The Washington Diplomat / December 2014
By Larry Luxner
Ocean-grown vegetables. Crunchy, textured steak chips made from soy. Worm-and-grasshopper muffins. Printed 3D meat. Nobody we know eats any of these things now, but all may be staple foods, even delicacies, of the future — and that future might be sooner than you think.
At a Nov. 3 event titled “Technology on the Menu” sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, three experts discussed with CFR moderator Carol Adelman how farmers might feed the nine billion people expected to inhabit our planet by 2050.
Andras Forgacs is co-founder and CEO of Modern Meadow Inc., a startup based in Brooklyn, N.Y. He explained the principle of biofabrication, which is basically a way of taking cells, multiplying them in large quantities and organizing them into tissues.
“It’s actually not a new technology; it’s been around for quite awhile. For the last couple of decades, there’s been an emerging field known as regenerative medicine, where doctors grow body parts like ears, trachea and skin,” said Forgacs, a Hungarian-born pioneer in the use of 3D bioprinting.
“In 2007, I founded a company named Organovo that pioneered a certain approach for tissue engineering for medicine,” he said. “Then I thought, if we can make medical-grade human tissue for medical applications, could we also grow muscle that could be made into meat, and skin that could be made into leather? This was the idea behind Modern Meadow [which was founded in 2011].”
Forgacs said there’s a long history of using cells as an “engine” to grow things.
“Yeast, for example, has been used to make foods for centuries. This is just a way of making meat, animal protein, using a different type of cell,” he said. “The benefits are significant in terms of environmental efficiency, not having to kill animals and making products that have nutritional advantages.”
The steak chips Modern Meadow developed earlier this year contain about 70 percent protein and almost no fat, he said. But they don’t fall under the category of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) because nothing has been genetically modified.
“We take healthy natural cells from the most perfect animal you can imagine, we grow them in large quantities, mix in a little pectin which is the fruit sugar that congeals jam, and add BBQ sauce or teriyaki spice, and then bake it in a food dehydrator,” Forgacs explained. “It’s an extremely controlled, very sterile, highly auditable process. And it results in something that’s food-safe, shelf-stable and nutritionally sound. We’ve had about 100 people try our product, and they’re all still alive and well, as far as I can tell.”
Yet this snack, which tastes like crunchy beef jerky, doesn’t come cheap.
“Each steak chip we produce costs about $80,” he said. “But at scale, we know it’ll get down to pennies. The question really is, how do you get to that scale? Could this be considered safe? We’re just at the early days of understanding the regulatory process.”
No matter how good the science is, however, new ideas need financial support.
That’s where Robert Leclerc, co-founder and CEO of AgFunder, comes in. He says lack of capital is the single biggest obstacle to increasing agricultural production.
“We started AgFunder because we saw a large investment gap,” he said. “I was working in West Africa, where I was developing agricultural projects, but we found it difficult to attract additional capital. A group of 1,500 farmers today do not have jobs because we were unable to efficiently aggregate investors, given the time and resources we had. That was a big shame because we worked very hard, and it would have been great for the people there. And I thought, there’s got to be a better way of doing this.”
So Leclerc turned to the Internet.
“We see how Internet marketplaces have been able to pull together customers and demand where there was none before and created liquidity in the markets. This would be the best place for investment in agriculture, because it’s so fragmented. There’s no center of gravity, no Silicon Valley for agriculture. So I thought, if we’re going to improve the ability to invest, it’s probably going to be centered around technology. We are a crowdfunding platform, but more generally we’re an investment marketplace that will bring investors and foreign capital — wherever that foreign capital may be.”
Leclerc said the top agricultural investments of the future will be done via an online forum, as opposed to the “door-to-door sales process” of raising capital today.
“In April 2012, we started transitioning to a more broadcast, multimedia, multi-channel way of raising capital. That could be something as simple as the Wall Street Journal wanting to hear your story,” he said. “Today, you can mention that you’re raising capital. That may attract those investors looking exactly for your type of opportunity.”
But the long-term solution to the world’s coming food production dilemma will be a combination of new technologies and sound economic policies at the national level. That’s the word from Mark Rosegrant, a senior official at the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute.
These technologies include things like integrated soil fertility management, precision farming, no-till irrigation and improved seed varieties, said Rosegrant, who directs IFPRI’s Environment and Production Technology Division.
“We found that a combination of those could reduce hunger by almost 40 percent by 2050, compared to a baseline without these technologies. It could also reduce areas planted with rice, maize and wheat by about 20 percent, which would save a lot of land that otherwise would be fallow,” he said, noting that precision agriculture significantly boosts farm yields but also reduces runoff of nitrogen as well as water use.
“We also found that improvements are highest in Africa and South Asia, probably because they’re so far behind in technology,” he said. “But these technologies aren’t going to just happen. We must continue investing in agriculture research and target it more to things like [fighting] pests and diseases, as well as drought and heat resistance which we know will increase as a result of climate change.”
Also crucial, Rosegrant said, will be the dismantling of protectionist policies that contribute to hunger and malnutrition.
“In most developing countries, regulatory and legal systems are a real impediment to getting new seed varieties out there. There are barriers against foreign investment, biotech and other types of new technologies — not even just GMOs but other kinds of new seed varieties that tend to be regulated too highly,” he said. “There also has to be a push to keep and extend open trade in agricultural products; that took a real hit during the price spikes of 2008 and 2011, when countries started banning exports and taxing imports and we lost a lot of confidence in the agricultural trade system. That has to be restored.”