When it comes to the warming world, our diet is a major offender. The IPCC found that the food system—which includes everything from production and transport to storage, consumption, and waste—accounts for as much as 37 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions. That’s why it’s imperative we change what’s on our plate. Scientists have found that even if all fossil-fuel emissions magically ceased overnight, the leftover emissions from our food system alone would still make it impossible to keep warming to 1.5°C. (In fact, even keeping it to 2°C would be a stretch.) And if we don’t change what we eat, the world will change it for us: A third of global food production is at risk from rainfall and drought if climate change continues at this pace.
Creative Destruction Lab brings together entrepreneurs, scientists, mentors, and investors to focus on high-impact and scalable solutions that tackle the biggest challenges of climate change. Three recent CDL graduates—Orbillion Bio, Plantible Foods, and Shiok Meats—trained their attention on the global food system, harnessing technology, ingenuity, and taste in order to transform what’s on our plates.
Bay Area, California–based Orbillion Bio has no illusions about industrial agriculture. “We know it’s wasteful and resource-intensive,” says Orbillion’s head of product strategy and brand, Rachel Lichte. “There’s serious animal welfare concerns and, with animal density, increased risk of zoonotic diseases that can be disastrous for humans. We also know, increasingly, consumers are looking for better.”
Orbillion sees a sustainable, and flavourful, future in cell-cultured meat: protein created directly from animal cells instead of from the entire animal. The venture works with farmers to select heritage breeds that preserve biodiversity and present new opportunities for taste (rather than just for yield). Currently, Orbillion is growing cell-cultured meat from animals like elk, bison, and lamb, cuts that aren’t readily commercialized and so haven’t been generally available. Earlier this year, the company oversaw a tasting of lamb burgers, elk sausages, and meatloaf made from Wagyu beef—the Cadillac of cattle.
“We want to make delicious foods that are more accessible,” Lichte says. Practically, that means Orbillion will emphasize reducing cost, improving production capacity, and creating a robust and scalable process for their bioreactors to get their wagyu beef out for 2023. But more broadly, it means ensuring consumers don’t have to dispense either with meat or with their ethics. “We really want to provide people with another option, so they don’t have to make that tough choice,” Lichte says.
For diners who are looking to cut down on their meat consumption, Plantible Foods have found a solution in lemna, an aquatic plant containing a protein called RuBisCO that behaves remarkably like an animal protein. “In animal-based foods, protein is responsible not only for nutrition but also for texturization. But if you look at the plant proteins we’re using today, whether that’s soy, beans, or rice, they don’t have those same functional characteristics,” says Tony Martens, co-founder and CEO of Plantible Foods. “Long story short: We thought, Okay, why don’t we identify a protein that can actually mirror those characteristics of meat? And we came across RuBisCO.”
Plantible Foods’ journey began in a small greenhouse in the eastern part of the Netherlands, where Martens and his co-founder, Maurits van de Ven, built their own rectangular lemna pond, before taking over a larger algae farm in San Diego. After turning RuBisCO into a flavourless protein powder, they found it behaved in much the same manner as egg white, whey, or casein—which allowed them to create cheese-, dairy-, and meat-like textures in snacks, smoothies, baked goods and dinner foods.
Meat was a constant presence on Martens’ plate growing up in the Netherlands, so he knows that Plantible’s success rests on a product “where the taste is good and it’s convenient to eat.” But don’t sleep on lemna’s sustainability—it might just be the most protein-efficient crop in the world. Growing on the surface of water and doubling in mass every 48 hours, lemna allows Plantible to significantly reduce their water footprint while maintaining a consistent indoor harvest throughout the year. Ultimately, lemna is 100 times more protein-efficient as soy, 400 times more protein-efficient as peas, and a whopping 50,000 times more protein-efficient as beef. “Lemna paves the way for an accelerated transition towards a healthier planet,” Martens says.
Over in Singapore, the team at Shiok Meats is also driven by sustainability, launching their venture in order to feed a growing global population without putting additional pressure on the world’s oceans. “Asia is the largest consumer, importer, and exporter of seafood in the world, but when we started in 2018, nobody was thinking about cell-based seafood or any alternative to seafood on our home turf,” says Shiok CEO Sandhya Sriram. She rattles off a laundry list of seafood’s environmental costs: crustacean agriculture alone emits more carbon dioxide than the cultivation of poultry or pork; in the past 40 years, shrimp farms have taken over more than 1.5 million hectares of mangroves, one of the largest carbon sinks in the world; and on average, every pound of wild shrimp caught results in 18 to 20 pounds of bycatch.
Because the academic research for cell-based crustaceans is far scarcer than for their animal counterparts, Shiok Meats does all their research in-house, leading them to create the world’s first cell-based lobster, crab, and shrimp. “Shrimp has only one type of tissue—it’s all muscle—so the structure is less complex than a piece of steak,” Sriram explains. Shiok (named after Malay slang for “delicious”) makes minced shrimp, shrimp paste, and shrimp powder, but the team is looking into 3D structures as a next step—they could even 3D-print the shrimp tail.
“We have some major milestones to conquer in the next year,” says Sriram. But she knows exactly where Shiok Meats is headed: “Eventually, our mission is to be on the plate of everyone looking for animal-friendly, health-friendly, and environment-friendly sources of protein in their diet.”