Cell to table: Device will let you start with plant cells, end with food
Let's face it. Modern agriculture is in a bit of a rut. It's been coming under increasing fire for its role in climate change – researchers estimate that farms are responsible for 13% of total global emissions (the number is higher when you factor in transportation and industrial processing) – and its toll on finite resources. But human beings need to eat and with the earth's population expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050, how are farmers supposed to feed the world without running the planet into the ground?
The solution to this issue might not lie on the farm but in the lab. Imagine being able to grow your food from cells – there wouldn't be any waste, pollution or food-safety issues and you'd be able to get all the nutrients you need.
You might recall attempts to grow meat in a lab. Well, meet the vegetarian answer to this development: the CellPod, a home appliance that lets users grow food from cell cultures. Finnish researcher Lauri Reuter of research firm VTT says inspiration for the device came from "the need to develop new ways of producing food" due to urbanization and agriculture's impact on the environment. It is not meant to replace agriculture but to offer consumers "a new and exciting way of producing local food in their own homes."
Instead of expending time and energy to grow an entire plant from a seed, the CellPod cultivates undifferentiated plant cells, which can generate all the healthful compounds – such as antioxidants and vitamins, that you'd find in the actual plant.
The best thing is you don't need a green thumb to operate the device. It takes all the guesswork out for you by optimizing conditions for cell growth so all you need to do is buy the culture, pop it into the device with some water and turn on the power. According to VTT, the cells should be ready for harvest within a week.
So far, VTT has been using the CellPod to grow the cell cultures of Finnish berries. However the possibilities that the technology offers extend beyond this. For a start, why stop at conventional food crops? Plants that are not ordinarily regarded as food have nutritional properties that often go untapped and with the CellPod, users have the potential to access a wider spectrum of nutrients. And who's to say that in future, you won't be able to concoct your very own designer superfood by mixing and matching the nutritional properties you desire? Forget protein shakes and green smoothies. These cell cultures might just become a better way to go (especially if Reuter and his team can make the taste of kale cell cultures taste like peanut butter).
That said, it is still early days for the CellPod. While the nutritional value of the cell cultures are on par with "or even better" than the actual berries themselves, researchers say that they still need to work on the cells' taste as it is "very mild and neutral".
VTT is currently cultivating a harvest in Otaniemi (a district near Helsinki) and is working to get feedback from potential customers via Owela, an online platform that connects Finnish companies with users.