The future of food is synthetic.

Alec Lee
Alec Lee
Jun 17, 2016 · 7 min read
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Credit: Star Trek

Ava Winery is creating a “synthetic” wine without grapes, yeast, or fermentation. We analyze the molecular profile of wines and recreate them from their molecular components. You can read more about how we’re hacking wine.

Artisanal. Hand-crafted. Gluten-free. Organic. These are the indispensable buzzwords of the foodie marketer. The best marketing campaigns get you to pay as much as possible for as little as possible. It’s time to be intellectually honest about the organic movement. It’s not about nutrition. It’s not about objective quality (yes, an artisanal brand won… but Dunkin’ Donuts took 2nd). And no, gluten probably has no effect* on you whatsoever. We’re paying for mythology.

Cultural lag is the phenomenon where social adoption trails technological innovation. This lag causes friction, but that friction doesn’t last forever. If history teaches us anything, it’s that those who bet against technological innovation lose. The beauty of mythology is that it changes when a new, compelling narrative emerges.

Today we’re on the cusp of significant technological breakthroughs in food production the likes of which have never been seen before. It took humanity nearly 10,000 years of agriculture to develop many of the crops and animal herds we consume today. It took only a few centuries to develop the farming tools that have culminated in large-scale, efficient mechanized farming. And it only took decades to marry science with food allowing us to directly manipulate the genetic constructs of our food.

The next frontier is our ability to produce food from its molecular components and replace the need for resource-intensive, often unethical food-growing practices. These “synthetic” foods aren’t just possible, they’re inevitable.

*Of course, a small percentage of the population are sensitive to gluten.

The veggie burger problem

Diehard meat-eaters aren’t sticking to their guns because they love the thought of tortured animal flesh. If a perfect replica of meat were available on the market at a price point equal to or less than natural meat, it’s hard to believe that industrialized animal farming would continue.

Food technology has a credibility problem, and rightly so. Food replacements, like veggie burgers, simply can’t match the quality of their natural counterparts… yet. In parallel, the flavor industry has long suffered the stigma of only existing to help make unpalatable foods passable. True widespread adoption of a technology requires that the innovation surpass its replacement.

Many of today’s food technology startups — Hampton Creek, Clara Foods, Memphis Meats, Muufrii, Gelzen, New Wave Foods — are targeting their niches in recognition of the veggie burger problem. As these technologies come online, the quality of available replicas will increase and the costs will decrease. Adoption will rise as the public sees the cost, sustainability, and ethical benefits of engineered foods.

Wine is the beginning

Wine seems like an odd bedfellow of the food technology revolution. Synthetic wine won’t solve hunger and it won’t end animal suffering. Still, there are strong reasons for using wine to build momentum and credibility for food engineering.

  • Wine is technologically low-hanging fruit. We’ll be able to rapidly bring products to market that not only match but surpass the quality of their natural counterparts.
  • Wine has deep cultural significance and a high perception of complexity. People are willing to pay a premium for great wine, which makes the unit economics work from day one and creates a strong platform for future products.

Because wine is so widely distributed and fast-growing in markets like China where sustainability and transparency are hot-button issues, wine is a perfect opportunity to gain momentum in the food tech revolution.

But it doesn’t end with wine

Land, water, and energy are increasingly precious. If we don’t resolve the increasing demand and decreasing supply of these resources, our descendants will fight wars over their control. Having total control over the molecular construct of our food will have widespread positive impacts on the food chain. If we and our descendants play our cards right, I see a future where any food we want is available at a moment’s notice at the touch of a button. It’s the ultimate manifestation of the locavore movement.

But adopting these technologies will not only benefit future generations — they’ll impact us today.

Scarcely an item in the grocery store is unadulterated. In wine, there is a long list of additives winemakers can use without any labeling. Even in the produce section we’re not free of processing. Ethylene is used to ripen fruit in storage. Pesticides are used on farms. Food is wasted en masse so that we can have picture-perfect fruits year-round that get dumped as soon as they start going bad.

Food companies try desperately to hide what they do because the organic food industry’s propaganda against the health and safety of food engineering has been very powerful. The irony is that safety of all of these processing methods is empirical — food engineering has been happening for years without any notable detriment to our health (fast food and high-calorie foods are another issue entirely).

Soylent grabbed the bull by the horns and has been completely transparent about their formulations and the presence of GMOs. In fact they advocate for GMOs, as any scientifically-literate company should. If Ava is successful in its mission to bring synthetic wine to the masses, brands like Soylent and Ava will show the rest of the food industry that it’s not scary to be transparent about what happens to our food.

We estimate our wine can be produced using 50 to 100 times less water than natural wine. It will probably be much less energy intensive as well. Lab-grown meats will dramatically reduce the environmental impact of animal farming and suffering. Efficiency begets sustainability, and the efficiency of synthetic foods is undeniable. If you have a problem with overuse of the freshwater supply, if you have a problem with the global transportation of food from growing regions to consumption regions, and if you have a problem with modern slavery, then you should love synthetic foods. Organic foods don’t solve any of these problems.

I get this question a lot. How safe is our product? Answer: as safe or safer than the natural counterparts. In what soil were the grapes grown? With what pesticides? In the vicinity of what industrial pollutants? Even if the plants are free of these contaminants, there are still risks associated with natural production. Botulism is both perfectly natural and lethal. Listeria is a problem of insufficient food engineering, not over-engineering. There are many compounds found in natural wine that are toxic and/or carcinogenic. We have little incentive to add them. When we deconstruct food to its molecular components and reassemble it molecule by molecule, we have the luxury of not adding some components that pose a risk to human health.

Making cheaper wine isn’t about cheap booze. It’s about proving that products that are highly resource- and labor-intensive can be produced with a fraction of the resources at a fraction of the cost — safely, reliably, and ethically. Global food security requires us to solve the cost problem for the future. I can’t reveal just how cheap we can make our wine (partly because we don’t even know yet until the formulas are finalized) but I can say that we’ll be able to undercut the vast majority of the wine industry on production cost from day one.

There are two flexibility problems in the food industry and particularly with wine. Grape vines take years to grow, which means wineries have to make very long-term forecasts about planting. Every year, farmers are at the mercy of both the climate and the market. Synthetic foods will allow us to produce what foods are needed, when they’re needed, in the quantities needed.

The second flexibility problem is the product itself. In wine, being at the mercy of the crop and fermentation means an entire year’s worth of work can go down the drain (literally) if the conditions are poor. Some bad vintages are just unsalvageable. But even when a vintage isn’t an abomination, it’s rarely perfect. Wineries often have to work hard to alter their products to keep them tasting consistently. Like Sisyphus, they must roll the boulder of quality back up the hill year after year. Synthetic foods allow us to have infinite control over texture, flavor, and aroma. They offer us infinite scalability and infinite reproducibility. We’ll only ever change the product to make it better than the previous version.

Is the timing right?

Modern food and flavor engineering have been around for decades. Yet manufacturers are terrified of admitting this to the public because most of the applications have been to make bad food better. And the thing is… it does make the food better. These methods have demonstrable benefits and are empirically safe. What they lack is transparency and someone willing to step up and take these methods to their ultimate conclusion: that we can not only improve imperfect foods but we can make foods entirely synthetically.

Betting against the organic movement is undoubtedly crazy. The path to progress is littered with the dreams of those who had the right insights at the wrong times. But at the same time, the biggest winners make their bets when nobody else is willing to make them. As millennials become more scientifically literate, the merits of synthetic foods will be acknowledged and become a staple of the human diet.


From novelty to sustainability.

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