The Future of Food

Sustainable Eating is a Trillion Dollar Industry

By: Grant Brewster (SEAS ‘21)

The future of lab grown meat. Photo from techspot.com

In response to the USDA and FDA having their first-ever (and under publicized) public meeting regarding cellular agriculture this week, I thought it was fitting to write about the growing industry and the business opportunities within it.

Today, we breed cows and grow beef the same way we have been for 10,000 years: force reproduction, fatten them for years, and then slaughter them for the desired, small portion of the entire cow. In this way using animals to grow meat is an incredibly inefficient and outdated process, wasteful of resources like water, land, and food as “payment” for their animals’ hair, bones, complex organs, and a long-life span before slaughter. The massive amount of land needed to feed the cattle has taken its toll on the rainforests. Around 70 percent of all deforestation in rainforest regions is a result of the beef industry–either growing feed or clearing trees for grazing. Brazil alone has 24 to 25 million hectares devoted to the production of soy, 80 percent of which ends up as animal feed. All that soy could instead be used to feed millions of people. In a study recently conducted at Oxford University, it was found that converting protein production to cell cultures opposed to live animals has the potential to emit 96% less greenhouse gases and use 45% less energy, 99% less land, and 96% less water.

Further, the way cattle and chicken farmers keep animals locked up in close quarters before slaughter makes these slaughterhouses a breeding ground for intestinal diseases. As a result, every time we accept some real probability of consuming salmonella, E. Coli, or other harmful intestinal bacterium — these are regularly found on our desired ‘slices’ of animal, transmitted by contact with fecal matter.

Rising meat consumption is disproportionate to rising human population.

Despite all the issues surrounding carnivorous diets, there is a rising meat-craving population across the world: the global market for all meats including fish is around $3 trillion. As a result, startups like Memphis Meats, Wild Type, and Mosa Meat have sprouted up with the hopes of addressing the outdated way of supplying this growing demand. These startups hope to grow actual beef, chicken, fish, and pork in labs from cell cultures where they can create the correct ratio of muscle to fat that consumers want. The goal is to create an alternative meat that is much safer to handle, environmentally sustainable, and lower in saturated fats. Big name investors have taken notice and are pouring money into this field of research. Bill Gates, Richard Branson, major venture capital firms like DFJ, and even protein producing giants like Cargill and Tyson Foods have invested millions of dollars into this rising field of innovation. Tyson’s new CEO, Tom Hayes, has even established a company fund of around $150 million for supporting more sustainable food technology. The United Arab Emirates has also committed to creating the “Silicon Valley of Food Technology” on the outskirts of Dubai in order to propel this research even faster. And the Y-Combinator has named the clean meat industry as one of the nine types of startups they would like to fund in the coming year. Funding opportunities like this are important for companies like Geltor who recently completed a $18.2 million Series A round to use synthetic biology in order to create gelatin products from animal-free collagen.

Photo by Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images.

A few weekends ago I attended the Ivy League Future of Food conference here at Penn and learned a lot about the topics surrounding a future of more sustainable eating. Here, college students from across the Ivies intermingled with leaders in the field and discussed the consumer, investor, and government interest surrounding the future of creating meat alternatives. There were even a few venture capital funds at the conference that are solely focused on investing in the future of food, be that clean meat or plant-based alternatives. Many of the students at the conference had similar motivations for learning more about the industry in order to understand the lucrative business opportunities. From what I gathered from the rest of the audience, many Penn students and investors left the conference more interested in following the quickly moving trends in this sector. It is our hope here at the WeissFund that some of this interest will soon materialize into a campus-based startup.

Billions of people around the world want to eat meat, and with our current methods there will be no efficient way to do so and governments, venture capitalists, and even meat companies know that. So, startups in this field will have a plethora of possible funding avenues in order to bring their products to the public. With money being pumped into this research and the recent support from the FDA and USDA, we will soon have a way to save the lives of the 56 billion animals that are slaughtered for meat each year. Per Winston Churchill’s 1931 prophetic quotation, soon “we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast of wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.”

Grant Brewster is a sophomore studying Digital Media Design in the School of Engineering. He currently runs a 501 © (3) certified charity and a video production company, both of which he founded. He likes making videos in his free time from his various travels, playing on the club lacrosse team, and following innovations in the food and beverage sector for more sustainable eating (he really likes food and does not want to feel bad about it). Feel free to reach out to him at grantb@seas.upenn.edu.

WeissFund is dedicated to funding, promoting, cultivating, and supporting student entrepreneurship in the UPenn community. Working on a startup? Interested in partnering? Want to get involved? Drop us a line at apply.innovationfund@gmail.com.