Yadira Tejeda-Saldana is New Harvest’s new Research Collaborations Director. Her food science and policy background comes to the team at the perfect time as New Harvest starts to look at maximizing the positive impact of cellular agriculture.
How did you end up finding cell ag in the first place?
I learned about cellular agriculture maybe in 2018 when I was finishing my postdoctoral fellowship and I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do after that. I knew I wanted to get out of academia, but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. I was, of course, browsing the internet, going through articles, and I’ve always been passionate about food innovation. One of those articles was about the $300k burger from Mark Post, and I thought “Wait a minute, this is really interesting, I want to read more about it.” So that was the first time that I heard about cultured meat and cellular agriculture, and after that I started researching more about it and realized this is exactly what I want to do, this is the field I want to work in.
What did you do your postdoc on?
My postdoc was about trying to advance regulatory alignment between Canada and the US to improve trade in the agrifood industry.
So you’re really coming in from the policy side!
Yeah, I really like policy.
I know you were at Cell Ag Canada for a while and Canada’s starting to become a much bigger player in cell ag, why do you think that is?
I really feel there’s a ton of untapped opportunities for Canada to become a leader in cell ag. From a research perspective, we have several renowned universities and scientists that could help drive the research agenda forward. In addition, food security and sustainability are two important topics that are on Canada’s agenda, and I believe cellular agriculture could play a role to help the government tackle these challenges.
How did you find New Harvest?
Actually, I found New Harvest when I started looking at cellular agriculture in 2018. I found the website of New Harvest and I thought, “That’s such a cool organization!” and I honestly wanted to work with New Harvest since then.
What were you doing at Cell Ag Canada, and how do you see some of that knowledge helping you at New Harvest?
Everything I experienced and learned at Cell Ag Canada led me to this new opportunity at New Harvest. My role in CAC was Executive Director, so I was leading the organization. Because it was such a small organization, I was wearing all the different hats – I would be doing budgeting, I would be doing also strategic planning, I would be leading all the projects. It was a really good experience for me because I learned a lot of new things that I never thought I will be working on. It was challenging, but it was also really rewarding because I started seeing an increase in people wanting to learn more about cellular agriculture, and that was really cool!
What was that community engagement piece like?
I think CAC started creating a sense of community among people interested in cellular agriculture here in Canada. I was able to connect with students from high schoolers to graduates, and also professionals that were really interested in the field and wanted to know how they could get involved. That was one of our biggest achievements, bringing cell ag closer to all these people that didn’t really know about it before, and that could become the future entrepreneurs or scientists.
Is student engagement something you would want to keep doing at New Harvest?
I think that there’s a lot of potential for New Harvest to develop more outreach and community engagement initiatives and find other ways to communicate cell ag science to the general public. I feel that students would be really interested to learn what the fellows are actually doing in their labs – that’s how curiosity starts sparking in them, and they might be willing to pursue a cell ag career later on. I’ll be happy to bring some of these ideas forward at New Harvest and see where they could fit within the organization.
How do you even get high school students and early college students invested in cell ag?
The TikTok account is a great alternative, and that’s something that I love. I follow a lot of science communicators in social media channels just because I like to see all the different ways they share science; they are on TikTok just because they can reach out to younger students. When I started with CAC – in February when we were still able to do events in person – we went to a STEM fair in Toronto and it was really cool to be talking about cellular agriculture to parents and to students because even the parents were asking “What type of careers will my kid need to follow if they want to enter this field?”
I’d love to talk about policy since you have so much experience! Generally, what’s the biggest hurdle that cell ag has policy-wise?
From a policy perspective there are different aspects that we need to think about. The first that comes to mind is the regulatory approval of cell ag products – right now, for example, Singapore has already approved cultured meat for commercialization, but that will need to happen in other countries. Hopefully, this first step will be like a nudge for other countries also thinking about moving forward with that process of creating regulatory frameworks for cellular products.
How will scientists play a part in policy-making?
Another really important aspect of policy is to ensure that guidelines and regulations are based in science, and evidence, which is why we need to have a robust scientific foundation to support cell ag products. We need to ensure that we have enough information to support that whatever is put into the market is safe. That is why projects, such as the safety initiatives we are working on, are so important from a policy perspective.
Besides the safety initiative, what role does New Harvest play in policy?
It’s important that science is taken into account in the policy making process. I think that’s where New Harvest can play a key role – in providing all that sound evidence so that the policies really reflect what the science is saying. Another important aspect for policy is engaging the different stakeholders. You need to talk with the companies because they are the ones that are going to be producing those products, but you also need to talk to regulators because they are the ones that are going to be making those policies, and you need scientists because they are the ones that can provide you with sound evidence. You also need to talk to the consumers because they are going to be the ones buying it. I think New Harvest could play a key role as the convening organization that could bring all these different voices together.
One last fun question, if you could pick any cultured product to try, what would it be and why?
I think one of my favorite ones that I wish I could try is bacon! A typical Canadian breakfast has eggs and bacon and hash browns, and I’ve tried to reduce my meat consumption and one of the things I miss the most is bacon.