On August 26-28, 2019, I attended the Alternative Protein and Dairy Show, at the Nemo Museum in Amsterdam. This event focuses on new alternatives for animal products, giving a lot attention to tech, startups and finance. It’s organized by the organized Kind Earth Tech. I found it incredibly inspiring, so here’s a report of some of things I learned and some of the people I connected with.
One of the newest and most spectacular technologies that I was only vaguely familiar with thus far, is air based protein. You read that right: there’s not only plant-based, cell-based, algae-based and fungi-based, but now also air-based protein. The idea was presented by Lisa Dyson, who is with a company called Kiverdi that produces Air Protein, building on a NASA project. In their research on how to feed astronauts on long missions in space, NASA discovered a special class of microbes (hydrogenotrophs), which can convert carbon dioxide into food – just like plants can – with the help of water and power. The food would be eaten by the astronauts, who would be exhaling CO2 again, and so on, in a perfect cycle.
What the scientists at Kiverdi are developing with air protein now, should be a complete protein, with a similar amino acid profile to meat, that takes CO2 out of the air, uses ten thousand times less land and two thousand times less water than soy protein, grows in hours (not months), independently of season and weather conditions. Besides being totally flabbergasted, my main response to this was that it has to be too good to be true. But what if it isn’t? In any case, my guess is we’re going to hear a lot more about this technology in the coming years. It just might be a total gamechanger.
I’m glad I haven’t eaten shrimp in twenty years, because Sandhya Sriram from Shiok Meats told me how they are made.** Of the seventy to eighty percent that are farmed (as opposed to wild-caught), most shrimp are grown in sewage water or actual runoff water from farms and slaughterhouses. The biggest shrimp farms are situated within a five kilometer radius around slaughterhouses. Shrimp are bottom feeders that thrive in gut. When they come out of this slurry, they are black, so they need to get bleached. Finally, add penicillin and fungicide, and the de-shelling, very often in bad conditions by slave-laborers without fingernails, can begin. Oh, and did I mention the hormones and steroids that are injected in the shrimp to make them bigger?
Shiok Meats is in the business of producing cell-based shrimp in Singapore, where people eat about eighty kg of seafood per year (the record-holder is Hong Kong, where about seventy percent of the nine million population eats 144 kg of seafood per year, on average). Sandhya Sriram, Shiok Meats’ CEO and co-founder, found five million dollars in funding for her company, and is very confident that they can launch a product in the next twelve months and disrupt the forty billion dollar shrimp market. She would like to keep the shrimp sellers in business, and to just give them a better product to sell. Her biggest challenge, as it is for other cell-based meat growers, is to find a suitable and affordable plant-based medium for the cells to grow in.
A vegan egg farmer, questioning his own product
Ruud Sanders is a farmer who co-founded the company Kipster. Sanders’ project started when he realized it might be unethical to feed grain that was perfectly suitable for people, to chickens. It led him to ask how we would feed the growing world population and what – if anything – was the role of animals in it?
Kipster (open for visits any day) is the only egg company in the world – or so Sanders states – where the chickens are exclusively fed with rest products. Europe has about ninety million tons of rest products available, of which only five million tons are used for animal feed. Sanders isn’t sure that a vegan diet is the most sustainable of all, given that we wouldn’t be able to feed these rest products to people (he referred to the book Meat: a benign extravaganza, by Simon Fairlie, and to a thesis by Hanne Van Zanten at Wageningen University).
Still, Sanders is a vegan himself, as he has a hard time believing that even his high-welfare farm is animal-friendly enough. I always get moved when people dare to show their doubting and searching in public, and this is exactly what Sanders did. He seemed conflicted, and having a chicken farm, believes that we need to work towards a future in which we don’t use animals, for ethical reasons. To achieve that goal, we need to find solutions to the following issues: 1. produce good alternatives to meat, 2. find something to do with the rest products (like find ways to use them as food, not feed) and 3. fertilizer without animals involved.
You may wonder why this vegan is still in the egg business? I’ve agreed to do an interview with him so you might read the answer on this blog some day.
Algae to the rescue
Algae seem to be another miracle resource. From Rob Achterberg from Back of the Yards Algae Sciences, I learned that of the one million plus algae in the world, there are 700.000 microalgae, of which only 60.000 have been described by scientists, of which a mere 20 are used in human food. Algae can be considered as the foundation of all life, and we are still discovering how we can use them for the good. The applications are numerous. Phycocyamin, from spirulina, is the only natural blue colorant, safe, stable and tasteless. Cholella flour can be used in baking products. The so-called A501 is a natural biostimulant that can speed up the growth of plants with thirty percent – a great way, perhaps, to make vertical agriculture more cost-effective. Algae can also be used to replace the bovine serum medium to grow cell-based meat. Both Gardein and Beyond Meat have been experimenting with adding algae flour to improve taste and texture – with the additional benefit that algae are cheap!
Peace of Meat & Meatable
I was surprised to learn about a cell-based initiative coming from my own country, Belgium. Dirk Von Heinrichshorst (apparently an alias) and his team at Peace of Meat will be creating cell-based foie gras, together with a consortium consisting of the University of Leuven and several companies. They want to keep part of their findings open-source, and as such it is a unique project. They are now preparing an application for a four million euro grant by the Flemish government. Fingers crossed.
A more established cell-based meat company is Meatable, founded by Daan Luining, who previously worked together with Mark Post. Their company is already between thirty and forty people strong, and is now hosted in a bio-incubator space owned by the company DSM in Delft, which gives them access to world-reknowned experts. Meatable takes the stem cells from the umbilical cord of a cow (just once), and doesn’t use bovine serum, but an animal-free one, which unfortunately so far is still quite expensive. Meatable has a very clear aim of producing the holy grail of meat: steak.
Which future for farmers?
A question that was quite present during the whole conference, and thatwill become more prevalent in the future as more and more people are believing that the plant-based revolution is actually happening, is what will happen to the farmers. Wageningen University philosophy Professor Cor Van Der Weele (see my interview with her) has studied farmers’ reactions to cell-based meat more than most. Maybe, she ventured, we can only talk about responsable innovation if that innovation is not too disruptive for small scale farmers. We have to take into account, she said, that the heroes of today (the clean meat entrepreneurs) might be the villains (the Monsantos) of tomorrow.
Van Der Weele presented farmers with a “pig in the backyard” scenario, where a well-treated neighbourhood pig serves as stem cell donor, with the cell cultivation happening in small and local clean meat factories. Responses to this scenario by farmers and civilians alike are mixed. Some are very sceptical about the fit with farmers’ identities, but others were really curious. Many farmers are worried about the gap between them and society, feeling unacknowledged, misunderstood and underpaid. They are looking for a way to reconnect with society. What if clean meat might be a way to do just that?
At the heart of the discussions about clean meat and other food tech innovations is the split between what Van Der Weele, using the terminology of author Charles Mann, calls the wizards and the prophets, or the ecomodernists versus the green luddites. It’s the discussion about controlling nature versus being one with nature, between technological and attitude change, between innovation and deeper transformation. Van Der Weele herself is ambivalent regarding these choices, and the future will tell who is right.
Benjamina Bolag, from London cell-based company Higher Steaks said there are basically three possibilities for the farmers, should clean meat really break through: 1. mini production of clean meat by local farmers, 2. large scale production by large processors (but will they also grow the cells themselves?), 3. re-education and re-orientation of the farmers.
During a round table we heard from Leon, a Limousin cow beef farmer in the south of the Netherlands. His farm is already higher welfare than most (calves stay with their mother for ten months, and adults spend almost ten months outside, in nature). Yet he would like to see what he can do to produce clean meat on his farm, and use his cows to produce cell-based meat.
Like Van Der Weele, I personally have doubts that small scale clean meat production could ever compete with the economies of scale the large producers have. We can all bake our own bread, but how many of us are doing that? In any case, we do have a system in place right now where farmers have access to capital for investments in equipment. So one condition for them to get into cell-based meat has been met. On the other hand, of course, many farmers struggle with the loans on long-term investments in machinery that they still have to pay off. Some sort of transition funds might be necessary.
Other stakeholders in the chain are the providers of feed. I heard that feed companies like Cargill are extremely interested in the developments, betting on the idea that they might be the ones to provide the medium for the cells to grow in. Speaker Joost Matthijssen works for Nutreco, a leading global animal nutrition company, headquartered in the Netherlands. They are the largest producer of feed for aquaculture, for instance, but are very open to embrace new technologies. They want to explore how they can help providing ingredients for the clean meat medium, and are ready to make investments in clean meat – a decision, Matthijssen said, supported at the highest levels of the privately owned company.
Open source or patented technology?
We had an interesting round table discussion about whether clean meat and other food tech should be developped open source-wise or protected by patents. As Claire Smith pointed out, developments have been mainly done by companies rather than by universities because companies are the structures people have deemed fit to pour enough money into. Cell meat researcher Mark Post, for instance, first received government money to do his work, but when that ran dry, he had to start a company, Mosa Meats, to be able to raise venture capital. And these investors want to make a profit, and open source architecture is usually a problem for them.
Like I said, I left this conference very inspired, and also optimistic. It was, in fact, the third conference for me on a ten day trip. I had attended the CARE conference on animal rights in Warsaw, and a Proveg conference in Berlin, strategizing around plant-based foods before this one. All three conferences were great, but it was this one, in Amsterdam, with its emphasis on business, tech and finance, that left me the most enthusiastic. It left me wondering whether what is happening in the private sector might not be more impactful than what’s happening in the NGO sector (see this post on this question). I had a brief chat about this with Olivia Fox Cabane, founder of Kind Earth Tech, and other of the alternative protein maps. Her opinion was that the NGO sector has been and is extremely important in helping to create demand by raising awareness. Moreover, what animal rights and vegan groups do is influence a couple of individual changemakers, and give them ideas to change the world. Many of the present gamechanging entrepreneurs have been woken up and driven to their present projects by activists. We may not reach the big masses, but it’s a quality rather than a quantity thing.
Last but not least, the Amsterdam edition of the conference was organized by Ira Van Eelen, who is not just a very well connected and proactive woman in the clean meat space, but is also the daughter of the late Willem Van Eelen, who died in 2015 at 92 years old, and who was very instrumental in getting the clean meat idea on the agenda of researchers and politicians. I had the good fortune of interviewing him a few years before his death, and was moved by his commitment to make this world better for animals. Who knows: without him, this conference might not have happened, and clean meat might be a lot further away.
PS: special thanks to Professor Grunschnabel, who made the hot weather bearable with a constant flow of delicious vegan icecream!
** This is what the speaker explained, but a reader with expertise in the field pointed out to me that it’s not based on reality/is outdated. Need to investigate.