This is the time of year to make resolutions….and predictions. I long ago gave up on New Year’s resolutions (just don’t work well in real life), but I love predictions. Not necessarily to make them, but to read about them. I remember all those wild predictions from the 1950s and 1960s about how we would one day be able to see the people we were talking with on the phone and tool around in self-driving cars.
I’m seeing more and more predictions and actual developments about huge changes in food production—suggesting that basic foods like meat, dairy, and veggies will increasingly be produced in labs, warehouses, and manufacturing facilities via software and special combinations of ordinary ingredients driven by precise fermentation or hydroponics. As one online technology newsletter, Exponential View, put it in early 2020:
“Food disruption is driven by the convergence of massively increased performance and reduced cost in the areas of advanced computing (e.g. processing power, data storage), and synthetic biology (e.g. genome sequencing and editing). Our understanding of protein molecules has exploded, and we now have precision control over cells. This means that we can harness them as mini molecular factories to directly produce any molecule we desire, allowing us to bypass the inefficient production systems we have lived with for so long (livestock).
“We can design food from the molecule up—rather than breaking down and reconstituting bulk food products as we currently do in food processing (often through the use of heat and chemicals which can significantly reduce the nutritional quality of food). The technology also allows for mass iteration of products (the Impossible Burger is only in its second iteration—expect many more improvements over time) and for tailoring products to specific markets and end-users. We can rapidly iterate those designs for constant improvement, as well as customization.”
Here’s brief look at how this new food creation system is playing out:
-Meat and eggs: I wrote previously about burgers from Impossible and Beyond Meat. Those have been well received, in both supermarkets and food outlets like Burger King.
Now there’s a chicken version, with KFC selling “Beyond Fried Chicken” developed by Beyond Meat from wheat and soy. According to Beyond Meat, it’s met with “overwhelmingly positive response” as it’s been rolled out over the last year.
And a San Francisco company says it spent five years perfecting a scrambled-egg concoction from mung beans. Here’s how the company, JUST Egg, describes its product: “It starts with a small bean and some healthy soil. Then, the bean becomes an egg that scrambles in a pan or folds into an omelet. It leaves wild spaces wild, reduces air and ocean pollution, and builds muscle in our bodies without a milligram of cholesterol.”
-Dairy: New companies are springing up to produce ice cream and cream cheese from dairy protein created via a process known as precise fermentation. At least a few are selling ice cream concoctions that are said to taste just like “real” ice cream. A Berkeley, CA, company, Eclipse, says its ice cream made from potatoes, corn, cassava (a tropical tree), and oats, “is the first-ever plant-based ice cream that is indistinguishable from conventional dairy. It requires no sacrifice on taste, texture nor functionality. So creamy, even cows are jealous.”
These companies are making waves in the world of venture capital: one, known as PerfectDay, has raised more than $300 million, which in the world of startup businesses is a lot of money for a company without an established market. PerfectDay says it will be selling its dairy concoction to established big-food companies as a substitute for milk from huge farms.
-Veggies: Warehouse hydroponic farms continue to gain traction. One out of Ohio, 80 Acres Farms, is selling not only greens but peppers, tomatoes, and cucumbers. It’s raised venture capital as well. An executive I know who works for another with warehouse “farms” in several East Coast metropolitan areas, says his company is selling to a number of the nation’s largest supermarket chains because they want to reduce their reliance on veggies from California and Arizona to reduce the risks of pathogens, which seem to periodically lead to widespread illnesses.
The big benefit of these manufactured foods is that they can reduce by a factor of five to ten times the carbon footprint of traditional agriculture—water, energy and feedstock–and require a hundred times less land. According to Exponential View, “At present 40 per cent of US land is dedicated to cows; in the move to the modern protein system, they estimate we will need just one fifth of this 40 per cent (so 8 per cent overall) going forward.”
But just because Big Ag is going to be decimated by this new food doesn’t mean small specialized dairies, cheese makers, and meat producers will be badly impacted. Many of them have thrived during the pandemic, serving consumers concerned about interruptions in the conventional system’s supplies. And I expect these smaller outfits will continue to thrive after the pandemic as more people become accustomed to good healthy food.
Finally, I’d offer a less obvious benefit from this transformation: the opportunity to substitute good paying jobs and benefits in urban and suburban areas for the seasonal and often dangerous work of the Big Ag commodity economy in rural areas, which relies on transient workers and often dangerous working conditions (think chicken processing plants). Such a shift might even help moderate our increasingly polarized political situation, reducing economic tensions between well off blue states and less well off red states.