you can have craft breweries, you know, all everywhere, and they can make the beers that people like, and so we can have these facilities making the kind of foods and flavors that would you know, there's a real love of decentralization, that I think is part of the kind of eco romantic narrative. And it's very much on display there. But I especially for coming across your work, I found myself quite skeptical of those kinds of claims, and that this could be done on a community level and community control. It's it's a very familiar narrative to me. Yeah, it is

Paul Wood  28:43  

a very familiar narrative. It's the same narrative. We heard about vertical farming. Remember that, you know, we could all have our vertical farms, you know, and that, and that hasn't turned out, we're actually starting to see a number of those large facilities being closed down now, because energy costs have gone up, and they're no longer making any sense. So it's always a nice, the concept that this is like brewing beer. Well, it's not really at all. Other than the fact that yes, brewing beer is a fermentation process, but it's, it's not like mammalian cells, it's more like the yeast. And because they produce alcohol, to some extent, you don't have the problems of sterility. And it's a shorter fermentation, etc. So, you know, it's like, it's like a lot of things, that it's the details that, you know, when you get into it, sort of make those systems not really work. It's also quite sophisticated. I mean, you know, this is mammalian cell growth is a very sophisticated technology. You know, the media we use, has literally hundreds of components in there, minerals, vitamins, growth hormones, etc. So, yeah, I think the concept that I have a cell factor Read my backyard, and I make my own steaks. I think that's probably pretty farcical. Well, we need a lot of factories, yes, we will need a lot of factories to feed people. And then I go and ask the question, is that a solution for Africa? I don't think so. Yeah, it's, as I said, the interesting thing, the tech works, it's just, it's just complicated technology, expensive technology.

Chris Keefer  30:27  

You mentioned energy costs, something that constrain the the vertical farming revolution, if we want to call it that, How significant are the energy costs to these, these facilities? What do you have to do with that energy in cell culturing?

Paul Wood  30:43  

So when we grow mammalian cells, we grow them at 37 degrees, so it's body temperature, okay, so I have to have a tank, and I have to have it at 37. Now to do that, you're generally these these stainless steel tanks, a water jacket, no, so you have a water jacket, and you're, you're changing that temperature to keep the temperature of the tank at the same. So that's 37, it's, you know, it's warm it, then I'm getting a lot of radiant heat coming off that if you think about I put a tank then and it's running at 37 degrees, there's going to be a lot of radiant energy coming off that, so then I have to actually air conditioned the room that it's in. And now I'm gonna put 130,000 of the 130 of these big tanks in a facility. And you can start to think about the energy sort of side of that, I've got to run it all at 37, I've got a call all the air, depending on where I put my factory, you know, like, even let's take the US, you know, if I put it in the Midwest, at certain times, I'm gonna have to warm the air, when you get down to those minus 20s and minus 30s, outside. So I'm not going to put a tank outside, I'm going to actually have it inside a facility, I've also got a filter all that air. So I've got to have, I've got to be running a filtration system for all the air coming into the facility. And that's sort of where the energy stuff costs come in. And I've got to run this 24/7. So it's not like I turn the switch off, you know, this is this is runs continuously. So from the very start, some people looked at that and said, Well, that's going to be energy intenseness, let's do some calculations. And and people at Oxford University said, Look, it'll have to all be renewable energy sources, or it's not going to be more sustainable. And and report after report has come back and said the same thing.

Chris Keefer  32:47  

What, what are the implications of intermittent energy on this whole process? If you have a wind low and clouds for a week, how does that affect your production?

Paul Wood  32:57  

Well, that's the last thing cells like I mean, these are, you know, as I said, mammalian cells, and particularly, you can't just take them up and down, you know, they won't grow. So if you drop the temperature down, they won't grow, they'll probably die. So yeah, we could not have intermittent temperatures, so we'd be a manufacturing disaster, to have fluctuation in temperatures weak, we could generally have a fluctuation of a couple of one or two degrees, even that's not good. But probably beyond that would be would be a real problem.

Chris Keefer  33:32  

So we've been, I think, focusing on the cell culture side of things, and I've come from nowhere to having, you know, a very basic level of understanding based on your descriptions. Is it worth talking a little more about some of the nuances and specificities in precision fermentation, it seems, as you were mentioning, a bit easier to just have the yeast make specific proteins, you know, and that's how we make insulin. For instance, I'm obviously struck by you know, there's a lot of diabetics in the world who make a lot of insulin but it's, uh, you know, the, I administer insulin at work as a as an emergency physician. And it's not a lot of volume. And when we're talking about growing macronutrients for the world, it strikes me that there's a scaling issue there. All that aside, let's let's talk about the precision fermentation side, if there's any differences, and you know, what the processes and factories look like and the implications of the growing process?

Paul Wood  34:25  

Sure. So the sort of tanks we use, stainless steel tanks are pretty standard, you know, and sort of, but it's a bit simpler with yeast, as I said, they will grow. We already grow them slide scales, as I said, there are factories, not many of them, but there are factories, particularly in Europe that are currently at the 100,000 200,000 litre capacity for an individual tank. I heard I was in New Zealand last week, and I heard from a guy that originally there's a company in in England that built a 1 million litre fermentation tank to produce a product, I actually hadn't heard the story before. And the reason I hadn't heard it before is in the end, the product didn't turn out to be economically sound, and the factory was torn down. So it's sort of a cautionary tale. So, so here, the text a lot more doable, you know, we actually already grow yeast cells. So that sort of scale, what generally happens is where the cost comes in, is when I have to then separate that protein away from my yeast cells. So I've got yeast cells, they're producing this protein, sometimes they'll secreted into the media, sometimes they won't. But in the end, we talk about down downstream processing. So that's the steps after fermentation, where I've got to get my my desired protein back. That's the big cost. With precision fermentation, that's about 50 to 60% of the costs, because depending on the purity you want, so if you want your desired protein at 90%, or greater purity, now in the pharmaceutical industry, we actually use purities of 95 99%. That's very expensive tech, because I've got a lot use a lot of different steps to get to that purity. Because the, if you think about the bulk of the material that I ferment, I'm not going to use the use, I don't you don't need the yeast cells. So I only want that one protein. But that also creates a problem, because then I've got a great week, I've got a large waste stream, you know, what do I do with that waste stream. So you can process that down. And you can do things with it. But it's generally not economical to spend the time you go after the protein of interest. The higher the purity, the the lower your yields. What I mean there is, if I want really high purity, I'm going to lose some of my protein in the fractionation step. And often you get yields, they'll fall sort of below 70%. So 30% of the protein I'm, I've just spent all that time growing, I lose in the fractionations steps. So that's the sort of, you know, that some of the costs there, but it's, it's a lot more doable. I mean, if you think about the difference, at the moment, we're talking with mammalian cells that it's 1000 fold difference in cost to current meat production. So 1000 fold, so we've got a lot of it's not the gaps aren't as big in the precision fermentation space. So people out you know, there are products on the, on the market, as I said, Perfect Day produces one milk protein led to glow globin globs electric globulin. And they produce a product called Brave robot ice cream. But it's $50 a bucket. Now, I don't know, I don't know what a bucket of ice cream costs in the in the States. But you know, I'm sure there's brands a lot cheaper than $50. So,

Chris Keefer  38:08  

and that's gonna be one one protein, not the six protein.

Paul Wood  38:11  

Oh, that's the other thing. It's one protein. You know, it's it's, you know, milk is made up of six major proteins, but they're actually literally hundreds of proteins in there. And then there's minerals and vitamins and etc. And

Chris Keefer  38:23  

we see that when we make baby formula, it's very hard to mimic the complexity of Malka.

Paul Wood  38:26  

Yeah, and it's quite interesting when when the FDA approved this product, it actually specifically said you cannot use it for baby formula. Because it it understood that nutritionally, it is not equivalent to dairy. So it's mostly used as a filler, you know, into products, you know, you put it in, but then people say, well, it's dairy, it's got dairy protein in there. I use the analogy when I talk to people, because I'm trying to think, how do I get this across, and I use this analogy last weekend in New Zealand, where I showed him a picture, a picture of the Mona Lisa, you know, this painting that everyone recognizes, you know, it's this beautiful texture and colors and, and that, like, you know, it's everyone knows it, then I show a black and white image of the Mona Lisa, everyone recognize it as the Mona Lisa. It's such a distinctive painting. But now it's flat. It lacks texture. It's one color. It's one dimensional. It's fake, you know. And so I use that as an analogy of like, I can't, you can't just take a single protein and declare that as dairy. You know, I think I think the cell based meat people gonna have a problem. I can't just use a single cell type and say that's meat. Well, it's not

Chris Keefer  39:47  

what and there's just some intrinsic common sense here in terms of you know, how complex we are as biological organisms, how complex and again, I think bringing it back to this idea of mother's milk, you know, formula is pretty damn good. It's not it's not a total equivalency, you don't have some antibodies and things that you need. We probably overhype. You know how much worse it is, you know, definitely been guilty of that in medicine and guilt tripping women. But it's, it's pretty magical stuff, you know, the real thing. And I think that is a, you know, really potent imagery for me because again, if you approach this stuff on a surface level, you read a few articles that are, again, maybe sponsored by the company itself, or, again, as I mentioned this, this psychological bias towards, you know, wanting to have solutions in the face of these very challenging ecological times we find ourselves in, you know, you wouldn't you wouldn't get to this, this level of depth and complexity. So again, it's it's really great having you on. So obviously, you know, there's been a lot of money that's gone into the sector. And I think, you know, returning to this idea of Moore's law, I mean, a lot of the capital that has been generated in the last few decades has happened by, you know, people working in the IT sector, where Moore's law did apply. So maybe understandable that they maybe got overly enthusiastic in the sector, is the investment continuing to roll in? Or are some of these scalability issues starting to shake investor confidence? Do you have any idea about that?

Paul Wood  41:16  

Yeah, we're probably tracking behind the plant based people to some extent, because you know, the plant base was really very popular billions of dollars. I think there's something like 1300 companies now in that space. But what we did see in the last in 2022, is the market start to soften the actual volume of product went down, costs have gone up. So in, we're seeing about 10% of plant based products coming off supermarket shelves as supermarkets through get rid of the products that aren't selling, etc. So we are seeing that we saw, you know, between beyond, and only those two companies just between them lost $20 billion of market value in the last 18 months. So Let's scare the market a bit. So are we actually seeing a decrease in the amount of money available for new companies, I think there's also an expectation that there are too many, you know, in the cell based meat, there's probably about 150 companies now. Many of them aren't differentiated from the other ones. So you know, they won't go anywhere. But that's, that's the tech space, you know, a lot of startups, so the lack of differentiation, so people are also already starting to say there'll be a reset. We saw one of the large cell based companies in San Francisco, recently shut down, they couldn't find a buyer, I think they'd got their facility at about 90% completion. And they couldn't find a buyer. So they just shut the whole thing down. They'd spent about, I think, $40 million, or something rather, to get to that stage. So I think there is a little bit of nervousness in the markets, in the investment markets. I think one of the problems we're actually talking about with both these technologies, is that a lot of people have come in the investors have come in from, as you say, the IT world where the margins are actually pretty good. And they come into the food sector, the margins in the food sector, are single digit, single digit. I mean, and I don't think people have realized that so that it's not an ideal thing, to add a lot of costume because your margins are already. And the supply chain is also rather constrained. You know, if you think about the, it's the same sort of 10 or 12 companies, global companies controlling food, essentially. Now, most of them have made investments in this technology. Because to be honest, in the end, they don't actually mind what you eat, as long as you buy it from them. So and then, of course, you've got supermarkets, you know, in Australia, we've got two supermarkets that control 60% of all processed food sales. So, you know, they then tell you what price, you know, they'll accept your product and they'll tell you what, you're going to pay them to put it on their shelf, you know, so that the sort of value chain is also very different in the food industry. So I think that's been a bit of a wake up for some investors to realize that this is not like it investment.

Chris Keefer  44:36  

How have you been received in terms of the critical thinking you're bringing to this picture? I imagine people are suspicious maybe of your intentions. This seems like such a great promising technology and answer so many questions. Yeah, how how's the response been to what you're bringing to the conversation?

Paul Wood  44:56  

Um, well, it's, it's very easy when I've You know, I've been to a number of these, you know, there's a company here in, in Sydney called Val, they are all over the if you haven't seen the the mammoth ball product this week, they're behind that. So

Chris Keefer  45:13  

Safaricom tells what that is, yeah. Okay.

Paul Wood  45:15  

So that was released this week, where they, they basically took the sequence for the woolly mammoth for a gene from the woolly mammoth myoglobin. They synthetically made that, that gene, they inserted that into lamb cells. And I grew up those cells, and they made a one kilogram meatball, called the mammoth bowl. It's gone into a museum in Sweden, it's never going to be eaten. You couldn't because we, you know, the regulatory people would, you know, would never allow it, because lots of reasons there, but it's a fantastic piece of PR, it made the front page you've got on the US TV, because it's such a great story, you know, this one kilogram mammoth ball. Now, we stretch the science a little bit, is it a mammoth? Well, it was actually a lamb cell that we put a mammoth gene into? Was it a mammoth gene? Well, we think it was a sequence close to a mammoth what we could do from you know, so you know, it's a lovely piece of PR. And, and look, Val acknowledged that they actually do produce another product, which is quite interesting, because they produce a quail sell product, which they call morsel. But they actually admit that it's going to be $100 A kilogram. So it's going to go into that topic. And so I actually fail, at least to honest about their business model. They're actually going to make exotic products for high end consumers. But yeah, a fantastic piece of PR.

Chris Keefer  46:59  

Yeah, ever self indulgent anecdote, which is a friend of my father's, who's a geologist used to go to conferences in the former Soviet Union. And as he tells the story, they had dug up a mammoth from a glazier, and actually carved up some of the meat and served at a geological convention. He got violently ill afterwards, but he, he got a slice of the real thing. So the story goes, he was a pretty, pretty honest guy. But yeah, this

Paul Wood  47:27  

is the concept that, you know, that was talked about, they can have exotic meats, you could have rhinoceros meat, or you could have kangaroo Well, we have as kangaroos. Now,

Chris Keefer  47:37  

at a V at a vegan friend, that joke that he you know, the only meat he ate was from endangered species. But I guess that's, that's not possible to do ethically, well,

Paul Wood  47:44  

you know, I've got, I've got, you know, daring friends that say, you know, their cows are vegans, you know, their cows on a grass, that so they're vegan cows, so the milk they produce is clearly a vegan product. So if we wish, we can get into some sort of debates about what a product is, you asked me how I'm received. So I think the people that the tech people, you know, actually, not many of them don't disagree with what I'm saying. They just sort of say, Well, we hope we can solve these problems. The groups that tend to take a bit of a violent reaction to me are the vegan groups, because I'm, I'm taking down their unicorn, you know, they're this beautiful unicorn there, that's going to solve all the problems of the world. And I'm attacking that, well, I'm not attacking, I'm just pointing out some of the technical challenges, some of the commercial because we haven't even talked about consumers yet, which is a pretty important piece of that at the end. So they tend, you know, on LinkedIn, that they vegans don't like me at all.

Chris Keefer  48:54  

But we'll, we'll pivot in a second to the kind of consumer confidence. One of the narratives, you know, and it actually, it's very similar to me, to the questions around renewable energy is that, you know, it's just not happening. It's not because of any feasibility issues, or scalability issues, or just that fossil fuels are so damn hard to replace. But it's conspiratorial. And so, you know, one of the things that Mambo has said, is basically no, there's, you know, three or four food companies that control the world's food supply. And this this, you know, precision fermentation, cell culture stuff is so potentially disruptive, you know, that it could threaten their business model. You know, we need to put this this technology, this advanced version, technology, you know, in the Creative Commons. These are some of the ideas I hear. I'm guessing that you don't think that there's too much water being held by that, that vessel.

Paul Wood  49:46  

Look, you know, we've seen all of the big companies go into this technology we've seen JBS and you know, the big one of the biggest meat producers invest in cell based meats. We've seen Nestle investing in precision for mentation. We've seen some of the big dairy companies doing plant base. As I said, the food industry is a pretty pragmatic industry, you know, they'll produce what they believe customers want. So I don't, I don't believe in the end, it's those companies holding anything back there. They're just realizing that if they have to sell a product, and it's three times as as much as, say milk, which is sort of the one we're talking about, then they know consumers, you know, we know price is a big issue. I mean, people are hurting out there now. So we're already seeing a growth in cheaper cuts of meat. You know, I mean, chicken, the growth in chicken used to think about a lot that the largest meat consumed, but numbers is chicken. And it's largely because it's very cheap to produce. So, so I think, you know, the supermax that understand that issue about price and customers. So, you know, what, what we might view as luxury I mean, to some extent, if you look at the price on, say, on the plant based milk, and there are two or three times what, what a cow's milk is? So, consumers are just looking at well, you know, do I really, can I afford it? Yeah. So I think, what do we know about the food and so we know that taste drives people, so somebody that doesn't like the taste of something, but after taste, it's price, taste and price. And if you forget that in the food industry, then you'll have a problem. And there was a plant based chicken product where I remember debating with the founder of that company, and she said, Oh, well, look, the taste doesn't really matter. Well, when they did a taste test, people rated her product to two out of 20. You know, it does matter.

Chris Keefer  52:06  

You know, it's interesting, my own relationship to food over the years, I was briefly a vegan, I was a vegetarian for five or six years, largely because I didn't want other people doing my dirty work, I thought, if I can't kill an animal, then then I shouldn't have someone else to put the blood on their hands, I later kind of swung the other way, and became a hunting guide at one point and did some of that myself.

And, you know, I worked with more working animals, it was a horse Wrangler. So just a different kind of evolving relationship to animals. And, you know, I don't, maybe it's just a protection mechanism you put in place, those of us who eat meat, when we think about the conditions under which they're raised, one tends to, you know, be a humanist and draw some pretty strong distinctions between you know, we're all animals, but you know, you're different, your life is less valuable. And maybe I've taken that too far. But when I when I look at, you know, boiler chickens, and, you know, the kinds of conversion rates, the feed conversion rates, I mean, this is probably the most environmentally friendly form of high quality meat protein we can get. And these birds have been so genetically eminent raise these chickens before, I mean, they're just freaks of nature, the way they put on weight, they can barely hold themselves up. I mean, I've started to see them as vegetables, which is, you know, I'm sure some people some of my listeners would be shocked and horrified by but I'm wondering, you know, in terms of what you view as, as the solutions again, moving forward to feeding 10 billion people making sure we have high quality protein. The, again, the very compelling narratives, if I could just take things at the at the level of the wishful thinking and the promise, I'd be I'd be all on board and proselytizing about this, but I can't help but be curious. And as I see the the kind of holes emerge and what's being promised, potentially, particularly it just not being affordable to you know, where we're going to see the population growth, I'm, I'm alarmed. So what what do you think of as, as the solutions to our impending challenges feeding a larger population?

Paul Wood  53:59  

So I think I think there's a lot of tech we can use. So if you think about genetic selection of, you know, we've we've thought 1000s of years of selected better strains of rice and wheat and, and better animals. So we know that genetics allows us we, you know, you can go too far as you've just sort of mentioned. But we got fantastic technology now to select and make better, both plants and animals. We can make animals that safer to work with. So with a simple, you know, Gene change, we can de horn, all cattle, safer for them safer for us. We can make animals disease resistant, we already make plants disease resistance with with Gene So, so some of the tech that sort of people were worried about is actually now even, you know, some of the green groups are going oh, maybe we should actually except that technology because it's actually get, its greener. I mean, GMO technology is a great example. We're generally not you don't use that term, now we use gene editing, etc. So there's a lot of tech that actually can help us with both foot with food production, both plants and animals. As I said, if we go that, places like Africa, you know, the, the, the yields are so much lower, that's where we've got to really help. We can make plants that are small, salt tolerant, very important in Australia, that are more heat tolerant we can make, we can select animals that are more heat tolerant, we already know, with certain breeds of cattle, the African cattle are more heat tolerant, tick resistant. So I think we've got to use a lot of the tech people, you know, I mean, the people who rally I find it amazing that people rally against the GMO technology. You know, it's been around now for so many decades. Now. You know, I when I talked to a certain green leader, I asked them, Do they believe in vaccinations said, Of course I do. And I said, Well, you vaccinate your children? Yes. I said, so, you know, that's a GMO vaccine, you just use on your children. So, you know, there's, it's not science, we're not arguing, it's not the science that's getting in the way, it's, you know, it's some sort of cherished views that people aren't willing to let go of. So I think there is tick up food distribution has got to be an issue. I mean, we waste a lot of food. You know, when I lived in America, I the size of meals that, you know, it's almost what people expect, I expect a plate that's overflowing with food, I'm not getting value, if it's not, but they don't need it, you know, so, so we know that food waste is enormous thing. One of my other hats is I, I actually chair an insect protein company where we take food waste, and use insects to produce protein that we make dog treats out of. So there there is tech that can help us on the food waste side of it. But there's also behavior, you know, yeah, let's just be, let's take the amount of food and put it on our plate that we actually need to eat. We've got an A massive obesity problem, you know, largely driven by highly processed foods and sugar, you know, 60%, of what Americans eat these days is highly processed food. So, so there, we know what the problems are. But where our systems seem to not allow us at times to solve them. And then we got groups to get fearful of tech, we've got other groups who are promoting, you know, the sort of newer, newer tech, so it is a complicated space. As I said, I, I just finished chairing a board of an organization, a charity that works in India and Africa with smallholder farmers, trying to help them produce, have healthier animals and be more product rich active. So there's a lot we can do there. So I I'm very positive about the future of food security. But some of the inequalities, inequalities that exist in many parts of, of our global systems.

Chris Keefer  58:28  

Yeah, I mean, it's interesting, a few a few thoughts come to mind. One is, you know, as you mentioned, the the kind of niche value of these products, it reminds me of, you know, luxury electric vehicles, for instance, you know, which are not really a solution that most people can afford, although it sounds like technologically less complicated, and potentially more scalable than what we're talking about here today. The other very sort of tongue in cheek comments I'd have and this is not a medical recommendation whatsoever. But it's been interesting to watch the explosion of ozempic, which is a diabetes drug and appetite suppressant, which is just spreading like wildfire, particularly in the US. And it's actually shaping a lot of particularly New York restaurants to make much smaller serving sizes. So I'm not advocating that as a solution to our our food woes, but interesting, some of the developments we're seeing,

Paul Wood  59:21  

but look, it's interesting, you know, Jack Bobo's got a good book out called Why smart people make dumb food choices. And, and you know, he talks about this whole issue about food. But one of the things he talks about there is an experiment Google's done with you know, they serve a million meals a day, you know, free to their staff, so they take price out of it. But one of the things they did was looking at trying to serve healthier food is they shrunk the plate, they just decrease this. And it had an automatic response. They found that people didn't go back for a second plate they just ate So they, I think a 15% reduction in what they consumed just by actually presenting them with a smaller plate.

Chris Keefer  1:00:07  

That's that's some pretty simple technology fall. Listen, we're we've come to the hour. This has been fascinating. I'm sure I'm missing a bunch of things I should have asked you. And I'm sure the audience will engage and be active in the comments section. If you are a regular decouple listener, make sure to subscribe to our YouTube account. I've got a great new video out this week, Jesse Freeston, tackling the issue of nuclear waste. Paul, where can people find you again, this is something that really bothers me is how hard it was to find you how hard it was to I can't find it. You know, I searched Paul wood precision fermentation on YouTube, nothing comes up. I just, you know, had to go through this maze of LinkedIn to do some background research. So I really want to change that. But where can people find you and learn more about your thinking so

Paul Wood  1:00:52  

they can find me on LinkedIn, I use LinkedIn I don't understand some of the other social media things LinkedIn I can actually post quality material pulled up wood 1508 You can find me on LinkedIn you'll find some of the debates I get in there's a few there's more and more videos as I give talks. The talk I gave in New Zealand last week was was filmed in is its will be out there Ida one in Ireland last last year so so there's more of those if you like videos are out there. I've got another paper coming out shortly and food frontier talking about some of this tech, but these are sources find me on on LinkedIn. Happy to continue the discussion. I think it is a really important debate. And it's important debate that we we need to have. So yeah, it really you know, it's a piece that I might enjoy as a scientist I enjoy actually having the discussion with people whether they agree with me or not. It's a really important discussion for us to have.

Chris Keefer  1:01:51  

Absolutely well thanks for coming on decouple and starting that conversation with us.

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