By Amy Au
Just before World Food Day, Tyson Foods Inc., the largest meat company in the U.S., announced its investment in Beyond Meat, a startup we featured in the Global Opportunity Report 2016 which produces plant-based meat that claims to cook and taste like the real deal. While Tyson’s move to challenge its very own status quo may surprise some, it shows lab-grown food technology is an opportunity that businesses could tap into.
As the global population grows and is expected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050, feeding extra mouths becomes ever more challenging. At the same time, global demand of livestock products is projected to increase by 70 percent by then, especially in developing countries, where meat consumption has been growing at 5-6 percent, and milk and dairy at 3.4-3.8 percent every year. While the livestock sector supports livelihoods of one billion of the world’s poor, and its products provide one-third of our protein intake, it poses serious threat to our environment: it is responsible for 14.5 percent of GHG emissions, 29 percent of total water footprint of agriculture, and occupies 30 percent of the land surface of the planet.
To meet the increasing demand for animal protein while addressing these challenges, many turn to technology. Our Global Opportunity Report this year, as well as last, has consistently found that the top opportunities are those in which people use technology to produce more with less. This year “smart farming” even tops our opportunity list, ranking first overall among the fifteen opportunities across all nine regions. Smart solutions like CropX and Webstech make use of wireless technology to monitor crops, thereby helping farmers boost yield and save resources.
But now there is an emerging field of technology that disrupts not the farms, but the food itself. Unlike traditional farming, this new field of technology takes place in labs, where livestock products are recreated from either animal cells, or plants and algae, which is then reconstituted to look, taste and contain as much protein like the original product. Since the live animal is eliminated from the process, lab-grown products are free of antibiotics and growth hormones and is, of course, cruelty-free. They also use less land, water and energy, and emit less greenhouse gases.
In fact, lab-grown meat is nothing new – you probably recall the taste test of the first lab-made burger in 2013. Developed by Dr Mark Post’s team at Maastricht University, the €250,000 burger was more a sensation than a concrete solution for most. But as technology progresses, more startups are betting on lab-grown products to be the food of the future. When Memphis Meats revealed the first meatballs “farmed” from “real meat cells” earlier this year, it was hailed as “the hottest tech in Silicon Valley” by FORTUNE. Backed by nearly $3 million in venture funding, it plans to sell its products by 2021. Its competitors include Mosa Meat, co-founded by Dr. Post and Maastricht University, which aims to commercialise lab-grown minced meat in 5 years. And meat is not the only product to disrupt – there are already startups looking into recreating eggs, dairy and shrimps in labs.
Meanwhile, other startups are sourcing proteins and nutrients in plants and algae to reconstitute “meat.” These high-tech, plant-based meats are not your usual mock meat: they boast not only similar taste and texture to meat, but also comparable nutritional value – minus the cholesterol, growth hormones, antibiotics, and other unsavory bits of industrial meat production. Given they have no animal traces in them, they are also 100 percent vegan. And they have already attracted funding in millions: Bill Gates has invested in both Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. While the former has raised a whopping $182 million so far, the latter are backed by Twitter co-founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone – and recently by Tyson Foods. What’s more, their products are already available: Beyond Meat products are sold in more than 4,000 stores across the U.S., including chains like Whole Foods and Target; Impossible Foods’ burgers are offered in New York City’s upscale Momofuku Nishi – and debuted in Los Angeles and San Francisco just last week.
Underlying all these startups is the goal to create nutritious, environmentally-friendly alternatives that are not so different from the original. Convincing the most committed carnivores to compromise is hard. No one wants to be finger-pointed at what’s on one’s own plate. Lab-grown meat could be a promising solution – because it takes ethical judgments off the table, recognizes that not everyone can go vegan, and offers sustainable choices for those who want to change but feel there are too many barriers to do so.
Although many are yet to jump on this bandwagon, leaders like Google’s Eric Schmidt and Bill Gates are optimistic about the opportunities in lab-grown meat. Just like Gates has previously said, “remaking meat is one sector of the food industry that is ripe for innovation and growth.”