Spark

From lab-grown meat to molecular coffee: How tech is disrupting the food industry

With plant-based burgers, bean-free coffee and the proliferation of insect farms, experts say alternative foods are on the verge of upending the traditional agriculture and livestock industries.

‘Once you get to the point where it’s better, it’s over for the cow,’ says research analyst

Lab-grown meat is cultivated from stem cells and doesn't require the slaughter of livestock. (David Parry/Reuters)
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With plant-based burgers, bean-free coffee and the proliferation of insect farms, experts say alternative foods are on the verge of upending the traditional agriculture and livestock industries.  

"We are going to see a decline in conventional livestock products over the next generation as consumers shift to use these other products," Evan Fraser, Canada research chair in global food security, told Spark host Nora Young. 

"And I say that as not a vegetarian, [but] as someone who loves steak and ice cream."

Catherine Tubb, senior research analyst from technology disruption think-tank RethinkX, agrees, and says that shift is "all about economics."

"This is not about a need," Tubb said. "Animals in general are quite inefficient, so if you can do something more efficiently, it's going to be kind of cheaper and better by the standards."

Experts say traditional livestock won't be as in-demand as meat alternatives enter the market. (Leonhard Foeger/Reuters)

A September report from RethinkX, titled "Rethinking Food and Agriculture 2020-2030," suggests that we're on the edge of the biggest food disruption since the agricultural revolution, and it's mostly based on precision biology.

"That's the ability for essentially to get microbes, or micro-organisms, to make protein," Tubb said.

"You could produce anything, any proteins, either existing or not existing."

The report predicts that the demand for products from cows in the U.S. will fall at least 70 per cent by 2030, eventually rendering it "obsolete" as a food source. 

More than just a trend 

Meat and its alternatives are by far the biggest part of the conversation. 

Fraser says some consumers are pulling away from conventional livestock products in what he calls a "well-documented rise in what might be considered ethical consumerism."

Beyond Meat has claimed that its plant-based burgers are healthier than beef burgers, but Fraser warns that it is relative to a person's lifestyle.

Questions remain about whether or not the beyond burger qualifies as a healthier alternative to a beefy patty. (CBC)

"You're getting more fat out of the beef, but you're getting better protein. You're getting more fibre though out of the plant-based burger, but more salt," Fraser said. "So there's some nutritional trade-offs."

What's more, he says lab-grown meat — which is derived from stem cells, but no animals are raised or killed to produce it — could soon become much more affordable, thanks to advances in science. The world's first test-tube hamburger in 2013 cost about $425,000 to make, according to CBC News.

Not just meat

But it's not only the meat industry facing a disruption.

One Ontario distillery is fermenting vodka using leftover milk permeate. And with climate change is affecting farming production for coffee beans, an uncertain future is ahead for that industry, too. 

Coffee farmers are moving uphill for cooler temperatures, leading to deforestation.

"Half of the coffee farms are going to have to move in the next 30 years," said Andy Kleitsch, CEO and co-founder of Atomo Molecular Coffee, a Seattle-based company working to produce "molecular coffee" from chemical compounds, mimicking coffee's caffeine and flavour.

One Seattle-based company is working to produce 'molecular coffee' from chemical compounds, mimicking coffee's caffeine and flavour. (Submitted by Atomo Molecular Coffee)

"What we hope is that by using our coffee and by supplying our coffee that consumers won't be held responsible for further deforestation to grow that coffee."

"That's how the journey really started, [with my co-founder Jared Stopforth] looking at that morning cup and thinking, 'This has got to be better.'"

Insects are also becoming a popular protein-rich alternative to more traditional meals. 

Jakub (Kubo) Dzamba, a cricket farmer at Third Millennium Farming in Mississauga, Ont., says he thinks that in the next couple decades, home cricket farms will become popular.

"Once you try one, the hardest one you ever going to eat is the first one," he said. "It's really normal. [They] taste like roasted almonds."

Adapting to new food

While edible insects and molecular coffee may be hard for the broader public to swallow at first, Fraser says the tides are turning. 

He brought up the example of sushi, a food he says was once seen as a novelty and unusual in North America. 

"Tastes change quite quickly and what is yucky to one generation isn't yucky to another," he said. "There's adventurous eaters that shift easily [and] some very traditional eaters that will never shift, but the population as a whole adapts quite quickly in these things."

Jakub (Kubo) Dzamba, founder of Third Millennium Farming, is trying to make cricket farms more accessible. (Althea Manasan/CBC)

Tubb thinks of food as a software, becoming tastier with each iteration.

"Every time we cook we're making it slightly better, we're improving it …. but instead of doing our own food, will we have to have it designed for us," she said.

"With a cow or any other animal, we've kind of reached the limits of possibilities of how to improve it in terms of the taste and texture.  … Once you get to the point where it's better, it's over for the cow."

Written by Chelsey Gould. Interviews produced by Adam Killick, Kent Hoffman and Nora Young.

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