Visionaries are stepping up with
sustainable food production methods.
sustainable food production methods.
Innovation thrives in the food industry, just as it does in the automotive realm. Global forces continually prompt more experimentation and exploration. As recently as last decade, restaurants like Spain’s El Bulli and Chicago’s Alinea and London’s The Fat Duck made waves by offering dishes of modernist cuisine by at first turning sauces into foams and, later, gin and tonics into pill-sized edibles. These chefs took tools from laboratories—alginates, liquid nitrogen, centrifuges, vacuum distillers—and brought them into the kitchen. And some of these tools, such as the water circulator, have become today’s new kitchen gadgets.
But, really, the future of food has less to do with kitchen gadgets and everything to do with how to feed the planet’s growing population in an environment radically different from the one that’s fed humanity since the dawn of existence. Right now, the race is on, and where does that start? For one company, it begins innocently enough—with mayonnaise.
You may have seen the product Just Mayo at a grocery store. Sitting innocently enough in a plastic squeezable container on the shelf, the product looks like any other mayonnaise. But its origins couldn’t be more different, and they represent the tip of the iceberg in the growing wave of future foods.
A visit to the headquarters of JUST—Just Mayo’s creator, in San Francisco’s Mission District—is a quintessentially post-modern experience, representing, as CEO Josh Tetrick said, a mashup of ideas and industries. “We’re a technology company mixed with a food company,” he said, sitting underneath some panel screens at one end of the company’s sprawling open office space. This space, bustling with the energy of an old-school newspaper press room, was surrounded by various rooms housing the technological side of the operation in the form of robotic arms and vending machine-sized computers.
JUST’s process involves mining the world’s 350,000-plus forms of plant tissue for proteins and molecules whose properties can be harnessed to recreate food products. To this end, they have a vast plant library compiled by a forager who goes out into the world looking for seeds, leaves, roots, and other plants with appealing and unique properties, including emulsion, gelation and viscosity.
Plants’ molecular structures are then analyzed by robotic systems borrowed from the pharmaceutical and biotech industries. When a potentially useful molecule is found, it gets deeply analyzed via chromatography and spectrometry for everything from mineral and protein structures to nutritional value and allergens. When something passes favorably through all of this, food scientists figure out how to get it into usable form, and a team of chefs learns how to cook with it.
Learn more about JUST Mayo, Clean Meat, and Scramble.
The first hero of JUST’s research was the Canadian yellow pea, whose protein’s emulsive properties allowed it to be whipped into a light, creamy sauce, taking the place of eggs in mayo. The next star was the mung bean, which contains proteins that, when isolated, can coagulate into a new product, Just Scramble. A chef at the facility formerly known as Hampton Creek poured a dollop of Just Scramble or plant-based eggs into a pan and scrambled them up for me. They looked and felt eerily similar to real scrambled eggs, and a pinch of grey, sulfurous salt completed the flavor match (as the hint of sulfur mimicked the flavors of a yolk). It’s being served at a historic cafe in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood, mixed with mushrooms and spinach. In addition to Just Scramble, I tasted a gelato substitute made from the same mung bean isolate, and it was spot on—creamy, fatty and delicious—fitting into line with a host of vegan cookies, salad dressings, and other spreads.
But egg substitutes made from plant proteins may end up being a relatively tame—albeit crucial—step along JUST’s evolution. In 2017, the company tossed its hat into the ring of companies wanting to produce what could be an even bigger innovation: clean meat. While Tetrick doesn’t love the term—“it makes it sound like all other meat is dirty”—it’s what is being used for now. (SuperMeat, Memphis Meats and Mosa Meat are working in the same space.)
But all other meat, comparatively, could be seen as dirty when grown on an industrial scale. Clean meat, which can be grown from an animal’s single cell, promises to avoid such pitfalls. Forecasts suggest it will use 99 percent less land, 50 percent less energy and 96 percent less water while producing 96 percent fewer greenhouse emissions.
Tetrick’s engineers suggested that a clean meat facility would more resemble a winery than any sort of feed yard, slaughterhouse or packing facility. And almost anything could be possible—foie gras, bluefin tuna belly or heritage chicken varieties without force-feeding a goose, trawling an ocean or overcrowding a henhouse. “Producing an incredibly marbled A-5 Kobe beef would be easier than producing a lean steak,” the engineer said, as fat is a simpler substance to grow than meat.
Plants’ molecular structures are then analyzed by robotic systems borrowed from the pharmaceutical and biotech industries.
While it’s difficult and somewhat unpleasant to imagine how a vat of fleshlike substance grown in a tank could be handled and packaged to resemble a cut from the animal it’s genetically identical to, JUST plans to have something on the market by the end of this year. I didn’t try any clean meat on my visit to the JUST office, though a few months earlier its staff had sampled an early ground-beef substitute.
Today, substituting for processed meat products—hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken nuggets—seems an easier target than meat’s high end such as tuna belly. To replace just the cows, pigs and chickens that go into our most ubiquitous meat products would go a long way to remedying some of the damage done by industrial meat production.
Saviors in the soil?
Of course, clean meat is a solution to only one future problem. After all, the food these meat cells will need to grow comes from plants. What happens if farming zones become unusable—say a second dust bowl consumes the Midwest, swollen rivers turn surrounding lands into flood zones, and rising oceans consume coastal areas? Where will crops be grown?
One answer to that question is cities. Urban farms can have numerous advantages over traditional ones, said Nicole Baum, director of marketing for New York-based Gotham Greens. “Right now, 98 percent of greens grown domestically are coming from California or Arizona,” she said. “That means that these perishable products are shipped cross-country at considerable expense, not to mention resources.” Furthermore, is it safe to so heavily rely upon an ecosystem whose future may be ever more drought-stricken?
Gotham Greens hydroponically grows year-round, pesticide-free produce such as basil, arugula, bok choy, kale and numerous lettuces on rooftop greenhouses in New York and Chicago. Already with 170,000 square feet of rooftops under cultivation, the profitable company has several expansions in the works.
Hydroponics, which replaces soil with nutrient-rich water, has some advantages over traditional farming, Baum said. For one, the area under cultivation can be up to 30 times more productive, as densely planted crops don’t need large root systems to find nutrients. Furthermore, Gotham Greens customizes these nutrient recipes, as each plant “has its own nutritional needs,” Baum said. “For example, basil may need more potassium, arugula may need more magnesium.” Beyond sunlight, their facilities are powered by 100 percent renewable electricity and non-GMO seeds. The company recycles all of its irrigation water, enabling the use of about one-tenth the amount of water as traditional soil based practices. Gotham Greens produces over 20 million heads of lettuce a year and sells to hundreds of supermarkets, restaurants and caterers throughout the Northeast and Midwest. In the case of Gotham Greens’ rooftop greenhouse built on top of Whole Foods in Brooklyn, the produce is harvested each morning, then taken down to the store, converting food miles into food footsteps.
In the future, this system will become even more high tech, as several proposals exist to make entire skyscrapers of vertical farms. As the cost of power comes down and LED lighting becomes more efficient, urban farmers can use hydroponics and more precise control of light wavelength to make agriculture more efficient.
These innovations require a rethinking of some of our favorite food mores. What happens to the “local and seasonal” mantra that has propelled the modern cooking revolution? Will an item be accepted as meat if it doesn’t come from an animal? Only time will tell.