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The great food disruption: part 1

We humans love to romanticise things – and we particularly like to romanticise our food. When you think about that juicy burger at lunch, last night’s curry or this morning’s breakfast berry smoothie, it’s all too easy for us to imagine a happy cow called Daisy who spends her days roaming across lush rolling hills with her young nearby, leaping lambs, happy hens frolicking in the fields, and trusting, caring farmers, who lovingly ply their trade the old-fashioned way – tractor, straw hat and pitch fork in hand.

In New Zealand, a nation built on the export of food, this is the kind of idyllic image we want to portray to the world. But the reality of industrialised food production is far less romantic and, if you believe the proponents, technology, science and biotech are starting to turn the industry on its head and bring about some very meaty changes.

According to San Francisco online investment marketplace company, AgFunder, global agtech investment surged from a paltry US$400 mlllion in 2010, to $3.2 billion in 2016, and today there are at least 4,000 early stage technology startups all out to disrupt the US$7.8 trillion global food system.

Farm management software and analytics, food traceability technologies, indoor farming systems (think high rise or container farms), robotics (including NZ’s Robotics Plus and Compac) and plant microbiome technology (think probiotics for seeds and crops) are all examples of the many technology categories lapping up investor interest in the world of agriculture, spurring the transformation of the farm, and what some have dubbed the “next green revolution”.

But perhaps the most influential emerging technology of all, making its foray into the world of food with the potential to revolutionise the very notion of agriculture as we know it, and in ways that we’ve never seen before, is synthetic biology. With applications across nearly every industry sector including healthcare, energy and industrial chemicals and agriculture, synthetic biology (also dubbed “synbio”) is the use of advances in chemistry, biology, computer science and engineering to create new biological systems and products including microbes that produce biofuel, milk or animal proteins, or immune cells and therapeutics geared toward attacking a specific type of cancer.

Touted by global venture capital database CB Insights as one of the next game-changing technologies this coming decade, synbio is booming – and the stats prove it. In the last five years, funding to private synthetic biology startups has more than tripled, and in 2016 alone, an estimated US$1.3 billion was invested into pioneering synthetic biology startups.

More than half of this was channelled into companies revolutionising the food and beverage (F&B) and agriculture categories. “Cellular agriculture” or “cultured” food (an offshoot of synbio) in particular, has been receiving a rich dollop of funding in the last 18 months and the lion’s share of media headlines around the world. And not in the cultured acidophilus yoghurt, trendy kombucha or kefir way. But due to its newfound capabilities and potential to revolutionise the global food system – and especially animal agriculture.

Instead of domesticating animals, synbio startups are using cellular agriculture to domesticate cells that mimic animal products like meat and milk without the cost to the environment, factory farming, ocean pillage and cruelty of slaughterhouses.

Eating smarter   

Also referred to as “lab”, “cultured” or “clean meat” (or “Frankenmeat” by the sceptics who can’t envisage this future), cellular agriculture is the production of agricultural products from cell cultures to harvest almost any kind of agricultural product, or food and beverage for which we currently need an a sentient being (or plant) for. It’s complex and it draws on processes including DNA (genome) cell sequencing, tissue engineering, cultures and microbial science.

From cow-less milk, cattle-less beef, grape-less wine and hen-less chicken and eggs, to silk, gelatin, bleeding plant burgers, fish and even rhino horn, it seems no stone remains unturned in the world of cellular agriculture. And over the past three years an increasing wave of smart synbio startups across Silicon Valley, Israel and Europe, including Memphis Meats, Mosa Meats, Super Meat, Finless Foods, Clara Foods and Ava Wines have rapidly honed in on the space.

Mosa Meat’s lab grown beef patty made from beef (bovine) animal muscle cells debuted in London in 2013 with a hefty $330,000 price tag. It was the first cellular agriculture product bringing “clean meat” to the main stage developed at the University of Masstrict. Replicating only muscle tissue cells in petri dishes, Mosa Meat’s world-first lab made patty was a bit dry for some people’s liking. San Francisco startup, Memphis Meats has since addressed this with the launch of the world’s first sizzling – and much juicier – clean meatball in 2016. This is grown from a variety of pig (porcine) fat and muscle cells to achieve the more fatty texture. And it was a thumbs up for the taste for those lucky enough to try it. Backed by the world’s leading biotech accelerators and impact investors including Indie Bio and New Crop Capital, in March this year the company also went on to launch the world’s first clean poultry, including both chicken and duck produced directly from poultry cells. 

Israel, long renowned as a leader in agri-tech and efficient use of its often-limited resources, is also making its own inroads into the world of cellular agriculture. Yaron Bogan, CEO of the Modern Agriculture Foundation, says Israel now has three of the world’s five active cultured meat companies. Super Meat was Israel’s first cultured meat startup and has been pioneering cultured chicken since 2016, but in May this year at the Modern Agriculture Foundation’s Clean Meat Conference two more Israeli research startups announced their launch. Future Meat Technology, which, rather than mince, is focusing on developing thick, lifelike cuts of chicken, and Meat the Future (which is yet to officially launch) is on a quest to produce a big juicy steak in the lab. 

It’s alive!

Harvesting once-living animal cells to produce food isn’t the only way that cellular agriculture is revolutionising agriculture in the lab. US-based Impossible Foods, Clara Foods, Beyond Meat and New Wave Foods, along with New Zealand’s Sunfed Meats are just a few of the startups that have harnessed the beauty of “acellular” agriculture – enabling them to produce plant-based replicas of beef, eggs, seafood and chicken that taste, smell and sizzle uncannily like the real thing without harvesting animal cells at all.

US based Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, two of the based plant based protein poster children disrupting the beef patty, have discovered how to produce “heme”, a molecule normally found in animal blood and known for giving meat its red, bloody colour and savoury taste, using soy root nodules and culturing it in the lab with yeast. And San Francisco’s Perfect Day has created a yeast that mimics a cow’s DNA blueprint that, when fermented, produces real milk proteins.  Both companies are going gangbusters. Impossible Foods which already sells into 20 highend restaurant chains is amidst building a large scale production site in Oakland, California that will enable it to make 4 million burgers each month. And Beyond Meat, whose beef and chicken replicas are already sold into Whole Foods, has recently signed a deal with Safeway, one of the US’s biggest mainstream supermarket chains, to start stocking 280 of its 1300 locations. It’s also made its first foray into the meat capital of the world, Hong Kong, in a partnership with Green Common, a high-end one-stop concept store for casual dining and shopping.

Auckland-based Sunfed Meats’ first product, plant based chicken made from Canadian yellow pea protein and other plant products, is also set to hit Kiwi supermarket shelves in July this year. Sunfed’s process is a closely guarded trade secret, but the company says its production method consumes five times less land and water than chicken whilst having higher levels of protein, zinc and iron.

Members of the Auckland public were hard pressed to taste the difference during public taste testes late last year, convinced it was actual chicken.

“We took a step back and asked ourselves, can we define what meat means to us? The traditional definition means it comes from animal protein, and we went ‘what if we could make meat from plants’”, founder Shama Sukul Lee explained. While plant-based protein isn’t unique, the company believes it’s onto a good thing. Most of Sunfed’s overseas competitors are focused on red meats and seafood alternatives while Sunfed is focused on the most-consumed meat in Western world and the home kitchen. The company says plant-based beef, pork and fish will follow.

Irrespective of their ethical motivations or the variety of food replicas this wave of synbio start-ups are developing, they all have big hopes to disrupt the trillion-dollar food industry. And investors like Bill Gates and Sergey Brin, Google co-founder and president of its parent company, Alphabet,  are among some of the big names that are bank rolling, and potentially expediting their road to market.

  • Stay tuned for more in this series.
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