The Future of Food?

Current agricultural and food consumption practices are unsustainable, and so a new wave of food-technology startups are hoping to reform the way the world eats.

Every five years, the United States Department of Agriculture releases a report compiled by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee that establishes the national recommendations that form the basis of our federal nutrition policies. Although these suggestions are likely to be irrelevant and inconsequential to the daily lives of most Americans, this report contains important implications and highlights very serious concerns regarding the current state of food and agriculture in our country, as well as in the world.

The academics and scientists behind this report place a significant amount of importance on the impact that the domestic and global agricultural infrastructure has on the environment. According to Tim Gore of Oxfam, an international organization dedicated to finding solutions for poverty and injustices around the world, climate change is actually expected to have the most noticeable effect on our food, the prices of our food, and the availability of the different types of food available. The effects of climate change on future food prices and availability are a result of the current environmentally harmful and unsustainable methods of food production. In fact, the National Academy of Sciences recently reported that the production of livestock accounts for about 20% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, leading scientists to conclude that the consumption of meat could be solely accountable for substantial increases in our global temperature and the variety of consequences that would result.

In addition to environmental harm, the report also outlines the public health concern associated with the costs of obesity. Obesity and related health issues like diabetes cost governments around the world over $2 trillion dollars annually, according to a recent publication by McKinsey. That cost is only surpassed by government expenses from smokers’ healthcare costs and from war, making obesity one of the most expensive manmade burdens that society currently encounters. Not only do individuals considered to be obese cost about 43% more to care for, the reduction in their relative productivity is also estimated to cost the United States economy over $4.3 billion annually. The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine determines this indirect cost of obesity by considering factors such as increased healthcare costs, additional medical claims, absenteeism, common disability and premature death.

Firms such as Monsanto, whose market cap exceeds $56 billion, have found success in developing effective solutions to some current agricultural problems by creating pesticides and genetically modified organisms that increase the efficiency of agricultural production. However, many industrial agricultural companies, including Monsanto, are beginning to face increasing pressure from organizations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), the Organic Consumers Association, and the Union of Concerned Scientists to pursue more ethical and sustainable business practices. All in all, the growing tension between consumers and the enormous businesses responsible for originating the majority of the food produced, along with recent technological advancements, have inspired entrepreneurs and venture capitalists to take a keen interest in disrupting the food industry.

These new start-ups are seeking long-term success in discovering innovative and socially conscious ways to eliminate the burden that food currently has on our environment and on our bodies. Furthermore, when projected population growth, longer life-spans, and the continued development of emerging economies is considered, the need for more efficient processes of producing and delivering food becomes increasingly imperative.

Hampton Creek is a food-technology startup based in San Francisco that aims to understand the science behind plants, nutrition, and our bodies in order to create affordable products that significantly reduce the negative impact created by the current state of food production. For example, modern egg farms, which produce over fifty billion eggs each year in the United States alone, require about thirty-nine calories of external energy to produce one calorie of consumable food for humans. Meanwhile, Hampton Creek has engineered a process that requires only two calories to create that same calorie of consumable food. Additionally, Hampton Creek’s final egg product has no cholesterol or saturated fat, two things that are most negatively associated with the consumption of traditional eggs.

Although Hampton Creek currently offers only two products, a mayonnaise substitute and a cookie dough substitute, they have recently raised over $120 million from leading venture capital firms such as Khosla Ventures and Founders Fund in an effort to expand their team, product offerings, and research and development capabilities. Hampton Creek has also drawn interest from prominent angel investors like Marc Benioff, founder of Salesforce, Jerry Yang, founder of Yahoo, and Eduardo Saverin, a co-founder of Facebook, all of whom presumably see the value in Hampton Creek’s ability to contribute to the solution of our growing nutrition problems.

Another venture-backed food-technology startup is Soylent, which focuses on creating a simpler and more efficient source of nutrition in the form of lab-created, powdered meal-replacement shakes. Their goal is to minimize the effort required to receive optimum nutrition, a mission founded on the notion that consumers typically spend far too much time and money trying to create nutritionally sufficient meals, when what is really needed to sustain life is actually quite simple. A healthy meal can in fact be created in a laboratory with very little environmental effect.

Many “foodies” have criticized Soylent for their utilitarian view of food and for their taking the joy out of an often complex cultural aspect with historical significance. However, their product is undoubtedly a healthy, convenient and environmentally conscious alternative to many of the quick, easy, and often unhealthy meals that tend to be favored by the modern consumer. Soylent’s current product is sold as a subscription, selling at $85 per week for 28 meals. This cost breaks down to merely $3 per meal, making it substantially cheaper than the average lunch at Chipotle and on par with fast food chains such as McDonalds, yet much healthier than either. Therefore, if Soylent were to be adopted by the masses, it would significantly increase the health and productivity of the global workforce, while simultaneously eliminating the environmental woes of modern agribusiness.

Though already profitable, Soylent recently raised over $20 million from Andreesen Horowitz and Index Ventures to advance their pursuit of making nutrition cheaper and more accessible, while also changing the way in which consumers think about the nature and consumption of food, itself.

While it is tough to speculate about the future of either of these companies, the problems to which they can help contribute solutions are undoubtedly colossal in nature. And although it may be difficult to envision Hampton Creek’s plant-based products or Soylent’s meal-replacement shakes being the way in which society receives its vital nutrients, the pursuits of these start-ups seem to be, at the very least, a necessary start to push the sustainable production and consumption of food in the right direction.