Getting to the Root of Our Outdated Food System
It’s time to question and challenge our global agricultural and seafood supply chain with a new wave of bold and innovative solutions.
Extinction Rebellion activists highlight overfishing during the March for Nature on the final day of their two-week Impossible Rebellion on September 4, 2021 in London. Mark Kerrison / In Pictures / Getty Images
While producing enough food to eat is as basic as human civilization itself, there are times, historically, when following traditional methods falls short. During such crises, survival can depend upon migration or innovation. We are now challenged by the upper limits of our planet to produce enough food sustainably and responsibly to meet growing demand in the face of a more existential threat – the climate crisis.
The latest IPCC report tells us that today’s challenges are a “code red for humanity,” and the recent UNFCCC COP 26 Conference in Glasgow, where I was asked to speak, brought leaders from nations around the world together to sound the alarm.
Yet, upon returning from COP 26, I am very disappointed with the lack of attention paid to two of the root causes of climate change – our global agricultural supply chain and the declining health of our ocean. The former is particularly relevant as we gather with loved ones during the holidays each year, feeling gratitude for the delicious meals bringing us together and savoring the comforting meat, poultry, and seafood that fill our tables. But how did this abundance actually make it to our kitchen, and at what cost?
The food industry accounts for over one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions, originating from the ways in which we produce, process, and package food. The land-based livestock industry has finally started to face public criticism for receiving government subsidies that artificially lower the real costs associated with its intensive practices, but the problems have been far from addressed. And by comparison, the ocean-based seafood industry, which also receives subsidies in some nations, has long gone unnoticed in terms of growing geopolitical and environmental challenges including overfishing, bycatch, illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, and environmental contaminants that are increasingly found in our ocean and our seafood supply.
The Holy Grail of Alternative Protein
So, how do we ethically feed our growing population within our planetary limitations? Moving away from animal products has been one solution, with some consumers now opting for a flexitarian or “reducetarian” diet in which they consciously and gradually reduce consumption of animal-based products over time. Entrepreneurial startups, followed by big food companies, have recognized plant-based alternatives as a solution for this consumer shift and now we see these products in almost every protein category. Plant-based milk and dairy alternatives were the first category to demonstrate success, now representing about a 15% market share in the U.S., whereas plant-based meats are increasing their market share but still represent only about 1.4% of the retail U.S. meat market. In addition to plant-based solutions, there are now many startups utilizing a second technology solution, via fermentation, to develop alternative protein products.
While these two alternative technologies will continue to play an important role in our food system journey, their application is limited to certain categories of food products and may be challenged to meet the levels of sensory experience that consumers expect. Plant-based and fermentation technologies can play a significant role as consumers transition to a flexitarian, reducetarian, vegetarian or even vegan diet. However, these technologies fall short of creating solutions for more value-added and center-of-the-plate protein options like delicious seafood filets, steaks, chicken breasts, pork, and other items that are loved by consumers worldwide.
Fortunately, there is now a third solution which I call the “holy grail” of food technology, utilizing cell-cultured processes that can result in the same sensory, nutritional and other characteristics as conventional protein products. These are real animal products created from the very cells of animals, that can provide sashimi quality bluefin tuna, wagyu steak, chicken breasts, pork chops and other items anchored in the familiar flavor, aroma, mouthfeel and experience of what we know and love, but without the guilt or negative externalities associated with consuming the conventional farmed or wild counterpart. These are products that can revolutionize the food industry, cutting the emissions associated with the harmful agriculture practices in every protein category without asking consumers to go plant-based or otherwise compromise on taste. These are products that have the potential to safely, ethically and sustainably feed a growing population – one that will require a 70% increase in food production by 2050 in a world that already uses 50% of habitable land for agriculture.
Looking to the Past, Present and the Future
Cell-cultured foods may sound like science-fiction, but so did a round Earth, the automobile (and now the electric car), the telephone (and now cordless smart phones), the personal computer, internet, commercial space travel, or even the kitchen microwave. It took teams of smart individuals with creativity, determination, experience, expertise, funding, and resolve to manifest the world that they envisioned.
Just as the computer sector first began about fifty years ago, in the 1970s, yet is still seeing continual innovation five decades later, the food industry will experience a similar revolution starting in the 2020s. There are now over 70 companies developing cell-cultured meat inputs or end products around the world, racing against a code red alarm from the planet, to develop food products of all types, from red meat to seafood, all without animals. I see teams of talented entrepreneurs, innovators, scientists, engineers, food technologists, and change-agents, who seek to create a better system, proving evermore that the human condition for adaption, ingenuity, and survival is alive and well.
At small scale, companies have already shown that it is possible to produce real meat, poultry, and seafood products via cell-cultured technology, using animal cells to produce just the portion that people like to eat. No company in this emerging field has yet proven that cell-cultured foods can be manufactured economically at large-scale, but when this is accomplished, humans will have unlocked one of the greatest global achievements of the 21st century, transforming the food system into one that prioritizes biodiversity, conservation, environmental health, food security, human health, regenerative agriculture, and the welfare of animals and humans.
Scaling a Much-Needed Solution
The primary challenge to the cell-cultured industry will ultimately not be regulatory issues nor consumer adoption, but scale production and the ability to demonstrate profitability and significant production capacity. For example, profitability will be more challenging for cell-cultured protein products that focus on commodity applications, such as ground and formed hamburgers, patties, and nuggets. Conversely, profitability will likely be much more attainable for whole muscle, center-of-the plate products, like beef filets(e.g. ribeye steaks) or seafood portions (e.g. bluefin tuna), as these command a far greater price-point in their conventional form, and the benefits of this process can even enable premium pricing. As economies of scale are ultimately realized, cell-cultured companies will be able to focus on species and product forms that command high volume, instead of high value, and expand market presence. However, once companies have fully developed their commercialization processes and built their first large-scale factories, it will still take extraordinary capital to replicate these factories around the world to generate significant market share of this trillion-dollar animal protein market.
While some amount of private investment has supported the industry to date, more public and philanthropic support is needed if we are to reboot our agricultural systems in time to meet climate goals. Today, we are greatly subsidizing and supporting the conventional agricultural industry. This same level of support (or higher) should be allocated to benefit the research, innovation, and progression of new alternative protein segments in order to accelerate their capital and operating requirements, particularly in the near-term.
Public Financing for an Archaic Food System
The UN FAO, in a recent report, indicated that current “public support mechanisms for agriculture in many cases hinder the transformation towards healthier, more sustainable, equitable, and efficient food systems, thus actively steering us away from meeting the Sustainable Development Goals and targets of the Paris Agreement.” Their report makes the compelling case for “repurposing harmful agricultural producer support to reverse this situation, by optimizing the use of scarce public resources, strengthening economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, and ultimately driving a food system transformation that can support global sustainable development commitments. ”Globally, support to agricultural producers currently accounts for a whopping USD $540 billion a year, or 15 percent of total agricultural production value, and this support could reach almost USD $1.8 trillion in 2030.
At any cost, a transition plan from conventional agriculture to other sustainable solutions must be implemented. There has been considerable debate by various stakeholders regarding “true pricing” initiatives – that is the actual costs and pricing of our conventional meat, poultry, seafood, produce, and other agricultural commodities. The intent is to make sure external costs (like costs related to greenhouse gases or biodiversity loss) are included in consumer prices, e.g. by fiscal government policies or price policies of supermarkets or food companies. In addition, farmers have to be paid fair prices too, including all costs they incur and payments for a fair living.
Meanwhile, with enough support to propel these technologies forward, alternative proteins like cell-cultured foods could provide a nutritionally equivalent finished product with close to 100% yield using less water, less land, and tightly controlled processes to maximize efficiency and minimize waste and spoilage. Fresh food can be located closer to the end customer to minimize transport, create higher-paying local jobs, and enhance food security – all without raising and slaughtering an animal. If nations around the world truly want to invest in future-forward, climate action, they must develop programs that support the cell-cultured protein industry, as well as plant-based and fermentation technologies, as this is the only sustainable way to feed our growing population.
There Are No Longer Plenty of Fish in the Sea
While I was in Glasgow, I was also surprised at the lack of conversation around ocean health. The ocean, responsible for providing half the oxygen we breathe, absorbing a third of our CO2 emissions and 90% of global heating, plays an integral role in both the climate crisis and our food system. And while some ocean climate related discussions resulted in broad commitments, the lack of agenda around the ocean felt unacceptable for an event focused on the climate crisis.
There are no longer “plenty of fish in the sea.” Fish consumption has been outpacing world population expansion since 1961 and current seafood production from wild-caught and farm-raised sources cannot keep pace with demand according to the United Nations, which projects a supply chain gap representing 28 million metric tons of new seafood production needed by 2030. Furthermore, as “Blue Foods” gain notoriety and interest from consumers as a “green way to feed more people,” we are creating greater stress on our ocean without addressing the challenges. Not only is the impending seafood deficit a massive food security issue for communities around the world, but the consequences of mistreating our complex ocean ecosystem – a critical carbon sink – will have detrimental effects on the climate.
The truth is that for a long time, the exploitation of our ocean was simply ignored – out of sight and out of mind. Only now are we realizing the huge importance that the ocean ecosystem plays in sustaining life on earth. Alternative protein products like cell-cultured seafood could allow nature to re-wild the ocean, while still providing consumers with delicious, nutritious, contaminant-free seafood. It must become a primary focus for public support and funding if we are to save our ocean ecosystems from collapse while still feeding people.
Take a Seat at the Table of the Future
At COP 26, I was honored with the opportunity to speak alongside other leaders combating climate change through resilient food technologies. This was an opportunity to highlight both the agricultural industry and ocean ecosystem as huge areas of potential climate action and to advocate for alternative protein as a resilient, future-proof solution. While these weren’t major themes at this year’s COP, as the climate crisis unfolds they cannot be left out of the conversation for much longer.
Events like COP are not the only ways to drive change. We are already off to a healthy start, as consumers are actively and aggressively seeking sustainable alternate protein options in their diet; hundreds of entrepreneurial startups in the food tech sector have been established in recent years to address these opportunities; billions of dollars of investment have already occurred in this sector and will continue to escalate; multinational food and pharma companies are entering this space and supporting these startups in various capacities; and national governments are enthusiastically supporting these companies as their successes will result in enhanced food security, lessening reliance on imports, increasing job creation, and increasing sustainable practices.
What we need now is for public investment to fill its empty seat at the holiday dinner table to propel these technologies forward, enabling humanity to feed itself in the decades to come, and to do so in a sustainable way that supports our global goals for resilience and regenerative agriculture.
Lou Cooperhouse is founder, president and CEO at BlueNalu, with a mission is to be the global leader in the manufacturing, marketing and sales of cell-cultured seafood, providing consumers with great tasting products that are healthy for people, humane for sea life, and sustainable for our planet. He received a M.S. in Food Science and B.S. in Microbiology, both from Rutgers University, formerly served as a founder and the executive director of the Rutgers Food innovation Center, and has served as an adjunct professor at the Rutgers Business School.