Welcome to episode 209 of The Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett, and with me is founder and cohost Dirk Knemeyer.
For a podcast topic this week, we’re going to explore some recent trends in food tech, and the variety of ways we can address the problem of feeding a growing global population. According to the UN report World Population Prospects, the 2015 revision, current world population of 7.3 billion people is expected to reach 8.5 billion by 2030, and 9.7 billion by 2050.
In order to feed such a large number of people, we are, in all likelihood, going to need to change the way we eat. What I mean by that specifically is, it’s very intensive, both agriculturally and economically, as well as in terms of amount of food produced per land mass, for us to be eating meat like beef, for instance. That is a great food. I love steak. It’s one of my-
It is one of my all-time favorite foods, but it just takes a lot of water. It takes a lot of grain. It takes a lot of energy to transform into a pound of meat.
Not to mention taking a lot of years off your life, Jon.
I’m sure, I’m sure. It’s just all-around a very pleasurable, but also probably from an efficiency standpoint and resource standpoint, probably not the greatest. That’s one area where there’s a number of food tech startups and established companies that are taking a look at how we can better use our resources to generate the food we need for all these billions and billions of people that the UN so kindly has pointed out are on their way.
One of the, what I find to be a very interesting approach, and there’s many approaches to solving this, but one of them is called cultured meat. What’s meant by that is that it’s meat that is essentially grown in a laboratory environment. The big question is, can this cultured meat be a viable replacement for animal meat obtained in the usual way.
Before we start jumping into this and thinking, “Hey, that seems a little bit insane,” we should keep in mind that we’ve cultured animal product for a very long time, including things like insulin, which would really be considered the first cellular agriculture product ever. So, 1922, the first diabetic patient was treated with an insulin injection using animal insulin.
One term for this method for producing meat is cellular agriculture. They’re taking the cells and then growing them out, rather than having the animal grow them for us. There’s all kinds of startups in this area. Some are focused on chicken, some are focused on beef.
Dirk, when you think of this problem set, are you willing to forgo your filet mignon for, say, a cultured meat product of maybe similar composition, but grown in a lab?
Maybe, right? I mean, there’s two parts to it, right? One is discontinuing eating the food that we’re currently eating, and two is starting to eat the new food that is offered. I think they’re totally separate things, actually. For me to stop eating filet mignon … Look. First, I don’t eat that much filet mignon, sadly. Eating more would be nice.
That little joking aside, the gap is not that far from where I am today to largely, if not completely, not eating let’s just say beef. That’s a trip that I can take. I don’t want to take it. I do enjoy, like you, beef, but it’s complicated. I know it’s not super healthy for me. I don’t eat a ton of it, but when I do I know it’s not the best choice. I was, for a year as a grad student, a vegetarian actually. That was because I really was struggling philosophically with beings being slaughtered for the gluttony of my taste buds, let’s say.
What stopped me, at that time, from being vegetarian was I had two young children, and it was just completely impractical. That was a tough, tough year of trying to make it all work. I still have some of those proclivities inside of me, and if the rest of the world were turned a little bit more in that direction, where it was easier to get delicious, affordable, convenient things, as opposed to the beef, I could do that. For me, speaking as the user group of one, it’s not that far to go, to go from eating beef to not eating beef.
The harder part, to me, is getting a beef replacement that I want to eat. Looking at other food products that are on the market for a long time, there’s almost no product that’s light or fat-free that I enjoy.
You have the sour cream, and then you have the light sour cream. It’s like, there’s a big difference there. It’s like, why bother. If I’m going to eat this fat-free sour cream crap, why not just eschew the sour cream entirely. There’s been many decades with, let’s use fat-free sour cream as the example, on the market in a state where enough people buy it that it’s a viable product. When I buy it, I’m like, “Oh, god. Get me out of here.”
For something like cultured meats, which when you first said the phrase I thought was a cattle that liked Miles Davis.
That’s a long way away from being something that I would want to eat, that I would accept to eat, let alone all of the problems around getting it produced, getting it to people, doing so at an affordable price point. There’s just a whole bunch of hurdles there. Whole bunch. Far beyond even just the taste and the aesthetic acceptance of it, which of course is a big part of it.
Yeah, you can get me off beef. But I think it’s going to be a hell of a lot longer time before you get me on cultured meat.
Right. There’s a biotech startup called Super Meat that is actually working on cultured chicken. Their idea is to have sort of a micro-agriculture in your grocery store or in your home. So you might have this cultured chicken growing in your kitchen someday. So you come down in the morning, get your coffee, and check in to see if the chicken breast, how much that’s grown overnight.
Not too dissimilar from culturing your own yogurt. I don’t know if you did that, or if your parents did that in the ’70s-
That was … We had these little yogurt cultures, and my mom would grow the yogurt.
She was a hippie, wasn’t she? She was a hippie.
Yeah. Very much. So, that would take me back. Except, in this case, with Super Meat you’d be creating chicken breast.
Yes, and it’s impressive, too. I think the big problem that they’re going to run into with any of these is the commercialization problem, and getting over those hurdles. It’s called commercialization as if the price point is the inflection point here. But buried in that is also the cultural conversation. I don’t know if that falls into commercialization or not, but just this marketing/cultural discussion around what we’re eating, which I could totally see that getting politicized.
It already is, I would say. It already is.
Yeah. So you could see that coming. Like we need more things to be politicized about.
It’s unfortunate, right? Because the fact is, I’m going to go to decades, not years. It’s going to be decades before the Ted Nugent, Kid Rock segment of society is willing to get on board with cultured meats. They are going to eat their good old American red meat proudly, defiantly, for a long time to come yet. That’s going to be tough to get over.
Yeah. I see that as a flash point in the next wavbe of the culture wars, right?
There’s other kinds of protein as well, and I wanted to raise this next item, because it is extremely viable, but maybe kind of icky from the Western point of view, which is grasshopper protein. Grasshoppers are like 72% protein. They have all your essential amino acids. They have no saturated fats. In other cultures, it’s perfectly acceptable to munch on insects, no problem. Here in Western nations, I think we’d be a little bit hesitant, maybe, to try these out. Whereas in Asia and Africa, it’s a little bit more embedded into the food culture.
Food ways. Food ways is the sociological term, Jon.
Okay. So, not as much of a problem in other countries. However, there are sort of sneaky ways that you could get grasshopper proteins into foods if you weren’t really into looking at insect parts. The way it’s done is that you mill the grasshoppers, and they’re made into basically a protein powder, and then that protein powder goes into things like shakes, or a protein bar, or your pasta sauce, or your muffin, right? For your breakfast.
For decades we’ve had these stores GNC, which I think stands for General Nutrition Center, and they sell these giant vats of powder that you dump into things. Isn’t that no different than those? It’s just, let’s call it grasshopper technology instead of whatever weird technology they’ve been selling for all this time?
Yeah. I think that’s basically it. I think you wouldn’t even need to go to a GNC to get your grasshoppers. I think you would just-
Whole Foods it. Whole Foods it.
Yeah. You would just get whatever, your protein shake, and it would have a little friendly grasshopper in the ingredients there.
Then we’d all feel a little bit more spry, I suppose, after consuming grasshopper protein. So that’s a great solution. Once again, probably not going to actually see the grasshoppers. Definitely technology for cultivating mass amounts of grasshoppers. Grasshopper farming is not typical right now, so that is a technology question as well.
The third and final trend that I wanted to touch on today is just talking a little bit about managing food waste, especially in the United States. There are a number of startups who are looking at this problem. It’s really interesting. It’s essentially a logistical and enterprise resource planning problem.
So you and I are pretty familiar with both of those problem sets. You’re talking about enterprise level management of multiple sources of food, where you have these time limitations, and at a certain point, food that was once sellable, whether it’s produce or packaged goods or what have you, they’re reached the point that by certain regulations they need to be removed from consumer sale. There’s this point at which the food gets marked down at your typical grocery store, and you can buy food that’s not as fresh.
Right now it’s just thrown away, right? For the most part.
At a certain point it just becomes garbage, which is kind of crazy. Apparently there’s $218 billion worth of wasted food in the US on a yearly basis, which-
Not surprised. I’m not at all surprised about that.
Which seems pretty horrible, all things considered.
It does seem horrible, but not surprising. We’re such a wasteful culture, Jon.
There’s a startup called Spoiler Alert, which helps-
… helps companies manage the food so it won’t be wasted, whether they’re donating it, but before it gets to the point where it needs to be thrown out, or whether they provide discounted food sales, so ultimately this food can either become a meal, or it could be an input for some manufacturing process where that type of food is needed.
There’s another area where digital technology is helping to shorten or reduce the amounts of waste, and shorten that cycle. In terms of food technology, I think all of these areas where they’re looking at alternatives to the foods we eat, or you’re looking at better ways for managing the food we produce now, I think all of that’s really going to need to come together, because we’re only at the very beginnings of this population growth problem, and it’s not going to get better any time soon. I think we really need to address this in a significant way.
That’s true. Some of it I’m surprised hasn’t been addressed earlier, right? Let’s just focus on one specific part of the food waste chain. Grocery stores. They’re throwing away a ton of stuff. A ton, a ton, a ton of stuff.
There’s such an opportunity to say, these tomatoes are the prime, beautiful tomatoes, and they are double the price of normal tomatoes. Then, your average, run-of-the-mill tomatoes are the typical price that people are used to, and then the ones that people aren’t buying, over some period of time nobody’s taking, they’re going down to dirt cheap, rock bottom, get your crummy, cheap tomatoes here, right?
Even if you didn’t have the waste reduction … Even if assume at the end of the day there’s going to be the same amount of waste, it’s that kind of price stratification. It’s been proven again and again in really every product, service, experience category, you’re going to make a lot more money for it.
People are going to pay the premium for that. People want the best. It’s the whole mindset of the spoiled American parent of, “Only the best for my child. Only the best.” People are going to pay for only the best. The reality in practice is, a scheme like that, that is executed properly, would dramatically reduce food waste. It’s just a matter of implementing it. So I’m surprised something like that hasn’t been done a whole lot sooner.
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You can find The Digital Life on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, Player FM, and Google Play. If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett, that’s J-O-N-F-O-L-L-E-T-T. Of course, the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out goinvo.com. That’s G-O-I-N-V-O.com. Dirk?
You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer. That’s @ D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R. Thanks so much for listening.
That’s it for episode 209 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.