The global food system faces an uncertain future. Consumer preferences continue to shift in the face of health, environmental and animal welfare concerns, and a warming climate means we’ll soon have to do more with less.
As we grapple with how to sustainably and ethically feed nearly 10 billion people by 2050, a growing number of researchers are thinking outside the farm. From lab-grown meat to grape-free wine, these high-tech innovations are poised to change the way we eat and drink.
1. Lab-grown meat from cells.
In August 2013, a team of Dutch scientists shocked the food world with the debut of a lab-grown hamburger that cost $330,000. Three years later, Bay Area startup Memphis Meats showed off the world’s first lab-grown meatball, at a cost of $18,000 per pound.
The process behind these pricey plates involves harvesting animal cells from a piece of meat and creating controlled conditions in which these cells can replicate. The result is essentially a Franken-meat that can be decoupled from conventional animal agriculture and all of the ethical and environmental problems that come with it. “Theoretically from one little piece of meat you can create an unlimited amount,” Mike Selden, CEO of lab-grown fish startup Finless Foods, told Wired earlier this year.
Biotechnology companies like Finless have cut costs dramatically since that quarter-million burger, but challenges remain. Namely, animal cells need protein in order to grow, and today the primary source of that protein is serum made from animal blood. These serums are expensive and render any cruelty-free claims moot, but they may soon be a thing of the past. “When we begin selling products we will absolutely have no serum whatsoever,” Selden told Wired. “That's not just because of any PR thing or environmental reasons. Cost-wise the economics of it make absolutely no sense.”
Memphis Meats and Finless Foods aren't alone in the game. Fresh off a product buy-back scandal and the exodus of its entire board, embattled startup Just (formerly Hampton Creek) plans to bring the first lab-grown meats to market later this year. Memphis Meats and Dutch rival Mosa Meats will debut in 2021 — and they’ll likely find favor among American consumers, with nearly 40 percent of omnivores and over 60 percent of vegans now saying they’d chow down on cultured meat.
In perhaps an even greater sign of its impending success, the U.S. Cattleman’s Association is desperately trying to legally prevent companies from using the term “meat” to describe cultured products.
2. Lab-grown meat from plants.
The company uses patented technology and a secret mix of plant-based ingredients to produce its flagship Impossible Burger, which is now served in 40 upscale restaurants nationwide. You may have tried veggie burgers before, but the Impossible Burger is an entirely different animal: It’s red when raw, browns when cooked and “bleeds” just like the real thing—garnering praise from vegans and non-vegans alike. The company already churns out a million quarter-pounders a week at its Oakland factory and will hit the grocery market within the next several years, reports the San Jose Mercury News. Brown—who has called animal agriculture the "biggest environmental catastrophe”—is also looking to apply his technology to other foods, including poultry, eggs and dairy.
Meanwhile, Unilever and other companies are backing an experimental technology to turn plant proteins into a layered, fibrous structure that closely resembles steak.
3. Synthetic wine.
Even as the global demand for wine surges, extreme weather events brought 2017 production down to its lowest level in decades. Experts say harvests will only get worse as the planet warms, and competition for usable land will grow stiffer as populations and demand for food increase.
Luckily, a grape-free solution is already on the way. San Francisco startup Ava Winery claims its experimental synthetic wines — made in a lab without grapes and with far less water — could one day mimic fine vintages at a fraction of the cost. The company began by replicating Moscato d’Asti, a sparkling Italian wine — which wine expert Chris Sadler described as “not half bad” — before turning to an imitation Dom Pérignon champagne.
The technology is decidedly not there yet — Ava has yet to sell its wines on the open market — but its founders are confident they can one day identify and duplicate all the molecular structures that give fine wines their flavor. “We did not start Ava so that we could rest on our laurels about saving the world,” co-founder Alec Lee told the San Jose Mercury News. “Companies like ours will not be successful based solely on sustainability pitches. They’ll be successful because their product tastes great.”
4. Plant-based dairy.
Some were quick to point out the problems in early plant-based dairy staples — soy has its health concerns and almonds have their water-efficiency woes. But today’s offerings span everything from pea protein milks and flaxseed yogurts to cheeses made from tapioca, coconut and cashews.
Berkeley startup Perfect Day claims its lab-made, yeast-derived milk perfectly mimics the flavor and nutrition of cow’s milk. “We’re taking plant nutrients and transforming them into animal proteins the same way that cows do, using the same milk proteins as found in cow’s milk, but much more efficiently, because we’re using a yeast cell, not a 2,000-pound animal,” Perfect Day co-founder Ryan Pandya told the Guardian. The company hopes to bring its analog milks to market in the near future, which Pandya claims can also replace whey and casein proteins in grocery products like ice cream and cheese.
5. Chewable coffee.
Want coffee on the go without the disposable cups or annoying cafe lines? HVMN has you covered with its chewable Go Cubes. The San Francisco startup has packed the caffeine found in a half-cup of coffee, along with green tea extracts and B vitamins, into a chewable cube for a portable jolt. Reviews are mixed when it comes to flavor, but Business Insider reviewer Lydia Ramsey said the taste has notably improved in the year since Go Cubes came to market.
6. Edible food packaging.
Containers and packaging represent more than 23 percent of landfill waste in the U.S., according to the EPA. Some researchers think they’ve found a solution — packaging you can eat.
New York City startup Loliware debuted the world’s first edible drinking cup back in 2015 and now sells disposable cups and straws in various flavors. It hopes to use a similar mix of agar, seaweed extracts and natural flavors to produce product packaging, disposable cutlery and more. Meanwhile, in London, Skipping Rocks Lab is out to battle plastic bottle waste with edible water pods called Oohos. Even large companies are entering the fray — KFC with an edible coffee cup concept and Stonyfield Organic with experimental frozen yogurt “pearls” — indicating this trend may be here to stay.
Would you try any of these food and beverage innovations? Tell us about it in the comments section.