RESPECTfarms has the vision of being the first farm in the world to cultivate meat directly from animal cells. The project aims to help all farmers diversify their business models to benefit from the economic, environmental, and social advantages of cultured meat.
The idea is to make use of the expertise, networks, and entrepreneurial spirit of farmers, rather than seeking to replace them. This will allow for a fair and just transition to a more sustainable food system.
We spoke to RESPECTfarms co-founder Florentine Zieglowski to learn more about this forward-looking project.
RESPECTfarms wants to become the first cultivated meat farm in the world. What made you turn to cellular agriculture?
RESPECTfarms grew out of the world’s first publicly funded research into cultivated meat, which started in 2002. The research was led by Willem van Eelen, the father of my partner Ira van Eelen. The results of the studies show that cultivated meat is not meant to be disadvantageous to conventional agriculture, but rather a model for farms. However, over the years, the more centralized approach has gained support. Based on different study results and because no one else had gone down the path of decentralized production, we founded RESPECTfarms.
How did you personally come to the topic? What is your background?
I got involved with sustainability and future technologies early on, including within my studies. Many people want to contribute to a sustainable future, including me. So, years ago, I stopped eating meat for ecological reasons. But somehow that wasn’t enough. I wanted to contribute to something meaningful. Obviously, I’m still young at 27, but even I know that time is limited. And it’s better to make a change today than tomorrow. Concerning agriculture, my uncle comes from an agricultural background himself, so I was aware of the whole problem connected to it at an early age. And then I was just in the right place at the right time. A few people gave me a chance to become part of RESPECTfarms. Sometimes you just have a feeling when something is the right thing to do.
But when I was in the Netherlands, I saw how far other countries have come and where we stand in Germany. Due to many political challenges and necessities, I am general manager of CellAg Deutschland e.V. As a non-profit organisation, we are committed to accelerating this transformation by advocating open access research, public funding, and simplifying regulations, among other things. Let’s conclude it this way: there’s a lot to do, and that’s probably why I’m here.
You started work on an international research project in September 2022. What has happened since then?
There’s so much you can do in five months, but three things would be outstanding for me. First of all, we published the world’s first vision film of what agriculture could look like in the future: namely cellular. It’s now available in various languages.
Secondly, we have formed a consortium with partners along the value chain for the project of decentralized production, because other companies are also interested in pioneering, being “the first” and caring about the future of our food system. And we are aware that we cannot build quickly on this idea alone. Therefore, for the first time in history, we convinced the German meat and meat replacement producer Rügenwalder Mühle and the Swiss agricultural cooperative fenaco to build on this idea with us. You could say that we have become very European in the last few months. This fact makes me personally very proud since agriculture goes beyond borders and we have to join forces between countries.
To support this research, we collected funding for the research study. With funding from the European Union, the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, and industry partners, we just announced an investment of around EUR 900,000 into research on decentralized production.
And thirdly, we extended the RESPECTfarms team with our first three researchers. So…very exciting times for us.
The feasibility study started in January 2023. What findings are being reviewed and when do you expect the first results?
We are exploring the areas of biopsy, biomass, and bioreactors, specifically at farm locations. We bring the technology from the lab to decentralized production sites, all connected to a suitable business model for the farms, within a circular system and within short supply chains.
What is the response to your project? How are the meat industry/farmers reacting to the project?
The response so far has been positive. We are already doing studies on the acceptance of farmers. The first results in the Netherlands look promising and we will expand these studies to Germany, Switzerland, France, and Belgium.
Last week I spoke at the DLG Winter Conference 2023, one of the biggest agriculture associations in Europe. Due to the great interest, two rooms had to be put together. Farmers are critical. That is good and will make us better. After my speaking slot, there was a question from a farmer about the situation of biomass and the production itself. I then asked if he believed that he would not be capable of producing cultivated meat. His answer: “I did not say that. I want to know how I can do this in the future.” And that is a great example and an answer to this question. This is why RESPECTfarms exists. We are focused on the “how”.
What impact will cellular agriculture have on traditional agriculture?
I am expecting a great impact on conventional agriculture, just as big as the impact of various industries and transformations in history. By 2040, about 5% of farms are expected to be cellular. That is millions of farms and a huge market. We have never been seriously concerned about whether cellular agriculture would be impactful. The only question is when it will come at scale, and who will benefit from it. Therefore, it is important to start working on the possibilities of how to be involved in this emerging industry. Obviously, this is more promising the sooner you start.
What role can cellular agriculture play in climate protection and agricultural turnaround? What would political support ideally look like?
Cellular agriculture can play a vital role in climate protection and agricultural transformation. It requires between 7-45% less energy (only chicken needs less), generates 78-96% less greenhouse gas emissions, and uses 82-96% less water, depending on the product compared. With 99% less land use, land could be used very differently, and animals could be kept differently.
On a policy level in Germany, this would be a way to implement the federal government targets, such as 30% organic farming by 2030, more effectively. Regarding the transformation of conventional farms, we need research funding for projects like RESPECTfarms, and future funding programs need to be set up. This is connected to clear and easy regulations and guidelines. But to drive such a transformation, public funding and a profound governmental strategy are needed. All this takes time. Therefore, we should start working and I would love to invite the German government or other countries to work on this with RESPECTfarms and a non-profit like CellAg Germany.
Behind RESPECTfarms is a four-member founding team from science and business. In the meantime, other sponsors and partners have become involved. Who are the partners?
I am very proud of my team. We are all pioneers and a bit crazy. This could even be one of the criteria to join us. As research partners, we have the cultivated meat pioneer Mosa Meat, the tech company Priva, and a farmer. Our sponsors include the German food producer Rügenwalder Mühle, the fenaco cooperative from Switzerland, the Dutch Rabobank, and GAIA, a Belgian animal rights organization.
Can companies still participate? What conditions must be met?
Yes, companies can still participate. Joining requires a financial commitment to RESPECTfarms as well as know-how that is not yet covered by our partners and that is relevant to the project.