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Scientists at Plant & Food Research are using their expertise in horticulture to explore the production of fruit without a tree, vine, or bush – instead using lab-grown plant cells. Initial trials have included working with cells from blueberries, apples, cherries, feijoas, peaches, nectarines and grapes.

Lab grown fruit - scientists aim to break new ground with cellular horticulture research
Lab grown fruit (Photo: Plant & Food Research)

Cellular horticulture, agriculture and aquaculture, the production of plant, meat and seafood products in vitro, is at the cutting edge of food technology worldwide. By growing food from cells in the laboratory there are opportunities to use fewer resources and improve the environmental impact of food production.

Food by Design programme leader, Plant & Food Research scientist Dr Ben Schon says there’s a great deal of interest and development in controlled environment and cellular food production systems, with more than 80 companies worldwide looking to commercialise lab-grown meat and seafood.

“Cellular horticulture currently has a smaller profile than cellular agriculture and aquaculture, but we believe this is a really exciting area of science where we can utilise our expertise in plant biology and food science to explore what could become a significant food production system in the future.”

Ben Schon says the team is now 18 months into the five-year long Food by Design programme, which is funded through Plant & Food Research’s internal Growing Futures™ investment of the MBIE Strategic Science Investment Fund. The research has also gained support from New Zealand company Sprout Agritech, having recently being accepted into their accelerator program designed for agrifoodtech start-ups.

Dr Schon says initial trials have used cells harvested from blueberries, apples, cherries, feijoas, peaches, nectarines and grapes. Much like lab grown meats, the challenge is to create an end product that is nutritious and has a taste, texture and appearance that consumers are familiar with.

“In order to grow a piece of food that is desirable to eat, we will need more than just a collection of cells. So we are also investigating approaches that are likely to deliver a fresh food eating experience.”

“The aim isn’t to try and completely replicate a piece of fruit that’s grown in the traditional way, but rather create a new food with equally appealing properties.”

As well as exploring the viability of cellular horticulture as a future tool for food production, Dr Schon says the research also aims to provide better understanding of fruit cell behavior – these insights could help breed better fruit varieties that would also benefit the traditional growing methods being used by New Zealand’s horticultural sector.

This cellular horticulture research fits within Plant & Food Research’s Hua Ki Te Ao – Horticulture Goes Urban Growing Futures™ Direction, which is focused on developing new plants and growing systems that will bring food production closer to urban consumers.

“Globally, we are seeing rapid growth in both the vertical farming, controlled environment growing as well as cell-cultured meat spaces. It’s possible that cell-cultured plant foods could be a solution to urban population growth, with requirements for secure and safe food supply chains close to these urbanised markets,” says direction co-leader Dr Samantha Baldwin.

South African biotechnology company, Green Cell Technologies® (GCT®), announced it has signed an exclusive global licensing agreement for the world’s largest orange juice producer, Citrosuco, to make use of its proprietary Disruptor technology, intellectual property, processes and applicable trademarks.

Green Cell Technologies’ award-winning, patented Dynamic Cellular Disruption® (DCD®) process, in conjunction with its Disruptor® technology, is busy revolutionising the modern global food and beverage manufacturing industry. Without using harmful heat or chemicals, GCT is able to assist its clients in attaining higher yields, reducing food waste at source and all without denaturing the product. Because the process results in a molecular flow and allows for 99.99998 % of the available active ingredients to be harvested, the company already awarded for its work in the area, believes it is able to provide a commercially viable solution to the world’s future food security needs through its technologically advanced extraction and its New Product Development (NPD) capabilities.

The agreement – for an initial two year period – will see Citrosuco hold the exclusive licensing rights to GCT’s DCD process for the global orange juice and orange-related speciality ingredients market. This gives Citrosuco a significant competitive edge, taking its orange production into the future, streets ahead of conventional processing, while also reducing waste. Additionally, Citrosuco will have the increased ability to formulate products suitable for the growing consumer appetite for natural goods.

The Citrosuco development team commented: “Citrosuco aims to be the best company for natural fruit juices and ingredients in the global food industry. Access to Green Cell Technologies’ machinery and intellectual property will make this more of a reality. We are excited about the prospects this means for us as a global company to develop new products and for the people who will benefit from the added nutritional enhancements this technology can unlock.”

While both companies are necessarily un-specific as to the particulars of what the technology will generate for Citrosuco and what else the company is exploring, it is true to say that many possibilities are being explored and the companies will make further announcements in the months to come.

Roy Henderson, Chief Executive Officer of Green Cell Technologies confirmed the agreement, remarking: “We are delighted to be working with Citrosuco as they are a company that shares our ideals as far as natural foods are concerned, and one that is prepared to invest in sustainable innovation with the aim of being able to provide better foods for more people while minimising negative impact on the environment.

“With the world population growing on a daily basis and the ability to deliver meaningful nutrition diminishing, it is imperative that food processors enter the modern manufacturing paradigm.”

The agreement came into effect on 6th August 2018.