By Shauna Ayres MPH candidate 2017
VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd. is innovating the first home appliance for growing edible cell cultures. The CellPod prototype looks like a cylindrical lamp that is designed to be kept in the kitchen. Researchers are excited because it has the potential to grow only the healthy, nutritional parts of plants rather than the entire plant. In fact, the cells are genetically identical to the real plant and can produce the exact same antioxidants and vitamins. Cells could even be engineered to have increased or added nutritional value to meet every person’s specific dietary needs or deficiencies. For example, a diabetic could grow cells with a lower glycemic index which would assist in managing insulin levels or pregnant women could harvest cells with vitamins that improve fetal development and health. Theoretically, every culture from a CellPod could be tailored for the exact needs of each consumer.
Currently, the CellPod can harvest plant cells in about a week. However, the taste is mild and needs development. So far VTT has successfully grown Arctic bramble cells, cloudberry cells, and stone bramble cells.
This concept sounds great. We can now grow only the food we need. This will reduce food waste, improve human health, decrease supply chain pollution and cost, restore agriculture land to its natural state, and solve famine. Right? Well, like most things, it’s much more complicated. The largest hurdle for VTT will be convincing people that eating bland cells out of a petri dish is exciting and the newest culinary trend. Food is culture and giving up traditions of cooking, feasting, and celebrating in families, communities, and other social contexts is unlikely. Additionally, there is already enough fear around GMO products that still look like the original food source. I can’t imagine the outcry that will occur when people are spooning the GMO cells into their own mouths or their children’s mouths.
Plus, the global food industry is enormous! McDonald’s has over 36,000 restaurants in over 100 countries, Starbucks has over 24,000 coffee shops in over 70 countries, and Coca-Cola recorded $43.5 billion in revenue between April 2015-April 2016. These food giants have the power of a thick pocket book to influence policy makers to ban or over-regulate CellPod technologies as well as to influence consumers through clever advertising that convinces them they want and need a brand. If CellPod is the kitchen gadget of the future, VTT will need to partner with large food giants to develop a market base and establish a strong brand relationship with consumers. I’m unsure any company would be gutsy enough to take that risk. So don’t clear off a space in your kitchen for the CellPod just yet. But if this sounds great and you just can’t wait, try taking a baby step and eat your meals off petri dishes.