New Zealand scientists trialling lab-grown plant cell fruit production

New Zealand scientists are aiming to break new ground by producing fruit without a tree, vine, or bush, and instead using lab-grown plant cells.   

Initial trials by experts at Plant and Food Research have included working with cells from blueberries, apples, cherries, feijoas, peaches, nectarines, and grapes.   

Cellular horticulture, agriculture, and aquaculture, which is the production of plant, meat, and seafood products in vitro, is at the cutting edge of food technology worldwide, Plant and Food Research said.   

Growing food from cells in the laboratory means fewer resources are used and the environmental impact of food production is improved.   

The Food by Design programme leader, Plant and Food Research scientist Dr Ben Schon, said there is a lot of interest and development in controlled environment and cellular food production systems. There are currently 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," Schon said.   

The Plant and Food Research team is now 18 months into the five-year-long Food by Design programme. It is funded through Plant and Food Research's internal Growing Futures investment from the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment's Strategic Science Investment Fund.   

The research also has support from New Zealand company Sprout Agritech, having recently been accepted into their accelerator programme designed for agrifoodtech start-ups.   

Clusters of blueberry cells.
Clusters of blueberry cells. Photo credit: Supplied

Much like lab-grown meats, Schon said the challenge is to create an end product that is nutritious and has a taste, texture, and appearance 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," he said.   

"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 looking at the viability of cellular horticulture as a future tool for food production, Schon said the research also aims to give a better understanding of fruit cell behaviour. These insights could help breed better fruit varieties that would also benefit the traditional growing methods being used by New Zealand's horticultural sector.     

Food by Design programme team members.
Food by Design programme team members. Photo credit: Supplied

This cellular horticulture research is part of Plant and Food Research's Hua Ki Te Ao – Horticulture Goes Urban, which is focused on developing new plants and growing systems that will bring food production closer to urban consumers.    

Plant and Food Research's direction co-leader, Dr Samantha Baldwin, said there is a global rapid growth in vertical farming, controlled environment growing, and 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," she said.