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The Future of Food

Joanna Savill and Johannes le Coutre

Some people say the food system right now is broken. I don’t believe it is, but we will certainly be breaking it if we just continue doing things the way they were done in the 20th Century.

Johannes le Coutre

Food is essential for life, but the global systems we rely on to feed us have become increasingly complex and industrialised. Sometimes it’s hard to know where our food comes from, what’s in it and how healthy or ethically produced it is.  

Paradoxically, as a global community we face major challenges based on both too much food, causing obesity and waste, and too little food, resulting in hunger and malnutrition. Adding to this are long-term questions about the impact of our diets on both human and planetary health. Not to mention the issues surrounding the treatment, transport and slaughter of animals. 

In this talk, food and health expert Johannes le Coutre joins journalist Joanna Savill as they explore the future of food. As we take our first tentative steps into the paradigm shifting world of lab-grown and no-kill meat, will 21st century science save the day, or are the solutions to our biggest problems a combination of the old and the new? 

Presented by the UNSW Centre for Ideas and supported by Inspiring Australia as a part of National Science Week

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Ann Mossop: Welcome to the UNSW Centre for Ideas podcast, a place to hear ideas from the world's leading thinkers and UNSW Sydney’s brightest minds. I'm Ann Mossop, Director of the UNSW Centre for Ideas. The conversation you're about to hear, The Future of Food, is between food and health expert Johannes le Coutre and journalist Joanna Savill and was recorded live. I hope you enjoy the conversation.

Joanna Savill: Good evening everyone and welcome to The Future of Food. My name is Joanna Savill, and I'm delighted to be here for what promises to be a pretty fascinating conversation. Now this event is presented by the University of New South Wales Centre for Ideas, and supported by Inspiring Australia as part of National Science Week. And we're thrilled to be joined by food and health expert Professor Johannes le Coutre. But firstly, let's acknowledge the traditional custodians of the lands on which we find ourselves, in this case, the Bidjigal and Gadigal peoples, and pay respect to their elders past and present and emerging, and to all First Nations people joining us. Now, to introduce our speaker. Johannes le Coutre is Professor of Food and Health at UNSW, where he's responsible for the university's food programme. He's worked in the academic sphere at universities in Europe, the USA, Japan and the UK, and the commercial sector at the Nestle Research Center in Lausanne, in Switzerland. And he's worked in some pretty fascinating fields, from molecular taste physiology, to nutrition science, and food innovation. His role at the University of New South Wales however, is related to the crucial issues of food security. And we'll be explaining that term in a moment, I promise, and the burden that agriculture, food production, can place on the environment. Now, Johannes came to Australia in 2019, just before the pandemic hit, to establish the very first academic lab dedicated entirely to research in the field of cellular agriculture. And we'll be finding out exactly what that is too, very shortly. But first of all, I'd like to welcome you again Johannes, as a professor of food and health here at University of New South Wales, what was your path, for all those budding scientists out there, what was your path to the work that you're doing here now?

Johannes le Coutre: Thank you, Joanna. Thank you for having me. I'm really excited to have such a nice interview host. So thank you, um, what was my path? I, well, I, I somehow always knew I wanted to be a scientist. And that's really true. I knew that from age five, after the astronaut period was over, I guess. And I wanted to be a scientist. I studied biology in Bavaria and Germany. And I'm German, and I'm Swiss. I studied biology. I went then on to the Max Planck. At the time, Max Planck Institute for nutrition physiology. I studied biophysics, I got a degree on looking into photosynthesis. Another very or one of the very fundamental biological processes. I went on to study sugar transport into bacterial cells during my postdoctoral years at UCLA in California in Los Angeles, which is some sort of cellular nutrition already, if you want. Again, how does the sugar enter into the cell? What is the molecular mechanism for this? And then in 2000, when the genome had been published, there was a rush on all of these genome data and I got a nice offer to join Nestle research in Lausanne in Switzerland, to make use of this data and to establish work on the Molecular Physiology of taste and to harvest all of these putative goldmine at the time where everybody thought this is great stuff, now we know the genome now we can heal of the diseases which in energy that really went into the food industry also we can we can do everything we can look at taste receptors, and that's what I what I did for almost 20 years. And we can, I'm happy to talk about taste more later in our discussion here. And well, then after our son also finished his high school and is now grown up leading his own life, the question was really it's now or never and what do we do, or what do I do and and now in retrospect, it was the worst of all times to move across the globe. But the curiosity and the challenge and the interest was big in trying to do something new, something radically new. And I guess we will talk about that as well. And I made contact with UNSW, with the Dean in Engineering at the time, in early 2018. We had a long discussion, for almost a year. And then finally in 2019, I came right in time for the bushfires.

Joanna Savill: Well done. Now, I gather you have a fabulous faculty there, just so everyone knows for anyone who wants to study food science.

Johannes le Coutre: Oh, it's, we have… the faculty is great. We really, we really try to emphasise the uniqueness of being a fully fledged food program, nutrition science, food technology, food production. But we are housed in the engineering faculty, which is different to many other food programs that are really traditionally either in a biology environment or in a medical environment. And we look at food to some extent as an important, if not the most important material that needs to be created. And we have put all of our food programs into a material science context, or touch point, knowing that we need to always keep an eye on science and medicine as well. So across these three faculties, we are very well positioned to teach students to do research and to build up future players in the field.

Joanna Savill: That is really fascinating, because it really shows people how many scientific aspects can be connected to food. And of course, you mentioned that you studied the physiology of taste. And we're not going to talk a lot about that tonight. But I was just wondering if there's something from the work that you did there that was particularly interesting, or that people would really be fascinated by, some little tidbit or piece of discovery from your work in taste?

Johannes le Coutre: Well, let me point out two things, number one, with other people in the field, with other groups in the field, we found something astonishing, we actually based on all of the genomic data, had the opportunity to use all of the primers to do all of the molecular biology, to look at expression patterns, to look if certain taste related, physiological principles that we find usually on the tongue, and it's almost by serendipity, if any of those elements are expressed elsewhere. Lo and behold, it turned out that that some of the taste receptors, and by now, this is established knowledge in the field, if not beyond that all of the non taste receptors are also expressed elsewhere in the body. And that's exciting. And we were talking with the name is ectopic expression of taste receptors. So, you and I, and everybody else, including a number of rodents, and animals, do have taste receptors expressed in their gut, in their gastrointestinal system, but also beyond. So we have we have in the pancreas we have, we have even in some areas of the brain, we have, we have taste receptors, the only difference is that nature is using those those elements, those receptors, proteins GPCRs, to be precise, in most cases, is using those molecules in a different context to still sense molecules like sugar or bitter molecules, for example, in the gut, where they are just then linked to a different physiological outcome. The other thing I was going to mention is, we have five taste modalities. We have sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami, with umami being predominantly the taste of glutamate, of MSG, which is, for many people for no good reason, a bad word. Only interesting thing is, to sort of make the bridge to ongoing work here, you can look at umami taste as the taste of meat. And that's really interesting. So, umami taste is the taste of glutamate and nucleotides, so IMP for example. And glutamate and amino acid, and there is no material, no food material, richer and more densely packed with nucleotides and glutamate than meat. So in that sense, we are born, we live with a taste for meat. And I'm sure you will ask questions on that later about the whole meat thing. But that is, since you were asking what are some of the key messages here, that is certainly two of the bigger learnings from my previous life.

Joanna Savill: That is absolutely fascinating. Maybe we should just talk about that for the rest of the hour. But then we're really supposed to be talking about the future of food. And as a food journalist of many years, I confess that the topic of the future of food is a really fascinating one. I in my own professional life have spent a lot of time documenting what many might see as a huge improvement in the quality of food that's available to us here in Australia, and also in the way in which many Australians have actually really embraced the importance and pleasures of good food. I'm here to say, my slightly advanced age, that it wasn't always like that. Johannes, growing up in Germany, probably a little different. But I know that I'm also speaking from a position of some privilege. And you know, at the same time, we're also seeing while people are more into food, Australians all become foodies. We are seeing massive industrialisation of the food supply chain. And of course, challenges to food security, worldwide. In other words, ensuring that everyone in the world has access to food that they can eat. To talk about the future of food, let's look at the present of food. How do you see the global food situation right now, Johannes in a nutshell?

Johannes le Courtre: Well, the interesting thing is that actually, the Dean here at the time of the engineering faculty, was some sort of head of vision to see that this is what is needed. So food security, clearly is the headline, the overarching topic, which, as you as you rightfully say, Joanna, is to make food available for everybody, good quality food for everybody. There is another take, you can give it, or you can, you can look at the whole thing in a different way. But the result in the, sort of, content and background or what you're getting at is the same, is when you look at health in the very sort of trendy, and popular way of looking at it is to talk about individual health, planetary health, and that is sustainability, and then economic health. And then you have three health related points, which, like the table on three legs, always will stand firmly, will not shake. You have three three health related points, individual health, which depends on planetary health, which again, depends on economic health, and they have nicely intertwined, playing together. And if we, if we get it right, we get all three of them right. And we will have to work on all three of them. But then we will be having the right tools also to really address and solve what I would say, slightly downward oriented spiral of food security, at the moment. People say and I would disagree that there are strong words out there, like the food system is broken, I don't really think it is broken, broken. But we certainly will be breaking it if we just continue the way we got out of the 20th century. So looking at sustainability, looking at climate change, looking at biodiversity, looking at how food provides our health. And there's this intricate link also between biodiversity on the macroscopic scale. And you might want to draw a line towards the biodiversity of microbes in your gut, through the food that we're eating. If we get all of these things right. Food security is definitely achievable. And then the food system also will not be broken, or will certainly enter into a better state.

Joanna Savill: Right. So food security, on one hand access for food. You talked about the planet's health. You talked about these three pillars of health. So if you're talking about planetary health, how is our current agricultural food production system, if you like, affecting the health of our planet?

Johannes le Courtre: Well, we all seen Greta Thunberg and I'm a passionate sailor so I was happy when Greta sailed with the German sailor across the Atlantic, and but still everybody saw is that then three of her folks took an aeroplane. But she tries to avoid aviation, right? And there's this whole discussion about our transportation systems. The reality of the thing is, if you look at the numbers, and if you look at climate change, which clearly is linked with planetary health, that it is actually our livestock systems that contribute far worse and much, much more dramatically to greenhouse gas emissions then aviation does, for example, so Greta could have an aeroplane, it might have been better to reduce and to lower meat consumption on a global scale, because that is definitely a bigger culprit and is then in turn also linked to a massive feed production, which is using arable land, water systems, you name it, in order to get all of these livestock up and growing into our food system, which just somehow doesn't add up any longer. And especially not if we're approaching the nine to 10 billion population 20 years from now.

Joanna Savill: Absolutely. So the balance is really out in terms of food production, and the effect on the planet. And the balance, your three pillars is also out, really, when you talk about people in some parts of the world starving, and then other people in other parts of the world, eating far too much and mostly eating really bad food. So that's another wobbly pillar on your table.

Johannes le Courtre: There you go. And we have I mean, there are a few definitions, globally, we have 800 million people that go to sleep at night hungry. We have about 110 million people that suffer acute hunger. That's what was a Nobel prize last year for the World Food Programme. Rightfully deserved, and just 30 years after Borlaug's Nobel Prize for the Green Revolution in 1970. So that's what I always tell the food students, right? You can even get a Nobel Prize in that field. 

Joanna Savill: Yeah you could.

Johannes le Courtre: And maybe if you learn that stuff at UNSW, who knows?

Joanna Savill: Yes, so people, on one hand, these horrifying statistics of people not having enough to eat. But on the other hand, if you look at, you know, countries like the US and Australia to a certain extent also, I think, now, people have too much and too much bad food. So we're looking also obesity. On the other side, right?

Johannes le Courtre: We have in the developed world countries, we have on average an obesity rate of 30%. And that is that is per-definition starts at a BMI of over 25. 

Joanna Savill: Body Mass Index, yes. 

Johannes le Courtre: Body Mass Index of 25. And that is clearly not good for your health. An interesting thought is actually that all of this extra weight that is being carried through the human population on our planet, also contributes to climate change, if you think about it, just something to ruminate over. But yes, obesity is a big problem.

Joanna Savill: Yeah, yeah. And, I guess one of the other things is people's, again I'm talking about the world that most that we live in, and most of our listeners probably live in, is one in which, you know, there's a lot of confusion about what we should be eating, and what's good for us. And you talked about Greta, and I wonder whether Greta eats meat, where you'd said she should reduce, or people should reduce their meat consumption, because that has a greater impact on the planet. But people are so confused. There's lots of fad and fancy out there too, is it not Johannes? In terms of what's good for us and what we should be eating.

Johannes le Courtre: Oh, yeah. Oh, yes, definitely. Definitely there is a big… In food and nutrition science, we have a communication issue. I think it's a real issue. And it's very clear. One day, you're told to go keto diet, the other day, you're told go eat carbs, and only carbs, and then next year, again, keto, and this goes back and forth and is lacking serious scientific rigour and credibility. There are many self proclaimed gurus in the field. I think the scientific method is something very strong, if it's done right. And we actually run a journal, Frontiers in Nutrition. And this is not an advertising gig for our journal, but the idea behind that why I started doing that is really to establish something which would cover food and nutrition really, all the way from the Mediterranean diet and olive oil and extra virgin and olio cantale, or whatever, all the way to brain energy metabolism and maybe prevention of the onset of cognitive decline through proper nutrition, these types of things, clinical studies. So we try to put a very rigorous solid scientific stamp onto food and nutrition science, and people are beginning to see that, I guess. So first of all, we got a spectacular impact factor just recently. But beyond that people are being interested in food and nutrition, and yeah, the communication has to be a bit better. And but on the other hand, you can then understand, I guess, everybody knows something about food, not everybody knows something about nuclear fusion reactors or about artificial intelligence, or quantum dots. But everybody has something to say, and an opinion about food. And that's, that's where this sort of fluid transition from serious science into more shallow interpretations of realities occurs.

Joanna Savill: Yes, it's an incredibly complex world. And, and clearly, one, in which we need some solutions and some facts and figures, as you've just demonstrated, and I guess it's a combination of social change and changing consumer attitudes, right through to new ways to produce food and to supply food so that everyone has access to good, healthy food on a regular basis. So where do you and your science and your work come into this? I'm thinking specifically now about the area in which you're working, called cellular agriculture. And I think perhaps you should explain it, and then perhaps tell us how it's, you know, a potential solution or part of the solution to what we've just been talking about.

Johannes le Courtre: So the idea behind cellular agriculture is really to drive the acquisition of biomaterials, important for men, edible biomaterials. But you can even think of leather or of other things that we procure through nature, in a way that is more efficient, by not using macroscopic organisms, such as animals, or for that matter, also big plants, and to do all of the job just from the cellular level. So in an ideal world, it is, or it should be possible. And we see it is possible to generate biomaterials without growing an animal. And that's, that's the overall idea. And then, of course, you're thinking of meat, and you very quickly get to meat. And there are many words for this, I prefer most to talk about cell based meat, there is again, the big discussion, should we call it meat? And I tell you, yes, we should call it meat. Because if somebody has an allergy against meat, he will have an allergy against that material as well. So he needs to be informed properly, it is meat. And that was really one of the reasons to circle back to the beginning. That was really one of the reasons I actually came to Australia. Because there was openness, there was willingness, there was preparedness, there was readiness to get this off the ground. And, yes, by now here in Australia, we are all very well connected, we all know each other, there is there's a few other people, academics and corporate, we can talk about that later. But the overarching idea is really to take a biopsy, a tiny little cell, or a few cells from a living organism, you try to cultivate it in appropriate cultivating conditions. And you grow in a technical environment or in a non-animal environment, exactly the same material that otherwise would grow on the animals. So that's the idea that is cellular agriculture and then cell based meat. Yeah, you don't need to kill that animal, you just take that biopsy and grow it up. And again, this is something which has been, by now also in the news, various occasions, people are opening their ears, getting aware. But still a lot of work needs to be done. So we're far from having arrived, but there is a lot of momentum. That's what makes it really exciting.

Joanna Savill: It's absolutely fascinating. So fundamentally, what you're saying is that you could create anything from meat to leather to any what I would think of as an animal based product, with some cells taken from an animal, but without, of course, harming that animal in any way and certainly not killing that animal. And you were saying to me earlier that it's a bit like the process for making, or you likened it to making cheese and other things in terms of culturing and cultivating something. Can you explain a little bit more to people, what the actual process is?

Johannes le Courtre: The actual process really is you take you take specific muscle cells, and every muscle has specific type of muscles stem cells, you can also go a different way, using stem cells from from a more undifferentiated level of the animal, you can do that as well, and there is there is a lot of debate discussion, and scientists get very active. You take this material, again, taking this material will not harm the animal. And you cultivate this in a laboratory. And this now where the problems only start because some of these technologies, or certain elements of this field come from other technologies like bio engineering, growing cartilage, growing maybe an ear, or a heart valve, or these types of things. But here, you're really looking at a few grams. If you want to grow in a laboratory, these types of biomedical tissues, you really get away with small amounts. When it comes to food, we are talking metric tons, metric tons, and we all are realising, in the field, it's super attractive, the idea is super exciting. But it's not that easy. It's definitely not that easy. And it's a beautiful mix of, of biology, engineering, agriculture, all three of those and more, and medicine, and physiology, trying to pull that off together. There's by now also a breast milk company, the same idea. People try to look into what I mentioned already, leather. And yes, the example of cheese and wine is maybe getting used a little bit too often, because there are other good examples, I think. But it's in a way the idea would be to establish something like a brewery. Yes.

Joanna Savill: Yeah. So look there are companies already doing this, because we've seen this in the news a little bit, one of the well known Australian chefs, Neil Perry. Last year, we did a publicity event for a company that actually produced cell based meat, you call it? Is that your…

Johannes le Courtre: Cell based meat. Yes.

Joanna Savill: Yeah. And the food person in me is most intrigued, because how do you really introduce this into people's diet? Do you introduce it as meat? Or as an alternative to meat? What's the way of presenting it to people? Does it look and taste the same?

Johannes le Courtre: That's the ambition. The ambition is that it looks and tastes like meat, if we and that's basically what I always like to say, if we would fast forward into the year 2200, and if everybody is used to cell based materials, there is no reason to make it look like a nice wagyu cut, or like a T-bone or ribeye cut, because nobody will remember these these animal derived products from 200 years ago. 

Joanna Savill: Oh, that’s sad.

Johannes le Courtre: Yeah, but they're I mean, you have to, I think you have to look at the very big picture that in, we had big steps, we had the Neolithic Revolution, this also was a change in, in our human culture and society. So what is going on might very well be of a historic dimension. The future will tell, right? But we are in this transition, and it will not happen overnight. And it's good that it will not happen overnight. Because like this, nobody will be offended or shocked. It will happen very slowly. And it really will transition. And my interpretation, or my view always would be, if in 10 years from now we have a significant representation of these products in supermarket shelves. We've done already a good job. If in 20 or 30 years from now we can see a slight dent in the use of animals, we continue to do a good job, in the livestock figures. So it may go very, very slow, and people will get used to it. Like we got used to eating potato chips, right? And that certainly, if you look, if you think of your great great, great grandfather, just to say something 200 years ago, he would look at potato chips also in a somewhat alienated way, especially if you would ask him to eat it.

Joanna Savill: I guess, except it probably recognized that it had come from a potato, and I guess you're thinking the same thing, that your product will, or this product will,  mean, people won't want to necessarily think that it's come from an animal, because that's not the story behind it. I mean, how are you going to introduce this into, do you think, practically into people's diets?

Johannes le Courtre: What I think is, and this is just the name of the game, or the nature of the beast, it will be introduced in very small quantities, first that give rise to big food amounts. Something like think of broth, when you have a little cube or a little teaspoon of powder, and you fill it up with a litre of water, and you have you have one kilogram of materials, or it will be it will be in a dumpling, or it will never be, it will not be at the beginning centre of plate, it will enter slowly. And what is important also Joanna, is there will always be animal based meat in our food system, and on our plates, and in our supermarkets. And that is okay, it just has to come at the correct price point, at a much higher price point. And it should be produced without ways of production that we use currently. Factory farming, just one way there. So I guess, the category of meat based products in the supermarket will just spread more open, will diversify into animal based, plant based, cell based and blends thereof. 

Joanna Savill: Goodness me.  What a future ahead. So, um, what are the main challenges, apart from people's perception, I think, that you see at the moment. There are some commercial companies who are starting to do this. But where do you, what else has to happen, do you think, before this becomes that 10 or 20 year mark where it's part of people's diet like my great grandfather and the potato chip?

Johannes le Courtre: Well, the problem is still scaling, scaling is the big issue, and then scaling at cost. So, we will be able, or I would even say we are able, and there is proof of principle, we are able, we as people, as scientists, as engineers, as as food technologists are able to produce a kilogram or a tonne. Yes. The question then is, how long does it take? And what's it cost? Because as long as you cannot compete, you need to be able to compete with animal based materials. Otherwise, consumers will always go for the animal based materials. Because it's money which is also why animal based materials basically should go up in cost, to make that point come sooner rather than later.

Joanna Savill: And to reflect. I think, if I may say, the true cost of animal meat production, in terms of the environment and all of the other things that we talked about earlier.  I mean…

Johannes le Courtre: Absolutely, there was just right now a brilliant report from Rockefeller foundation on the real cost of food. I can only recommend.

Joanna Savill: Yeah, yeah, well, absolutely. Okay, so we've seen that there's interest in this, we've seen that it's developing, that cost is perhaps an issue, and scale, as you say. This is a very… you know, you're a scientist, this is a very scientific and technical solution and, you know, has the potential to become an industrial solution, I guess. If we come back to the sort of more emotional side of it, perhaps, are there other things that we could do? Why would we choose this path? For example, rather than thinking about eating less meat full stop, and looking at vegetarian protein sources?

Johannes le Courtre: It's a fair question. That's, I mean, that's a fair and good question. And eating vegetables is definitely a very, very good thing to do. Personally, I always think the weirdest thing you can do is to take a good and healthy vegetable and transform it into something that looks like a sausage. That it is something where I always scratch my head. But clearly, I mean, there is no doubt about the whole fruits and vegetable paradigm and dogma, this is definitely needed and good. Yet people like to eat meat. Look, people like to eat meat and, and meat is also a really good nutrient, or meat is nourishing our bodies very well. The nutrient density, the composition, the amino acid profile, everything is in favour from a nutritional perspective of meat. So what is a problem is the sustainability problem, the greenhouse gas, all of the linked climate aspects. And if we get this right, I think there is even a good hope and a good perspective to possibly get people on the vegan and vegetarian lifestyle back into eating cell based meat.

Joanna Savill: Oooh. Those fighting words. I eat meat and love it. Don't get me wrong, I eat, actually everything. I'm including alternative meat sources such as insects and other protein, I've certainly eaten those. And we might talk about that in a moment too. But we have got some really good questions that have come in from people ahead of this chat. And one of them I thought was really good in relation to what you're just talking about. How do these new systems really produce nutrient dense foods that take into consideration, according to Calum Reynolds, the important roles of soil microorganisms and other interactions from surrounding natural ecosystems that enrich food quality?

Johannes le Courtre: That's a good question. That is, that is really a good question. And I'm aware of the whole story. And we have recently seen a growing discussion on coverage of food by good microorganisms that actually protect it against the bad microorganisms, in order to protect the food and in order to provide shelf life and so on. That's a very good question. Because the ambition of cell based materials will be to not have any, at least, in the first iteration, to not have any contamination, it will always be seen as a contamination with bacterial populations. The other reason why this is important is actually our gut microbiome. We need to keep our gut microbiome stable. There was a famous microbiologist Carl Woese. Carl Woese. He died, I think 10 years ago or so. He said, our planet would not change a lot if there would be no mammals, no humans, no tigers, no lines, no mammals at all. But our planet would look totally different. If there would be no microorganisms, it would not be the same planet, it would be completely different. So our biosphere, so it's, it's definitely a good question. We do feed our gut microbiome, not only through food, it comes through surface populations, you know, there's now a trend which I'm interested to follow how these things go. Babies born with a C section are being inoculated with gut microbiota, just to make sure that everything they would have missed during the normal delivery path is available to them. So just to say, you don't need to rely on a piece of cultivated meat, or cell based meat, in order to keep your microbiota balance in tune. In addition, I would be the last person to say that you should only eat cell based meat. I mean, it's all about balanced diets, and you should usually eat fruits and vegetables, and occasionally you have your cell based meat, and occasionally have your wagyu steak, and you pay for it, 25 bucks, rather than 12.

Joanna Savill: Yeah, yeah. So what you're really saying is that, not growing this kind of food in a natural ecosystem does, because of the fear of contamination, etc etc, does eliminate those kinds of ‘good’ side effects that you might have with food that is grown in a natural environment. Is that really what you're saying?

Johannes le Courtre: I think on the contrary, and I think that is something we need to get our heads around, and we need to I think that there's the potential and the opportunity to make these foods much more nutritious than the material coming out of a cow that has been held hostage or has been held in a cage in a factory farm, that has been pumped with hormones, with antibiotics. with what have you, and that it did not have a chance to move. I think we have, and it's really in our hands to get this right. And that's why it's called cellular agriculture, right? So the idea will be and should be, because we can control these systems, that through our control, we impart the best possible nutrient value into these materials, and possibly then even in a direction that would go into having more more focused materials like material that is better for Joanna, or material that is better for Johannes.

Joanna Savill: Right, so what kind of materials? I mean clearly protein, but what other nutrients? And this is in response to quite a few questions that we've had with Callum Reynolds, as I said Kyle Catahome, Fiona O’Sullivan, Susan Ring, thank you all for these. Yes, you can have protein value, but what other nutritional value can you put into this kind of meat?

Johannes le Courtre: Well, I think this still remains to be discovered. Number one, I think there is, for example, one good example might be if you are, and needless to say, this whole approach is being done also for seafood, for shrimps, for for crawfish, for what have you, if you have an allergy to shellfish, and you can't eat any of those, certainly, there is technology, and certainly there are ways to create hypoallergenic trim, which then will allow you to eat shrimps, even though you're you are allergic to the natural animals. Just to say, one example. And then of course, you can you can look into expression of vitamin levels, you can look into macronutrients so there is there is really, I would not say the sky's the limit, but there is way more room to operate and to play around and use the technology than you would have just by by feeding a cow of different foods, grass fed, grain fed, what have you.

Joanna Savill: It's, look, it's a big stretch for many people's heads, including mine, I think, what you're talking about. One of the questions that also came through from Ursula King was, often when you're talking about the science of food, nutrition, technology, biochemistry, etc. you perhaps sideline the social and cultural aspects of food. I mean, how do you see the people part of food being meaningfully brought into these discussions? People want to grow their own food, or sit around a table and share food? Do you see that as part of what you're doing?

Johannes le Courtre: Yes. So this is definitely, and this sort of also circles back to my previous job, but very clearly the pleasure perceived through food is super important. There is no question about it. And, and that just I mean, I think it's all about the alienation, or the alienating factor of food. Look what we do in Switzerland, we do weird stuff, we sit in Switzerland, we have in front of us a pot of yellow bubbling sauce, and we put in bread and we eat it, and it's called cheese fondue. But it's a highly social event, and I could easily see something like this also, one way or another to occur, to happen with cell based materials. And so the social component of food is almost the most important thing. Taste is the number one driver, taste and flavour, perception, texture, the whole thing, is clearly the number one driver. That is why the biggest food company in the world recruited me over 20 years ago when we were hoping we can use the genome at some point, and it is all about the social dimension, is very important. But I don't see why why we would not sit you and I in Coogee or Clovelly and we would share we, would share a piece of cell based material and we would discuss how it tastes, how it tastes good, and there are so many ways of sharing food, of having food together through our human evolution, back from the days when we were sitting just around some some dead animal that got hit by lightning, and that somehow, and some some roasted meat there all of a sudden, right? 

Joanna Savill: Yeah, yeah. Look, and I think you're right. I think, you know, we all create great rituals around very strange things in the food space. And this, I suppose, potentially is another one of them, let's get down to the fundamental bit. Is it delicious? Does what you're working on now… I've seen photographs of cell based meat that look like steak, does it really taste as delicious as steak? Where you are at the moment? And is the texture similar? I mean, clearly that's what you're aiming for Johannes. But will you get there?

Johannes le Courtre: Yes, we will get there. Why? Because if you think just of what you know, so far, if you think of your porterhouse, wagyu, or ribeye, that you get in the supermarket, already here, a lot of technology comes into the game. And even more so if you're talking about a sausage, salami, or a pate or something, even more technology is being added. So those people who think that animal based meat is free from processes, they are dead wrong, they are dead wrong. So there is a lot of processing, there is a lot of technology happening to our traditionally produced meat, it's very, very clear, unless you are the person that wants to, to bite into a cow, and then you take the unprocessed meat, but that is unlikely. So very clearly, all of these technologies are being applied to traditional meat and muscle tissue, if you want. And this, of course, will be just flipped over into those cell based materials and applied there exactly the same way.

Joanna Savill: How does it taste at the moment? 

Johannes le Courtre: I don't know. I don’t know. 

Joanna Savill: Have you been snacking on any of your…

Johannes le Courtre: No, no, because no, I don't know. That's yet another interesting point. Because there is… and we are lucky there is, and it's good there is, strong regulatory framework at UNSW, probably even more so than anywhere else, which is even better. But you cannot just produce stuff in some technological environment and eat it, or even worse, sell it to people. Those days are over. And it's good that we cannot do that. So from the reports of those few people who had a chance to eat those materials, be it in, there's one country, in most people know, Singapore where certain aspects of the materials are available. You can purchase them, so it tastes like chicken. It absolutely tastes like chicken. It's chicken, chicken cells that are grown and it is chicken, it is chicken and it tastes like chicken.

Joanna Savill: Yep, yep. Yep. Well, I've read about that as well. And there are some commercial products, as we mentioned before, that are out and about. Have you tried any of those?

Johannes le Courtre: There are no commercial products in terms of cellular agriculture other than what we have in Singapore. There are some, there's a lot of course happening in Israel, but nothing yet on a real commercial. And then of course, there are people that have tasted, and they have eaten, that have signed consent forms. Yes, I agree, I know this is bad. But the big picture that the markets are open for these materials, this will still take time. 

Joanna Savill: Yeah.

Johannes le Courtre: It's a big challenge. And it's a big hurdle.

Joanna Savill: It's absolutely fascinating. It really is. It really is futurism at its most extreme, I think, in a lot of ways. But then you make some very valid points about how our diets and our attitudes have changed, you know, with the millennia. Can we just come back for a second to alternatives, just looking at this secure and fantastic food future that we all want to see. Is there still, you've partially answered this previously, but Is there still room for naturally grown, organic, in season, small scale agriculture, including meat production? 

Johannes le Courtre: Yes.

Joanna Savill: In your food future?

Johannes le Courtre: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. And there always will be and it's good like this. And I, I mean, again, in the whole discussion, it is really important also that the traditional meat industry is not scared and alienated by these new concepts and technologies. On the contrary, we think of it really as a lifeline. So what I said earlier, there will be, and there should be, always, a beautiful wagyu, a beautiful porterhouse, and that's good. There are several, if not plenty of really exciting innovations about to just emerge and people are working on, and one is eating insects very clearly. There's algae, there's insects. We do have a insects in Switzerland, you can buy now, go in Switzerland to the supermarket. I know the CEO quite well of a company that puts crickets and Tenebrio worms into products into the supermarket. And the only thing you really need to get used to is the taste of chitin, which is the exoskeleton of those insects. But then again, if you look, if you go about it as a biologist, there is a name for insects, the bigger category there is called arthropods. Arthropods makes reference to their feet and how they move and walk. And that's the same group like shrimp. So shrimps and insects are very close. And, and once you have that in your mind, and when you think of this insect is horrible, just think of a shrimp you realise the yuck factor already goes down. And then you have this taste of chitin. The beauty with insects is actually they grow, they grow at ambient temperature, a cow needs 37 centigrades. And the cow is like a little factory that needs to be warmed up to stand, whatever day time and whatever weather to stand there with 37 centigrade body temperature. In insects, if it's raining cold outside the insect produces its material and its muscle tissue at cold temperature. So that is interesting. And definitely there is a potential for that as well. And it's, it's just about to happen as well. Yes.

Joanna Savill: Oh, and it's certainly in many parts of the world very much part of people's diet already. And these actually followed some questions that we had from, that were also registered with us from Claire Perry, alum Sue Aginata, and Zoe Tagget-Kirbishire, who were all really interested in the role of insects in our diets. But I can think of having eaten ant larvae in Mexico, and cockroaches and all sorts of other things in Thailand. So, they're certainly, and even here in Australia, green ants, and honey ants. So, they are already part of many people's diet, and certainly, great potential for the future, I guess.

Johannes le Courtre: If I can just interrupt you, there Joanna, a little fun fact is maybe better. The little fun fact is, unbeknownst to many, if not most people, we all ingest about 200 grams of insect per year, all of us. And that might be the odd ant that crawls into our mouths at night and we just swallow it. Or that might be something which in bigger food production context or is hidden in a salad, or that gets ground up when food is being produced. So about 200 grams is two tablets of chocolate, of insects that you eat already, every year. 

Joanna Savill: Nothing to be afraid of. And I think to be, you know, really honest, your description of cellular agriculture and your explanation of the topic has really opened my eyes and I'm sure many other people's to the possibilities, and more importantly, really the incredible advantages and ways in which, you know, we can tackle some of the big problems that face us in terms of the future of food. So, thank you so much. It's obviously an immensely complex and nuanced subject. As this conversation and all the great questions we've had demonstrated. I think we could probably go on for hours, but it might even be dinner time. Perhaps we should do this again, sometime soon, Johannes, over, you know, a plate of meat or some fondue. Meanwhile, though, I think everyone should join me in a round of virtual applause. And thank Johannes, Professor Johannes le Coutre for so much for sharing his wisdom and great scientific experience with us. Very inspiring. And really, as I said, fascinating. So thank you all, everybody who's joined in, who's tuned in to the future of food. If you'd like to hear about upcoming events and podcasts, you can subscribe to the UNSW Centre of Ideas newsletter, or visit So, thank you to Johannes. Thank you to all of you, and all the best, and here's to a better food future.

Ann Mossop: The future of food was presented by the UNSW Centre for Ideas and supported by Inspiring Australia as part of National Science Week. Thanks for listening. For more information visit, and don't forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Image of Johannes le Coutre

Johannes le Coutre

Dr Johannes le Coutre joined UNSW Sydney in 2019 as Professor – Food & Health, where he is responsible for the UNSW food program. He has worked at Universities in Europe, the USA, Japan and the UK and also at the Nestlé Research Center in Lausanne. Le Coutre is noted for his work on molecular taste physiology, nutrition science and food innovation. At UNSW, to strengthen food security and to alleviate the agricultural burden on the environment, he is developing a broad research agenda on cellular agriculture.

Image of Joanna Savill

Joanna Savill

Joanna Savill has had a long career in the food world – as a journalist, TV presenter, restaurant reviewer and events director. (You might have seen her, forever young, on repeat episodes of the SBS TV classic – The Food Lovers’ Guide to Australia.) Her food explorations have taken her to many corners of the world, including Australia, and she relishes the inspiring connections and conversations she has had along the way. Her mission is to support great food producers everywhere and to encourage everyone to eat – and cook – well.

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