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The new food: meet the startups racing to reinvent the meal

Lab-grown meat and food-tech companies in the US are showing that applying science to what we eat can save the world and make money

If you make food that tastes really good, you win, says Josh Tetrick, with a smile. And winning is crucial, he says, with his company Just in the vanguard of a new sector with an ambitious mission: to use cutting-edge technologies to create food that will take down the meat and dairy industries.

The scope is huge: growing meat in labs, producing creamy scrambled eggs from mung beans, or making fish that has never swum in water, or cows milk brewed from yeast. The drive is to lessen the colossal environmental damage wrought by industrial farming, from its vast carbon emissions to water pollution and disease.

And the meat industry appears to be well and truly rattled. In the US the beef industry has filed a petition to exclude non-animal products from the definition of meat, while a farmer politician in France has managed to get a law passed that bans vegetarian companies from calling their products sausages, mince or bacon.

The most famous alt-protein product so far is the Impossible Burger, an entirely plant-based patty that has an uncanny resemblance to meat and is now served in more than 1,000 restaurants in the US, usually at around $15. The key meaty ingredient in the Impossible Burger the blood is a hemeprotein found in the roots of soy plants. But the way it is produced for the burger shows how the new food tech companies are harnessing techniques first developed for biomedical uses.

The DNA for the hemeprotein is encoded by genetic modification into a yeast, which is then brewed. The protein, identical to the soy original, is then separated and no GM material ends up in the burger.

The same yeast fermentation technique is being used by other companies to make egg and milk proteins that are identical to the originals, but without actual chickens or cows. Arturo Elizondo, CEO of Clara Foods, based in San Francisco, is targeting a marvel of the culinary world the egg white, which foams, gels and binds in myriad recipes.

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A trillion eggs are eaten every year around the world. Illustration: Joe Magee

I looked into how incredibly unsustainable animal agriculture is it really blew my mind, he says, noting that a trillion eggs are eaten every year around the world. There are more chickens in the US than people, each confined to the area of a piece of paper and never seeing daylight.

Elizondos company has produced animal-free egg white in the lab and is now working on scaling up and putting products on sale by the end of 2019. He says the GM yeast technique has a decades-long track record: Insulin [for diabetics] used to come from pigs, youd kill them and extract the pancreas. Now it is all made from yeast, as is the rennet used to make most cheese, which once was extracted from the stomach of baby cows.

Milk is being targeted by Tim Geistlinger, chief technology officer at Perfect Day in Silicon Valley, who says making real dairy products without cows may once have appeared mad. But the company has already made yoghurt, cheese and ice cream in their labs: When people think you are crazy, thats nice, because it allows you to think differently.

Sweets and makeup are being targeted across the bay at the start-up Geltor in San Leandro, where microbes are being put to work to replace the animal products gelatin and collagen. The company has performed stunts like making gummy bears from gelatin derived from the preserved DNA of mastodons an extinct elephant-like creature and growing a leather book binding in the lab. Its first product, launching in April, is for cosmetics.

Collagen is often the only animal-derived product in cosmetics, says Nick Ouzounov, a co-founder of Geltor, with most of it coming from pigs. I think a lot of people overlook that. The traditional process of extracting collagen and gelatin has an extreme yuk factor, he says: Skin, bones and cartilage goes into an acid bath for days until the tissues disintegrate.

But although purely plant-based replacements for meat and dairy are improving fast, can they ever really taste as good the real thing, and become the first choice of regular consumers? Taste has to be the most important factor, argues Tetrick.

The common denominator between all the folks in the world is they like food that tastes good Donald Trump voters, Bernie Sanders voters, Vladimir Putin voters, he says. If you cant make food that is good for the planet, and maybe a little bit healthier, also taste really good, then all of this applies to just 1% of the population. And if it only applies to 1% of the population, then there is zero chance it will actually solve the problem.

Lab-grown meat

Just is also pursuing the major slaughter-free alternative real meat grown from cells in the lab. My personal opinion is that, of the $1.1tn of meat that is bought every year, the vast majority of it will not be solved by veggie burgers and veggie nuggets. As much as I might want that to be true, I dont think it is.

Lab-grown meat, dubbed clean meat due to its lack of microbial or antibiotic contamination, has yet to arrive on the market. But at least a dozen companies are working on it and Just could be the first, having said they will launch an avian product by the end of 2018, rumoured to be a replacement for foie gras pat which is now illegal in the US.

Beef, chicken and duck are being developed by Memphis Meats, seen as the clean meat leader and backed by food commodity giant Cargill among others. Steve Myrick, a vice-president at the company, says: We very much recognise that the world loves meat and eating it is deeply culturally ingrained. We are not activists. We just want to make meat that is better.

The first clean meat burger was created by a Dutch academic at Maastricht University back in 2013. Prof Mark Post, now also head of spin-off company Mosa Meats, is glad other numerous companies have sprung up: Before I was the only one. I was lonely and wondering if I was crazy.

But even with the head start, the burgers he hopes to be selling in two to three years will be expensive to start with, perhaps 6 per 100g. The key obstacle, say most clean meat companies, is developing an affordable and animal-free growth medium: the current standard is very expensive and requires growth promoters extracted from bovine embryos.

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Israeli company Alelph Farms is working on lab-grown mince meat and other companies such as Finless Foods are creating clean with no mercury or plastic contamination though white fish still costs about $7,000 per pound to produce at the moment.

Even if the technology does develop to produce delicious, affordable and sustainable food, the potential yuk factor of tech-created food hangs heavy over the embryonic sector. Food journalist Joanna Blythman recently criticised the Impossible Burger: Its the very antithesis of local food with a transparent provenance and backstory. Its patently the brainchild of a technocratic mindset, one brought to us by food engineers and scientists whose natural environment is the laboratory and the factory not the kitchen, farm or field.

But this is the wrong problem, argues Patrick Brown, founder of Impossible Foods and a Stanford University professor. Currently we create that hemeprotein by trashing the planet by covering it with billions of cows. We need to use every tool at our disposal to deal with this environmental catastrophe. It is not how you do it it is what you do.

These products, say their backers, are intended to replace mass-produced animal products, not local organic ones. From our perspective, health is not the point, says Bruce Friedrich, at the Good Food Institute, which supports the alt-protein sector. These products are for people who currently eat industrially produced meat.

I dont think mayonnaise, even ours, is healthy at all, says Tetrick. Id much rather people have a box of carrots if they are concerned about health, without question. But he says Just can make widely eaten food a bit healthier, by reducing fat and cholesterol.

The history of GM foods is also a cautionary tale. Vonnie Estes, is now an independent food industry consultant but worked for Monsanto in the 1990s, when the company was excited about its what its new technology could do.

Huge mistakes were made in how that was brought to market, she says. GM food has been eaten by hundreds of millions of people since, but Estes says: There is still a huge group of people who do not want GMOs in their food. Thirty years ago we thought people will get over this quickly they didnt.

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Some 62% of Americans said they were likely to try a food made using technology. Illustration: Joe Magee

There is a race to shelf, but not a race to think how we get to shelf properly, says Linda Eatherton, managing director at the Ketchum communication agency, who warns that how alt-protein companies communicate their production processes is incredibly critical.

My biggest concern is people will rush to shelf and Mr and Mrs Consumer will say what the what? How did they make that? But there are also grounds for optimism, she says: a recent Ketchum survey found 62% of Americans are likely to try a food made using technology, rising to 71% among millennials.

Contrasting clean meat with factory farms is also crucial, says Friedrich. People are eating meat today with their eyes squeezed shut. Nobody wants to even think about slaughterhouses, he says. When we have the two products side by side, I dont think it is going to be hard to persuade people to switch.

The environmental benefits also appear clear from the contrasting inefficiency of conventional livestock production: it takes 23 calories of plant feed to produce one calorie of beef and farmers have to grow a whole cow, not just the valuable cuts of meat.

However, not many full impact analyses have been done on these new products. Just, whose methodology was independently certified, says its current mayo and cookie products cut carbon emissions by at least 25% and water use by 75%. Impossible Foods says its burger, which replaces the meat with the heaviest carbon hoofprint, cuts greenhouse gases by 87%.

Could this food could end up being dominated by a few tech giants? All these new foods are produced using techniques that are then patented by the companies to protect their investments, leading some critics to suggest a creeping privatisation of livestock could occur.

This is rejected by the companies. You cant patent nature and we dont want to lock up our products, says Elizondo, who points out that existing food companies like Kraft already have huge numbers of patents. We would be totally open to licensing.

The technological optimism of the young alt-protein sector is clear in the Bay Area, as is the hype. Backers, from Bill Gates to meat giant Tyson, are betting the application of science to food can both save the world and make money doing it.

Whether it can really take down the meat industry, whether it can actually deliver safe, tasty, cheaper food on a large scale and with smaller environmental footprints and so play a big part in saving the planet will only be known in the coming months and years.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us

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