The steak will be produced in a laboratory, without cows or slaughterhouses. The hamburger will be made from fermented yeast, and contain not even a gram of meat. Fly larvae will morph into tuna-like food that will be served with calcium-rich grasshoppers and iron-rich worms. Vegetables will be grown in containers set up next to grocery stores. Milk will be produced from chickpeas. Baking ingredients will come ready-mixed inside capsules that will be popped into an oven and emerge as fully formed cakes.
This may sound like a vision for the distant future, but the food revolution has already arrived. Innovations are flooding the market, the realm of food tech is gaining momentum and people are increasingly coming to terms with one overriding fact: The climate crisis demands radical changes in the food we consume and in the way it’s produced. The environmental crisis is aggravated by energy production, transportation, industry and construction, but according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the damage caused by growing and transporting food has more of an impact than any other single factor.
There’s no contesting the fact that a large proportion of greenhouse gas emissions derives from raising animals for food. The production of 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of beef protein generates 30 times more greenhouse gases than the production of 100 grams of tofu. Moreover, 70 percent of the world’s farmland is allocated to growing animal feed. It’s clear today that agriculture is a big part of the problem – but also an essential element of the solution.
And that solution will need to come fast. By mid-century it is estimated that the planet will have another two to three billion mouths to feed (today, there are an estimated 7.7 billion). Moreover, year after year, rapid growth and development in China and India ratchet up the demand for meat. The challenge posed by these developments is clear: how to feed more mouths while reducing greenhouse gas emissions at a time of worsening environmental conditions (rising temperatures, decreased precipitation, etc.)? In other words, how can more food be grown on less land, using less energy and less water?
This challenge is on the minds of government officials, who must plan how to provide food on a mass scale as the environment undergoes dramatic changes; food corporations that want to be on the right side of the market when changes come; and scientists and entrepreneurs who want to harness the spirit of innovation to save the world – and maybe get rich along the way. Given that the world food market is expected to be worth more than $12 trillion dollars, it’s plain that even the smallest shift in humanity’s eating habits could translate into billions of dollars in revenues.
Already now, developments are taking place in multiple directions: from agriculture aided by biopesticides and genetically engineered crops, to personalized nutrition based on gene mapping of consumers. Some of the changes are economically and socially driven; others are health-motivated.
As a journalist, I am interested in developments that offer solutions to the climate crisis. To that end I have spent the past few months on a journey in search of the food of the future that is being cooked up both by innovative farmers and in labs of tech-oriented companies. I have been on tours, encountered a host of innovators and tasted bizarre food. Israel, I have discovered, is on the way to becoming a genuine global food-tech power.
Protein from the sea
Every day, hundreds of thousands of Israelis driving along the coastal highway pass by an innovative farm that grows edible seaweed and algae. They may be unaware of its existence, just as they probably give little thought to the idea that seaweed is likely to constitute a significant part of their diet in the future. The Seakura farm, adjacent to Moshav Mikhmoret, north of Netanya, cultivates seaweed in containers filled with purified seawater. At first glance, it looks like regular seaweed, but in fact it is a special species that was developed over the course of 15 years and contains as much as 30 percent more protein than a serving of chicken breast.
“Everything originated from seaweed,” says Yossi Karta, owner and founder of Seakura. “It was the food consumed by the first fish, from which all forms of life on Earth developed. It is the base of the food pyramid, and for hundreds of years it nourished humans who lived on the coasts. When I think about how billions of people will be fed in the future, I ask myself: Why not go to the biggest resource in the world? After all, 70 percent of the planet is seawater.”
The global seaweed market is already worth $6 billion. The bulk of that market consists of 10 types of brown, red and green seaweed, most of which is grown on farms in East Asia. In many cases, it’s added to various foods for human consumption, and in others it’s used to enrich animal feed.
Seakura’s main product is a green seaweed called Ulva, also fondly known as “sea lettuce,” which does actually have a passing resemblance to terrestrial lettuce.
“This type of seaweed can serve as the nutritional base for millions of people,” says Karta. “It’s rich in calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium and vitamins A and K.”
Non-Asian consumers may not rush to buy sea lettuce, but it has a number of environmental advantages in addition to its nutritional ones, Karta stresses.
“To begin with, it is very effective in transforming the sun’s rays into mass and into protein,” he explains. “It grows all year long, doubles its mass every few days and goes through nine cycles of growth and harvesting a year. In addition, it doesn’t need pesticides, it absorbs carbon dioxide from the air, and its only by-product is clean seawater. It doesn’t need groundwater or freshwater, and uses only minimal electricity – for the mechanism that stirs the water.”
Research shows that using seaweed to feed cattle helps resolve one of the crucial problems that comes with breeding livestock: methane emissions. Cattle consuming seaweed emitted between 80 percent and 99 percent less methane. For humans, eating seaweed offers health benefits: improved functioning of the thyroid gland and growth of helpful intestinal bacteria, as well as reducing blood sugar. As such, seaweed is beneficial for diabetics and helps in weight reduction. Karta, for example, says he weighed 121 kilos (267 pounds) when he entered the seaweed business, several years ago. After he made seaweed a permanent part of his diet, along with a few other changes, he says, he has shed 42 kilos over a few months.
What about the smell? Seaweed usually has a terrible one.
Karta: “That’s because in the sea it dies and then rots and smells bad. Here it doesn’t die, it’s harvested.”
He sounds quite persuasive, but there’s still the question of taste. Seakura sells seaweed whole, both fresh and frozen, and also in the form of dried flakes, which they add to spreads, such as one with sun-dried tomatoes, and can be blended into pasta and bread. In bread the taste is subtle, but in spreads it definitely provides an interesting twist. Most successful with my palate was the fresh seaweed, served with a few drops of lemon. As a lover of vegetables, I was drawn to the shiny green of the seaweed, and the refreshing flavor was a welcome surprise. Even the light sea scent wasn’t a problem.
Is the world welcoming this seafood with open arms? Seakura is exporting to Europe, Canada and Russia (though they won’t release sales figures) Like every startup, it hopes that its message will spread.
Why aren’t you selling in Israel?
Karta: “First of all, this is a small market, so it’s of less interest to us. Besides which, as is the case with other products, the middlemen here inflate the price, so it becomes economically nonviable. In Britain, the supplier sells the seaweed to the consumer at a profit of 130 percent. When we tried to sell it here in Israel, the final price for the consumer was three times higher than what we got, so we dropped the idea.”
Ultimately, he says, what’s more important than selling edible seaweed to the world is exporting the technology of growing seaweed: Karta holds patents on the breeding protocol and the modes of water purification. “I don’t want to manufacture food mileage,” he says, referring to the harmful environmental impact of transporting the product abroad.
Imagining seaweed as a staple of one’s daily diet is not easy, but it’s even harder to get used to the thought of eating insects and small flying creatures. For years we’ve been hearing that, for health, environmental and economic reasons, some of the protein we consume in the future will likely come from insects. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, edible insects contain a high concentration of proteins, vitamins, amino acids, fatty acids and folic acid. Crickets, grasshoppers and flour beetles contain more calcium, zinc and magnesium than a sirloin steak, and buffalo worms (beetle larvae) contain even more iron than red meat.
The environmental advantages are obvious. Insects don’t need much living space or pasturing fields, they multiply quickly, it’s relatively easy to handle them and, in contrast to cattle and sheep, they do not emit greenhouse gases. Insects are consumed as a matter of course today in Africa and East Asia, but there’s still a psychological barrier preventing that in the West.
Several companies in Israel, however, are hoping to break down that barrier. One of them is Flying SpArk, which manufactures protein from the larvae of the Mediterranean fruit fly. Thousands of flies are bred in a net-like facility in the company’s laboratory, housed in premises near the port of Ashdod. The larvae from which the protein is produced are bred on an adjacent platform.
The first thing that hits a visitor to the laboratory is a strong smell, so potent that some visitors (such as myself) have to cover their noses. Keren Kles, the company’s food technologist, points out that it’s the same the first time you enter a cowshed: In the end, you get used to it.
The flies give seaweed a good run for their money in terms of how efficiently they create protein. “They have convenient conditions for reproducing here,” Dr. Kles says. “They are fed with a singular blend that we’ve developed, which includes everything they need and is made from by-products of the food industry. The larva emerges from the egg laid by the fly, starts to eat, and within a week increases its mass by 250 times. Each female lays about 300 eggs, so there is a tremendous potential for protein.”
Following the fattening period, the “processing” begins. Here the larvae are cooked and ground up, the protein is separated and dried, and finally it is ground into a tasteless, odorless white powder.
According to Eran Gronich, Flying SpaArk’s founder-owner and CEO, this is the most efficient way to produce protein.
How does a person come to be grinding up fruit fly larvae for a living? Gronich says that one day he was watching a TED talk about edible insects and was immediately hooked. “The species we breed has high concentrations of iron, calcium, magnesium and dietary fiber,” he says. “They can be bred in large quantities in a small space. We can manufacture 300 to 400 kilos [660-880 pounds] of meat a month, on an area of one square meter. In an era when food-growing land is scarce, that is a tremendous advantage.”
Another advantage of producing protein from insects lies in the proportion between the amount of food the insect requires and the quantity of protein that’s extracted from it. Cattle breeding is strikingly inefficient. A cow needs 25 kilos of food on average for every kilogram of meat that’s produced from it. With poultry the ratio is 3:1. According to Flying SpArk, the ratio for flies can reach 1:1. Another great advantage is that, in contrast to livestock and fowl, fruit flies tend to suffer less from infections.
Gronich observes that vegans too should be potential consumers of products made from fly larvae. “Vegans eat a great deal of soy and wheat,” he says, “and don’t consider that vast amounts of sprays used in growing them. Those pesticides kill a lot more insects than the amount of flies we breed.”
But despite their nutritional and environmental benefits, fly larvae cause what Gronich calls the “yuk effect.” For this reason, the company is working with the food industry to make its larvae protein more palatable. In fact, the final products look quite innocent: a granola bar that contains protein from fly larvae powder, and a food that looks exactly like tuna. Anyone who doesn’t know the source of protein in these products may not have a problem eating them. In my case, however, even though the granola bar looked tempting, I could not bring myself to bite into it. But that didn’t bother Haaretz photographer Tomer Appelbaum: He reported that it tastes just like a regular granola bar and makes a nice snack.
The repulsion I felt did not upset Gronich, who says that response derives from a cultural perception that can change: “If I had told people 30 years ago that they would be eating raw fish on rice, they would have laughed at me. Today, even kids in Israel eat sushi.”
Since it will take time before fly larvae become that popular, Flying SpArk plans to market its products mainly in the form of a supplement to the food industry and less as a consumer item. In the meantime, the fruit-fly business appears to be a fruitful enterprise. Strauss, the giant food company, and the Israel Innovation Authority are investing in Gronich’s company; the world’s biggest tuna manufacturer (Thai Union) has signed an agreement to market its tuna-like product; and a large pastry company in Mexico intends to use protein from larvae in its products beginning next year.
Besides those with high hopes for flies and seaweed replacing other sources of protein, some people are touting mankai, an Asian marine plant, as a superfood. Mankai consists of 45 percent complete protein (meaning it contains all the amino acids needed on a daily basis), and also contains a large proportion of iron, omega 3 and B-12 vitamin, which is usually only found in animals. Studies have found that the iron and protein in mankai are absorbed by the body very effectively, and that it also helps balance sugar levels dramatically. In short, a potentially worthy substitute for meat.
This wonder-plant grows in ponds at an amazing rate, doubling its volume every 72 hours. As it has neither flavor nor odor, it is marketed as a food supplement. Hinoman, an Israeli company based in Kibbutz Be’eri, near the Gaza Strip, sells mankai in the form of frozen cubes or as dry flakes to catering companies in the United States. It’s sold, for example, as an ingredient in both a green shake and a veggie burger in a cafeteria at Harvard University. I tried it in a quiche and in bread, and could not detect its taste. A praline chocolate filled with it had an especially satisfying consistency.
Mankai is just one example of a plant that could replace foods whose production is harmful to the environment and/or to health. Another one is a sweetener based on protein found in tropical plants, which has been developed by Rehovot-based Amai Proteins. This product has none of the drawbacks of white sugar and is 10,000 times as sweet – in other words, one teaspoon of it has the sweetening effect of 50 kilos of sugar. The environmental damage that will be spared when we no longer need to transport immense quantities of sugar around the world is obvious.
Amai Proteins’ eponymous product, marketed on its website as a “sweet designer protein,” is made by fermenting yeast in a process called computational protein building, which creates a sequence of amino acids that does not exist in nature. It has zero calories and is digested as a protein and not as a sugar, so it does not affect blood glucose levels. The product is intended for use in the soft-drink and dairy industries. In a drink I tried that was sweetened with it, I found no difference compared to other popular beverages, nor any aftertaste.
Another Israeli innovation in the realm of food of the future takes the form of an appliance called Genie, marketed as “a kitchen in a box,” which offers an alternative to traditional cooking and baking techniques. The so-called smart oven, developed by two Israelis – Ayelet Karasso and Doron Marco – and based on a technology that transforms pre-sealed pods of freeze-dried ingredients into ready-to-eat food. The machine “scans” a bar code on the pods and prepares the food accordingly – whether by microwaving, baking, cooling, etc. – in three to four minutes.
Situated in Rishpon, Genie Enterprise now sells a range of 17 different dishes that have no chemicals, preservatives, stabilizers or food coloring, ranging from rice and pasta to an apple muffin. The food that comes out of the machine has a surprisingly good flavor and texture. The dish I tried can’t compete with home cooking, but I could definitely imagine it as a reasonable lunch at the office. From an environmental standpoint, each portion is adjusted to the amount consumed by one person, so the device can help reduce food waste, a major global problem. Does it have a future? At present, the company is targeting mainly the American market, and recently signed a contract with one of the country’s largest catering companies.
Meatless at Burger King
While it’s intriguing to ponder alternative protein sources and unusual ovens, probably the most pressing need is to find a meat substitute – not only in terms of nutrition but also from the viewpoint of flavor and texture. Because raising livestock has a more egregious effect on climate and the environment than any other human activity, and because it’s not likely that the human race will abandon steak in favor of seaweed and flies, it’s crucial to come up with a successful imitation.
The world’s two leading companies in devising plant-based beef substitutes are Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, both with headquarters in California. Their goal is to replicate the flavor, texture and appearance of meat, including the singular chemical reaction that’s obtained from roasting it. Impossible Food’s unique invention is a hamburger made of heme, an iron-rich molecule that is present in cow blood and gives meat its distinctive flavor and aroma. Heme is manufactured from fermented yeasts, into which the DNA of soy protein is injected.