© Nadja Oertelt

The 28-year-old director of the nonprofit New Harvest is helping to build a foundation of research for cellular agriculture in America.

Kristine Wong and Civil Eats
December 20, 2016

Isha Datar has dedicated her career to making the meat industry more sustainable. Though she grew up in the capital of Canada's Alberta province, a global center of the oil and gas industry, the 28-year-old Edmonton native is playing a key role in the emerging world of alternative meat and milk proteins.

Datar is the executive director of an NYC-based non-profit called New Harvest, which is focused on expanding the field of cellular agriculture—the practice of growing animal products like chicken, turkey, and beef from cell cultures.

"I'm introducing diversity into what animal products are," she says.

Supporters have touted the small-but-growing field as a promising and sustainable way to feed a world population that's projected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050. Because farmland will be at a premium by mid-century, growing protein in a lab could free up more land to grow food. It could also reduce the water footprint that’s currently needed to grow an equivalent amount of traditionally farmed meat. With a smaller number of cows belching methane into the environment—a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide—cellular agriculture could help slow global warming, and it could also diminish the practice of slaughtering fully-grown animals.

"Factory farming is like coal mining," Datar says. "In the past we relied a lot on coal, but it's dangerous and dirty, and now we have a lot of alternative energy—so we've relied less on coal... Likewise, if we introduce diversity into what an animal product is, we'll have a greater ability to feed the world."

It will be 20 to 30 years before burgers made in laboratories could be hitting your supermarket shelves, according to Mark Post, the Maastrict University researcher behind the test-tube burger bankrolled by Google founder Sergey Brin back in 2013. And a 2015 study found that the amount of heat and electricity needed to grow the necessary cells will cut into its overall sustainability. Still, there has been some progress: Since the burger's debut, the cost of production for one patty has gone down from $325,000 to less than $12.

Datar—who spent time in her youth growing vegetables at the dairy farm where her mother worked—recalls a transformative moment when she realized the massive scale of the world's environmental problems.

"In fourth grade, we went on a field trip to this landfill and the people guiding us were saying that a diaper doesn't biodegrade for 80 years," she says. "I couldn't help but think about how big the pile of garbage I will leave behind is. I thought, 'Wouldn't it be ideal if everyone on earth just left no trace?'"

In 2013, Datar got the opportunity to put this thinking into action when she became the executive director of New Harvest. The organization strives to further cellular agriculture by building infrastructure and providing research funding and collaboration opportunities for scientists, academics, industry players, and policymakers.

During her second year at the helm, Datar co-founded two companies that have proved to be early leaders in the cellular ag scene: Perfect Day Foods (formerly known as Muufri) and Clara Foods. Both companies take yeasts and turn them into milk and egg proteins in the lab—without involving cows or chickens. As a co-founder of both companies, Datar chose to donate her equity to New Harvest to help further cellular agriculture research, rather than putting it in her own name.

With the infusion of funds, New Harvest has expanded quickly. The group provides grant funding for researchers every year, and it recently established a seed grant program for universities to fund cellular agriculture research. In 2016, New Harvest also launched its first graduate student fellowship.

Given that the field is so new, Datar’s strategy for New Harvest is not to focus on funding the development of one particular kind of lab-grown cells. Instead, she wants to help support cellular agriculture research at what is still a relatively early stage; researchers are largely still in the R&D phases of their projects (for example, Clara Foods' egg substitute and Perfect Day Foods' dairy-less milk have yet to hit the market).

"The amount of hype is disproportionate to what is actually going on," Datar says. "There's only a very small number of groups doing this research ... In five years, I'd like to see an institute of cell agriculture at several universities around the world."