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Isha Datar: Raised in cattle country, she now promotes cellular agriculture

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Datar is a founder of Perfect Day Foods, a company whose vat-grown milk proteins are on the market in the U.S., Singapore and Hong Kong. She is also a founder of The EVERY Company, whose egg proteins are just beginning to reach American consumers.

KAT ESCHNER: Isha Datar, 34,… spent the last nine years pioneering New Harvest, a donor-funded American non-profit that’s a leading light of the lab-grown meat world. In that time, she became one of the leaders of a new field, even coining the now-ubiquitous term “cellular agriculture” in 2015.

New Harvest is what Alex Smith, a food and agriculture analyst for the Breakthrough Institute, describes as “an ecosystem builder.” The organization connects members of the cellular agriculture community and provides funding for academics doing primary cell ag research — roles that government agencies like the USDA (or Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada) often perform…

Ironically, Datar’s fascination with the idea of growing meat in a lab started in Canadian beef country. Alberta boasts almost half of the country’s cattle, and the University of Alberta has a long history with meat research and development. So it’s not very surprising that in 2009, as a bioscience undergrad, Datar happened to take an upper-level course on meat chemistry…

Growing up in Alberta, fossil fuels loomed large, Datar remembers. She had always assumed oil was the biggest driver of climate change. But during the course, “I was just kind of blown away by the impact of these animals (cattle),” she says. Estimates peg the climate change contribution from animal agriculture to at least 31 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions.

A few weeks later, her professor mentioned the idea of growing animal cells in a vat — something that has long been done by pharmaceutical companies, which use specifically designed cell lines to produce drugs. Growing edible meat in a bioreactor struck Datar — as it did others in the 2010s — as simply a matter of resolving questions of scale. Her term paper for the course looked at the prospects of cultured meat, and her prof, food scientist Mirko Betti, said it merited a wider audience.

The pair published in the journal Innovative Food Science and Emerging Technologies in January 2010. The paper has been cited in academic literature more than 270 times — for context, a paper with more than 10 citations is considered influential…

The paper brought Datar serendipitously to New Harvest’s door… Soon, Datar found herself in the midst of the budding world of cultured meat… After moving to Toronto, she completed a master’s degree in biotechnology…

She kept in touch with the contacts she made through New Harvest. One of them connected her with TEDxToronto to talk about cultured meat. Around the same time, she interviewed with New Harvest, which had been looking around for its first full-time executive director. Neither thing was a done deal yet, but brimming with confidence, Datar told TEDxToronto that she was going to become the ED of New Harvest. She told New Harvest about the TED Talk…

By 2016, the year the organization held its first annual conference in San Francisco, New Harvest had helped found several startups in cellular agriculture and created fellowships to fund academic research in the field.

As a result of these early efforts, Datar is named as a founder of Perfect Day Foods, a company whose vat-grown milk proteins are on the market in the U.S., Singapore and Hong Kong. She is also a founder of The EVERY Company, whose egg proteins are just beginning to reach American consumers.

Both companies rely on gene-edited micro-organisms to make their products. It’s telling that neither make meat, whether in the form of a nugget or patty or in the more rarified form of a lab-grown steak. The field is far off from growing meat products at scale — some days, Datar thinks, 1,000 years off.

“I think the future of cellular agriculture may actually have nothing to do with replacing steak or chicken and may actually be about creating some new form of food that we don’t know we need until climate change makes us need it,” she says… Whatever happens in the future, it seems clear Datar will write a next chapter for herself. She’s an adviser for Cellular Agriculture Canada and a frequent speaker. SOURCE…

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