Meatless meat, miracle berries and big money. Welcome to the future of food
The world needs more food.
According to current estimates, the earth's population is projected to exceed 9.5 billion people by 2050. It's estimated that food production will have to increase by more than 60 per cent above current levels to feed us all.
Can we do it? Probably. Can we do it while producing food that is safe for humans and animals, nutritious, affordable, sustainable, tastes good, and won't destroy our land, air, and water?
The consensus among participants at the recent Future Food-Tech Summit in San Francisco was no — at least not without making radical changes to what we eat and where our food comes from.
The conference brought together dozens of food startups from around the world, and venture capitalists who could help make their innovative food dreams come true by putting their money where our mouths might be in the next few years.
Some companies were trying to solve rising rates of obesity and diabetes by developing healthier alternatives to sugar.
Others were looking to replace chemical preservatives in food and drink with all-natural options. Still others were working on snacks, ice cream and beverages made from plants.
The main focus of many of the more than 500 participants was on finding alternatives to meat.
Global meat consumption continues to increase every year, thanks in part to rising standards of living in Africa and Asia.
Meat consumption poses huge environmental challenges. According to a 2012 study published in the journal Animals, it takes about six kilograms of feed, 1,700 litres of water and six square metres of land just to produce a single quarter-pound hamburger. The process releases nearly two kilograms of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.
That's why just about everyone at the food conference agreed that dramatically reducing our consumption of meat will be a critical element in the food system of the future.
Several companies at the conference were promoting plant-based alternatives to meat. Two of them, Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, already have plant-based burgers available in some grocery chains and restaurants.
Others were backing "clean meat," a more radical and risky entry in the alt-meat sweepstakes. Instead of replacing meat, these products use animal cells to actually create meat in the lab.
The process is called cellular agriculture, and it holds out the prospect of divorcing meat production from the raising and killing of animals.
You can't find clean meat in grocery stores yet, but its boosters predict we'll be seeing clean chicken and fish in the next year or two, and clean burgers within five years.
Funding future food
Turning the dream of cellular agriculture into reality, however, will require a great deal of money — hundreds of millions over the next few years.
The first clean meat burger, developed by a Dutch scientist in 2013, cost $330,000. Much of that money came from Google co-founder Sergey Brin.
But the pay-off for alt-meat investors could be huge. Carving out even a tiny slice of the hundreds of billions of dollars spent every year on meat translates into a lot of cash.
But it's not just alt-meat that's eating up millions of investor dollars. Bringing any new food product to market is expensive and time consuming.
A couple of geeks in a garage can develop a killer piece of software and not have to spend a lot of time or money doing it. That's not the case if you're trying to get a new food product onto grocery store shelves, where there are safety and regulatory hurdles to overcome and consumer preferences that are often well entrenched.
That's one reason why many of the smaller food tech startups at the future food conference have historically struggled to attract investor interest.
"Investors here in Silicon Valley are looking for software companies," explained Wes Selke, co-founder and managing director of Better Ventures of Oakland, Calif., one of the venture funds represented at the future food conference.
"They're looking for capital efficiency, really high gross margins, rapid growth rates, which is ideal for marketplaces or social media types of opportunities."
In other words, food has not been on their investment menu.
On a mission
But that's now starting to change, thanks to funds like Better Ventures, which calls itself a "mission focused" fund.
Our mantra is make money, do good … and if we fail on one of those counts we feel like it will be a failure.- Wes Selke
"Our mantra is make money, do good … and if we fail on one of those counts we feel like it will be a failure," said Wes Selke, who was on the prowl at the San Francisco conference looking for promising new food startups.
"If we make a lot of money, but we ultimately don't create a lot of good, we don't view that as successful, nor would our investors view that as successful."
Mission-focused investors are providing critical seed money, often in the range of a million dollars or more, to food startups that have historically been overlooked by venture funds who measure success on the bottom line.
They've been the key to the success of companies like Alpha Foods, a plant-based food company that operates out of California.
"Our initial investor base has mostly been mission-focused investors who are promoting plant-based food products as a way to address animal welfare issues, as well as climate change and just being better stewards of the planet," said co-founder Cole Orobetz, who is based in Calgary.
The number of mission-focused funds has exploded in the last few years as more and more investors have been seized by the need to make radical changes to our food system, but also see the opportunity for substantial returns.
"We have a thesis that mission driven companies can actually out-perform the market," explained Selke.
Much could be riding on whether they succeed.
Our current food system is not working well for humans, animals or the planet. And it is likely not sustainable as we prepare to welcome another couple of billion hungry mouths over the next 30 years.
The system likely requires major change, rather than mere tinkering.It will require people with big new ideas and people with big bucks to help make those ideas fly.
The food innovators who show up at conferences like this, and the investors who share their mission, could be our best hope for a better food future.
For more from the Future Food-Tech Summit, click on the "listen" button above to hear Ira Basen's radio documentary, Table Stakes. Ira will introduce you to more food entrepreneurs and investors, who want to radically change what you're serving for dinner — and make big money doing it.