The new food: satisfy the startups racing to reinvent the dinner

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 induce 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, creating creamy scrambled “eggs” from mung beans, or inducing fish that has never swum in water, or cow’s 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 outlaws 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 would indicate that 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 aims up in the burger.

The same yeast fermenting technique is being used by other companies to stimulate 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.

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

” I looked into how unbelievably unsustainable animal agriculture is- it genuinely blew my intellect ,” he says , noting that a trillion eggs are feed 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 find daylight .”

Elizondo’s company has created 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 swine, you’d kill them and extract the pancreas .” Now it is all made from yeast, as is the rennet used to construct most cheese, which once was extracted from the belly of newborn cows.

Milk is being targeted by Tim Geistlinger, chief technology officer at Perfect Day in Silicon Valley, who says attaining real dairy products without kine may once have appeared mad. But the company has already stimulated yoghurt, cheese and ice cream in their labs:” When people think you are crazy, that’s 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 constructing 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 the majority of it coming from pigs.” I believe 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 strictly plant-based replacements for meat and dairy are improving fast, can they ever actually 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 savours good- Donald Trump voters, Bernie Sanders voters, Vladimir Putin voters ,” he says.” If you can’t construct food that is good for the planet, and maybe a little bit healthier, also savor really good, then all of this applies to just 1 % of the population. And if it shall apply only to 1 % of the population, then there is zero chance it will actually resolving this problem .”

Lab-grown meat

Just is also pursuing the major slaughter-free alternative- real meat grown from cells in the laboratories.” My personal sentiment is that, of the $1.1 tn 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 is correct, I don’t 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 pate 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 love meat and feeing it is deeply culturally ingrained. We are not activists. We merely are intended to attain meat that is better .”

The first clean meat burger was created by a Dutch academicat Maastricht University back in 2013. Prof Mark Post , now also head of spin-off company Mosa Meats, is glad other numerous companies have jumped up:” Before I was the only one. I was lonely and know … … 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 EUR6 per 100 g. 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 expenses 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:” It’s the very antithesis of local food with a transparent provenance and backstory. It’s patently the brainchild of a technocratic mindset, one to submit 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 make that hemeprotein by trashing the planet by encompassing it with billions of kine. 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 created meat .”

” I don’t think mayonnaise, even ours, is healthy at all ,” says Tetrick.” I’d much rather people have a box of carrots if they are concerned about health, without question .” But he says Merely can build widely eaten food a little healthier, by reducing fat and cholesterol.

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

” Huge mistakes were induced 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. 30 years ago we believed people will get over this quickly- they didn’t .”

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

” There is a race to shelf, but not a race to suppose how we get to shelf properly ,” says Linda Eatherton, managing board 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 stimulate that ?” But there are also grounds for optimism, she says: a recent Ketchum survey saw 62% of Americans are likely to try a food attained utilizing 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 closed. Nobody wants to even think about slaughterhouses ,” he says.” When we have the two products side by side, I don’t 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. Merely, 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 can’t patent nature and we don’t 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.

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