Locust Schnitzel? Israeli High-tech Firms Cooking Up the Future's Meat Alternatives

These Israeli entrepreneurs aren’t necessarily bent on turning everyone into vegans, but are offering some interesting options for the carnivore

Ido Savir, CEO and founder of Supermeat, November 20, 2018.

“I long for the day I can start eating meat again,” confesses Ido Savir. To be exact, he does taste meat from time to time, but no animal is harmed in its production.

Savir, a conscientious vegan for the last 20 years, is the CEO and founder of Supermeat, one of the only start-ups in Israel or the world that’s developing cultured chicken meat for human consumption. Two years ago, his company took a different direction than most Israeli high-tech companies do, embarking on a crowdfunding campaign.

“It was important for us to get a sense of how the public would respond to a product like this. Not through a survey, but in a wider context,” relates Savir. “One of the rewards for participating in the survey was a coupon for the product, an early order to be delivered five years hence. This enabled us to conduct the most faithful survey one could get. The aim was to raise $100,000. Everyone said there was no chance we’d succeed and that we should aim for $50,000 in order to reach our target.”

In the end, Supermeat raised $250,000, with the support of 5,000 people. “Responses on social media were very favorable – I couldn’t believe it,” says Savir.

Support for initiatives such as Supermeat derives, among other things, from a bitter truth which has become apparent to the industrialized world over the last few decades: Eating meat is disastrous, both morally and from an environmental perspective.

According to UN figures, the meat and milk industries emits toxic gases that are equivalent to 7.1 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year – comprising 14.5% of all manmade polluting emissions. Sixty percent of these are a by-product of raising and slaughtering cows.

Furthermore, unbearable suffering is inflicted on animals during the entire process. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, 44.5 billion chickens, half a billion sheep and 280 million cows are slaughtered annually to meet the world’s appetite for meat. The world’s population is expected to rise to 10 billion by 2050, and this appetite is expected to grow in tandem.

'High steaks'

Despite horrific pictures from slaughterhouses and the efforts of avid vegetarian and vegan activists, as well as articles describing the precise costs involved in producing one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of meat, the global consumption of meat is on the rise.

According to UN and OECD figures, in the year 2025 the average person will consume 35.3 kilograms of meat, 1.3 kilograms more than in 2010. This is despite the fact that the number of vegetarians and vegans is constantly growing.

Ido Savir in the Supermeat labs, November 20, 2018.

In order to find our way to a world without meat we must raise the supply of alternate sources of protein, instead of restricting the variety of foods that people consume. In order to break into the global meat market, valued at $1 trillion, there are people in Israel who are working on technologies to expand our menus and reduce animal suffering.

Several local initiatives are promoting the next generation of Israeli food-tech. There are 311 local companies active in this area. Two months ago, the Innovation Authority announced its support, amounting to 100 million shekels ($27 million) spread over eight years, for a food-tech incubator near Safed. “In addition, we’re supporting another incubator in Ashdod, called The Kitchen, in collaboration with the Strauss Group,” says Ofra Lotan, who is one of the authority’s consultants and examiners.

Even though the Innovation Authority supports food-tech entrepreneurs from the first stages of research and development, through the incubator stage and up to the mature stage, says Lotan, it does not help in matters relating to regulation. It does give grants to support the licensing stages, though. She emphasizes that Israeli food-tech companies also benefit from investments through other innovation channels.

“For example, cultured meat for consumption is based on stem cell technology, which is also supported by the authority.” Lotan adds that the physical proximity of knowledge centers gives a relative advantage to this industry. According to the authority, 30 million shekels were allocated to food-tech initiatives over the last two years.

One of the prominent entrepreneurs in this area, one who is trying to make the Upper Galilee a central food-tech hub, is former Knesset member Erel Margalit, the CEO of the Jerusalem Venture Partners venture capital fund and the head of the National Initiative organization. He spearheaded a government initiative to develop Israel’s outlying areas and to attract international food companies here. According to the plan, says Margalit,

“If such a company wants to set up a development center in the Galilee, the state will finance 40% of employee salaries, up to $10,000 a month. Moreover, the state will grant free land for building such centers and will subsidize 90% of the cost of building them.”

“This is going to be a big area, but it will take years to develop. Not everything that is intellectually interesting or is good for the world can turn into a big company. Venture capital funds must work together with the scientific community and with universities to put Israel on the map,” adds Margalit.

'Proof of concept'

Five years ago, Prof. Mark Post from Maastricht University produced the first cultured meat patty, a $300,000 proof-of-concept venture showing that producing meat for consumption was feasible under laboratory conditions. In brief, cultured meat is based on stem cells which can differentiate into different cell types: fat, muscle, bone, etc.

A sample of muscle cells is taken from an animal, becoming a “bank” of cells that is kept in frozen liquid nitrogen, from which meat can be continuously produced.

Some of these cells are seeded in a large vat that contains a liquid that includes all the ingredients required for cell proliferation: sugars, fats, proteins. The stem cells grow and proliferate up to the required mass, after which they can be turned into the muscle and fat tissue that make up meat.

Can this product be called meat? According to Supermeat’s CEO there is no question that it can. “Ultimately, it’s the same raw products,” explains Savir, who’s been asked this question countless times. “Anyone who’s allergic to meat will also be allergic to this product. It’s like asking if ice that’s made in a freezer and not on an iceberg can still be called ice. Under a microscope, the two [meat] products are biologically identical.”

In the common workspace in the Rehovot lab, which smells sterilized and looks like a hospital ward, there is another start-up down the hall working on producing the meat of the future. Before setting up Aleph Farms, Didier Toubia worked for 20 years as a biotechnology researcher at the Volcani Agriculture Institute. From there he moved into a medical area, managing IceCure Medical and an orthopedic start-up called NLT, which was sold in 2016.

“I then decided to return to the food industry. I believe life is short and that it’s best to devote it to benefiting mankind. I realized that in order to make a real difference, the most suitable place is food. As an observant Jew, I see more and more religious leaders coming out against the eating of meat,” he says.

When it was set up in 2017, Aleph Farms acquired a permit from the Israel Institute of Technology to use technology developed there previously for rehabilitative medicine.

“They knew how to isolate cells from a human patient who has undergone a heart attack, to grow cardiac tissue from these cells and to transplant it back, like a patch. The tissue is reabsorbed by the original organ, with the aim of recovering cardiac function,” explains Toubia. “We take the ability of the tissue to grow in a completely different direction.” The Strauss Group partnered in setting up the company, now supporting Aleph Farms as part of the incubator it manages. Since its inception, Aleph Farms has raised $2.4 million.

“There are two approaches to producing protein from living tissue,” says Toubia. “One says – let’s eat less meat and more protein from other sources, such as insects or plants. I think this approach is valid, but 90% of the world’s population still consumes meat. Meat substitutes have remained marginal. Meat consumption continues to grow by a few percentage points a year.

Even if vegetarians reach 20% of the population, this won’t solve the problem,” he argues. “According to the Paris Agreement, in order to prevent a two-degree rise in the earth’s temperature, on average, the amount of beef we eat must be reduced by 75%, with pork consumption dropping by 95%.

We say that instead of giving people something else to eat, such as grasshoppers or lentils, let them eat meat – we’ll solve the problems associated with it.”

A locust
Naor Friedman

'A bug and fries?'

In addition to cultured meat, there is another source of protein that will soon be available for consumption in Israel. This source lies in insects.

Currently, two billion people around the world (equal to the number of people who own smartphones) are entomophagous, namely, insect-eaters. Throughout history, humans ate a wide variety of arthropods, starting with the ancient Greeks who ate cicadas and up to modern-day Korea, where one can eat the pupae of silkworms. Jewish communities in Yemen and Tunisia used to eat locusts.

Thus, in some ways the Israeli start-up Hargol (grasshopper in Hebrew) is trying to revive old customs, introducing locusts to Israeli menus. Dror Tamir, founder and CEO of this company, vouches that “the locust is the best source of protein in nature. It contains 70% protein, many amino acids and Omega-3, but is low in saturated fats and cholesterol. They have a very mild taste.” He adds that locusts are one of the most suitable creatures for intensive farming.

“Ultimately, we’re looking for something that can be grown in high densities. Producing a kilogram of beef requires 2,000 liters of water, while a kilogram of locust meat requires only two liters. Locusts also reduce the emission of greenhouse gases by 98.8%, and the area required to raise them is much smaller. The process produces almost no waste.”

Hargol’s CEO says that he and his deputy of operations Ben Friedman had been collaborating on some other project. The new venture was propelled forward when the two met Hanan Aviv, Hargol’s technologist. “When I met him, he was already raising locusts for food, making burgers. He believes that insects are the future of the human race. This link with him gave us our big push forward.”

Hargol’s first farm is in the community of Elifelet, not far from Rosh Pina in the Galilee, says Tamir. “The next one will be on the Golan Heights, with a third one planned for the north as well.” He says that Hargol is placing the locust farms in abandoned chicken coops, thereby contributing to the environment. “We want to create new industries in the periphery. We stress this in our contacts with the state, which has yet to contribute a single shekel.”

On the face of it, you couldn’t guess what the powder made by Flying SpArk is made of. It looks like white flour. This is another Israeli startup that’s managed to weave gold from insects, turning fly larvae into powder.

Eran Gronich, the company’s CEO, vows that raising flies “is more efficient than producing cultured meat or plant-based meat. You don’t need hormones or antibiotics.

“It takes only seven days from the time the fly lays eggs until we take the larvae,” explains Gronich. “The larva increases its size 250-fold. With our technology, in which we raise larvae on small trays, in towers with very narrow spaces, we can obtain 400 kilograms per square meter per month.” Gronich says they’re a year away from introducing their product to the market. “This will be the cheapest animal protein on the market,” he asserts.

With that, Gronich adds that for reasons of kashrut they will not be selling their product in Israel, but in places where insects are consumed, such as the Far East and South America. “We’ve discovered that in Nordic countries it’s not a problem either,” he says.

And what does it taste like? “Reactions are very positive. It’s as if you asked me about flour – it has no taste. You can make bread from it, or crackers and croissants. It’s the same, you put it in various other products.”

Which will win, cultured meat or insects? “It depends on how the market responds over the next few years,” figures Supermeat’s CEO Savir. “We’re all into alternate sources of protein. When we talk to companies producing meat, they often say they’re not meat producers but protein producers. In many cases, this won’t be a zero-sum game, but an all-inclusive one.”