Tobacco as food’s future: BioBetter creates a cell growth medium from the plant

Tobacco isn’t exactly the most popular crop to grow in this day and age.

The plant is most commonly associated with smoking and chewing tobacco — once-ubiquitous habits among adults that have fallen out of favor as years of addiction and research revealed their health dangers. 

But tobacco may actually hold the key to growing the nascent cell-based meat segment. Israel-based BioBetter has created a genetically modified tobacco plant that naturally produces the proteins needed to create a cell growth medium that companies can use to make products like meat and fat through cell cultures.

“It’s a good opportunity to correct the negative impression of the tobacco plant,” said BioBetter CEO Amit Yaari. “It actually has many advantages as a plant vector. It grows fast and produces a lot of biomass. It can give up to four harvests per year. …It grows large protein quantities. And it’s not a food crop.”

The speedy growth and prolific protein production, plus the fact that its most common application is creating addictive products, are real advantages to using tobacco for this purpose, Yaari said. It’s relatively easy to quickly create a lot of protein from tobacco, which could provide a ready supply of material to make cell growth medium fairly inexpensively. And, considering that growth medium is a big part of what makes cell-based meat prototypes so expensive to make, BioBetter could use tobacco to help make those costs more accessible. Yaari said that when BioBetter reaches its planned capacity, the cost for its proteins could be as low as $1 per gram.

BioBetter has been able to grow tobacco plants with this protein and remove and purify the substance. It is distributing the protein to cell-based meat companies to test, and have so far had positive reactions. Yaari said BioBetter is hoping to scale up within 12 months to start working with more companies in the space. It is looking for as many early partners as possible so that it can continue R&D to produce the best possible proteins for cell growth.

“The companies that we have been speaking to understand this advantage, and they would like to make the product as simple as possible because they know that the simpler the product is, the cheaper it will be,” he said. “They are willing to work around this, and work with it and test several samples until we reach the right formulation.”

Finding value in a notorious crop

Tobacco used to be one of the top crops in the world. In the United States, 42.4% of all adults smoked in 1965, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Knowledge about the health dangers of tobacco use and laws that made smoking more expensive and less permissible contributed to a drastic drop in the number of people who used tobacco regularly. The CDC found that just 12.5% of U.S. adults smoked cigarettes in 2020.

As popularity of smoking plummeted, the amount of farms and farm land devoted to tobacco has also fallen. According to the USDA, the number of acres in the U.S. devoted to tobacco farming and the amount of crop harvested decreased about 60% from 1997 to 2017.

While that’s a lot less acreage and a much smaller yield, those farms still exist. And that’s just in the U.S. — there are hundreds of thousands of acres of tobacco farms elsewhere in the world.

“So many farmers in different countries are actually looking for a solution,” Yaari said. “If possible, something positive to do with tobacco growing skills, and this is, I think, a great opportunity also for them.” 

In recent years, tobacco has become known in biotech circles as an efficient production method for antibodies, vaccines and drugs. The plant has been referred to as a “green bioreactor” because of its ability to make different valuable proteins so efficiently. When the tobacco is processed, any other substances present — including carcinogenic or addictive compounds — are removed, said Yaari.

So far, Yaari said, the response to BioBetter has been extremely positive. Several cultured meat companies want to know more about its solution, and one major tobacco producer has contacted BioBetter about potentially growing plants to make cell growth medium. Nobody in the cell-based meat business has been hesitant based on the origin of the proteins, Yaari said.

“It’s an animal-free solution, and one that can supply the costs and quantities that will have to be produced in the future. So I don’t think there is a special issue around this,” he said.