Menu of the Future
A recap of SynBioBeta’s Food & Ag Conference
For a sustainable future, we need to rethink what sustains us — food.
The Farm of the Future
Welcome to a future where climate change has been solved. Where did we start? Farms.
These farms aren’t what you’re used to because instead of farmers, we have craftsmen. Instead of exploiting livestock, we’re using a generative model, crafting only what we need from a micro level. Speaking of micro, these farms don’t take up billions of acres anymore. You can make food from your own backyard by building from the bottom up (cell → tissue). This level of precision allows for us to not only focus on yield but also on taste and nutrition, which is all part of the experience.
Our farmers look different but consumers still look the same. How did we convince them to accept this new “mutant” form of food? Hint: it wasn’t purely rational arguments, we also needed emotional incentives. Instead of trying to bulldoze and erase all cultural elements that have been here for millennia, we found ways to represent labs & tech in ways that respected and reflected cultural elements.
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To gain perspectives and find out what we didn’t know, we brought farmers, chefs, artists and other stake (steak) holders into the picture. We hopped into their fishbowls by including them on boards and making key decisions together.
And lastly, we made sure to keep 2nd & 3rd order consequences in mind. We didn’t want food tech to turn into another social media.
When we think of plant-based and cultured meats, a couple of things come to mind — burger patties, ground meat, maybe even hot dogs. But what do those archetypes have in common? They’re all from America. But Americans only make up 4% of the world’s population. Asians, Africans, Latin Americans, etc. don’t eat burgers.
That’s why Dean Powell from The Good Food Institute (GFI) is working to expand alternative protein to more countries starting with the one thing they all have in common — rich and unique cultures.
GFI leverages local raw materials from each country to curate unique meats palatable to different cuisines. Ex. mung beans are mass-produced in Myanmar and if they get boosted, it could greatly benefit the region, industry, economy and even better, create a circular business model.
See more in Dean’s latest report below:
Currently, the hype in the plant-based protein industry is around ground meat. The complex tissue structures and muscle fibres of whole cuts are difficult to replicate. But ground meats make up only around 20% of all meat consumption. There is so mush room for growth (*foreshadowing*).
Me(a)t mycelium — the squishy white sponge you see in the picture above. In nature, mycelium is a mass of branched, thread-like hyphae that can grow in weird bumpy shapes. But the minds at Atlast Food Co. found a way to grow them vertically in the nice soft sheets we like.
Now how does this fluffy baymax-esque material relate to whole cut meats?
One is white and squishy, the other is caramel-coloured and crispy. But if you really zoom in to the molecular scale, they’re really both just mycelium!
Natural properties of mycelium + 5 more ingredients: coconut oil, salt, sugar, smoke flavours, and beet juice for colour = mouthwatering slices of bacon! The texture and taste are already ingrained in nature, so there’s no need for any genetic modifications, extravagant processing or extra ingredients. Mush love for the powers of mycelium ;)
But get this, we’ve only investigated 1% of the world’s microbes. There are so many more possibilities that nature has just what we need (1–2 trillion).
A product is nothing without its consumers. But unconventional inventions (ex. alternative proteins) are notoriously difficult for the public to accept. We live in a pre-BCI world and there’s not really any way to prove taste to potential buyers. To successfully outcompete traditional meats, there are two things that need to be done:
- effectively communicate to the marketplace that there are other options
- eliminate barriers (ex. price, taste, health & safety) so that it’s the no-brainer choice for customers
Fostering a New Breed of Entrepreneurs
The most important -nomics really is economics.
Money provides freedom — to experiment, to grow and to impact.
And investors are the ones who know where best to put their money.
He started IndieBio to create a new breed of entrepreneurs — scientists. Science was originally used solely for therapeutics, but by helping scientists go into business, they were enabled to solve 🌎-scale problems.
How does one sift through all the entrepreneurs out there and find the ones with true potential? Arvind looks for the ones who see through a crack in the wall to entirely a new world behind it and then break through that wall.
Many of the companies he helped grow started off as paper plans (ex. Memphis Meats, Clara Foods, Perfect Day). The transition from paper plan to business is what Arvind is looking for.
Food is comfort and culture. It’s what grounds us.
For astronauts, food can also be a piece of home they take to ground them when they’re millions of kilometres away. How can we familiar-ify space food? Here’s a challenge if you’re up for it.
Fun fact: Biotech is the #1 field being invested in right now ($8B in total funding in 2020) 👀
Starting at the Root of the Problem
To really hack problems in the food industry, we must start at the root (pun not intended) — farmers.
How were they able to promote their products to farmers and build trust?
- communicate & describe its value — people will listen to solutions for critical needs (ex. diseases)
- partner with retailers as they can reach many farmers
- collaborate with big banana/coffee/rice companies
Inari is working on redesigning corn & soy to reduce the amount of water and pesticides required. And they’re not just gene editing for yield, it's got to be everything — biodiversity, nutrition, etc. For even more creativity and to get the younger generation involved, they’re also employing students from MIT & Havard!
Plant genomes can range from pretty small to being 50 times larger than the human genome. Imagine putting together a 150 000 000 000 piece puzzle. Humanly… impossible. Thankfully, Phytoform Labs is using computation biology and AI to decode the genetic potential of plants. In just a few days, their technology can discover new traits and also understand how gene edits would affect the plant as a whole. Invincible crops here we come! 🚀
Intermission with a Mission
Networking! One of the most (if not the most) valuable parts of conferences. The SynBioBeta networking session was held among us proximity chat style at spatialweb.net. It was my first time being at a real networking event. I got to see the more human sides of everyone, listen to interesting conversations, and have some of my own.
However to get the most value out of networking, when you meet a legit CEO, briefly introduce yourself and ask for what you want. CEOs have almost every connection possible at the back of their minds. If you leave a good enough impression, they might even call them in to talk to you (true story).
^^ If you disagree or have better ideas, let me know, I’m still very new to all this!
However, I failed to realize that and missed my chance to ask for connections during a short chat with John Cumbers, CEO of SynBioBeta.
Check out this super helpful video on networking. You’ll definitely learn something.
Gen-Z Advisory Boards?
So you thought that advisory boards are always made up of middle-aged suit-and-tie businesspeople.
At Aleph Farms, they are completely flipping that notion by having the opposite, some students, serve as ambassadors and have a say in the company’s decisions. In the near future, 41% of the entire consumer demographic is going to be Gen-Z. To reach those future eaters now, Aleph Farms is making sure that they’re aligning on the right vision for them.
And it’s working. These zoomer advisors have increased market acceptance by more than 20% with personalized messages to the younger generation. Gen Z’ers have often been the generation most open to new ideas after all.
$1.4 billion worth of losses in the US annually are due to crop losses from the invisible killer of all — pesticides.
We do have enzymes to degrade these pesticides, but its delivery efficiency that’s the problem.
Presenting… the AgriCell by Agrospheres! A genetically engineered non-GMO bioparticle!
Wait… genetically engineered, non-GMO?
Yup. By fermenting bacterial cells, they can protect the encapsulated active ingredients from extreme temperatures, pHs, and environmental degradation. Then it can precisely control the release of the active ingredient — harness the benefit of genetic engineering without the risk of environmental contamination!
Originally, the team targeted organophosphate pesticides (which is also what I’m also working on!) and was able to degrade them on crops in a matter of hours instead of days.
But they later found that it wasn’t the best solution. Spraying these extra sprays after the pesticides was a lot of extra work. What farmers actually needed was a more environmentally friendly pesticide (which is what they are using their technology to create right now).
Who came first, the 🌱 or the 🍳?
There are so many ubiquitous preconceived notions that everyone around the world simply accepts.
Eggs have to come from chickens.
Real meat has to come from killing animals.
Not anymore 😎.
It all started when Josh Tetrick (CEO of JUST, Inc.) went on multiple social campaigns in Africa and decided that he wanted to do something meaningful and wanted to do it fast.
Life experiences allow you to find problems you care about :)
With his co-founder Josh Balk, they came upon the issue of industrialized agriculture production. Through systems thinking, came the genesis of Just Inc.
They started with the most ubiquitous animal protein — the chicken egg and took a wild bet: that one of the 370 thousand plants from around the world would scramble like an egg. And they won that bet by identifying a suitable protein in mung beans!
The rest is history. JUST Egg is the fastest-growing egg brand in the United States and their hope is that kids will grow up believing eggs come from plants, not chickens.
On to the second assumption, to eat meat you need to kill an animal. You don’t. You just need a cell.
On Dec 19, 4 special people sat around a table and tasted kill-free chicken bites. But these budding food critics weren’t any rich, white-collared investors. They were 4 kids between the ages of 12 and 17.
That’s because kids see everything clearly before anyone asks them to. Animals are cute and young people don’t need to be taught to like them. When Josh told a taste-tester, Kiya, that “you don’t need to kill chickens to eat them”, she didn’t get caught up in politics or regulations, she was just like “okay that’s great, let’s go”. Then, her next question was if she could use this technology to help out other animals ❤.
After sending the Singaporean government all the information they asked for, on Thanksgiving, chicken bites were finally approved!
There will come a time where cultured chicken is not weird, it’ll just be meat. It’ll be so compelling from a taste, flavour & culture standpoint that it won't just be on the menu, it’ll be the only thing on the menu.
You may have heard of Singapore’s 30 x 30 vision, but Josh also has a more personal one.
He has a 3-year-old niece who's name is June. His vision is by the time June gets into high school, the vast majority of meat won't require killing animals. He wants food to reflect who she is — kind. For it to still allow for golden summer afternoons filled with laughter and the smell of the family barbeque. But also for the world to be less likely to be hit by a zoonotic disease.
To do this, he’s going to spread JUST Egg not just around his frying pan, but around the whole world. They‘re at 100 million so far 🥚.
The Whole Party
In no particular order, here are all the companies and organizations involved in creating the future:
Boston Consulting Group
Eat Just, Inc
The Rockefeller Foundation
Orbillion Bio, Inc.
Lloyd’s Register Foundation
Reliance Industries Limited
Atlast Food Co.
Rethink Plastic NGO
The Good Food Institute
The Translational Research Institute for Space Health
Theobald Alternative Protein Consultancy
Shinerunner Craft Marketing
Thought For Food
Band of Angels
University of Turin
John Innes Center
In closing, I just want to say that I love the SynBio community. Everyone there is so mind-blowingly disruptive, yet still super fun and supportive.
See you all in the herbivore age!
Thanks for making it to the end of this article! 💞
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