Do innovative high-tech foods offer sustainable solutions to the climate crisis and population growth?
The healthiest tomatoes never see the light of day. They grow in containers, warehouses and factories on the outskirts of cities. The plants flourish under LED lights whose color and intensity are fine tuned to their needs. The combination of the temperature, humidity and an irrigation system that supplies the tomatoes with nutrients provides the ideal growing conditions. Next door, lamb’s lettuce, cucumbers and watercress are getting special treatment of their own.
“Whether you’re growing herbs or strawberries or tomatoes, we can always create the perfect climate for that crop,” explains Sudhanshu Sarronwala, Chief Impact Officer at Infarm, a pioneer in this new form of agriculture called vertical farming. Instead of growing outwards, the plants in these greenhouses grow upwards – at locations on the outskirts of cities, thus keeping them as close to consumers as possible and ensuring delivery distances are short.
Technology has made this approach so efficient that traditional farming seems downright wasteful by comparison. “We use up to 95 percent less water,” says Sarronwala, “and since we’re optimizing lighting use as well as nutrient use, we’re able to have much higher yields.” The space required is also minimal: a ten-meter-high Infarm unit takes up no more than 40 square meters of floorspace. And, as Sarronwala points out, with this system, pesticides are a thing of the past: “That means you’re getting fresh, nutritious produce pretty quickly from farm to plate, with no chemical components in it.”
Experts see vertical agriculture as an important building block for the food systems of the future. Arable and livestock farming have become so efficient that they have been able to compensate for growing global population, which will soon reach eight billion.
However, this comes at a high price, including the proliferation of monocultures, deforestation of rainforests, factory farming, overfishing and soil overfertilization. According to a recent United Nations report (PDF), “Current practices cannot be scaled up … without causing further grave damage to the environment.”
There is no shortage of new ideas for how to feed the world sustainably. In fact, according to the investment platform Dealroom, the food & agritech sector boasts almost 65 000 start-ups. Over the last few years, money has been pouring into innovative ideas in this segment, for example, 8.4 billion dollars in venture capital was raised in 2021. That is ten times as much as in 2016. The boom is no coincidence. “Attractive investment opportunities can emerge when companies address fundamental changes that are underway in society,” says Thomas Hassl, Equity Analyst at LGT Bank (Switzerland) Ltd. Also, many impact investors are attracted by the prospect of “supporting projects that can contribute to sustainable development, he goes on to explain.
They are particularly interested in start-ups that promise to develop solutions for greenhouse gas emissions generated through food production. Arable and livestock farming currently account for almost a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions. Livestock farming is a major contributor to this. If all factors are taken into account, 60 kilograms of greenhouse gases are emitted for every kilogram of beef.
“The inefficiencies in conventional livestock farming are indeed a problem,” Hassl says. “We use a lot of space and water to grow grain, which we then feed to animals, and those animals also need water.” Fertilizer, waste, processing and transport all have a further negative environmental impact. “If we want to overcome these challenges in a way that’s sustainable, there needs to be a major shift in traditional methods. The private sector plays an important role in this process and offers investors a range of investment opportunities,” Hassl says.
The flipside, however, is that the fate of gigantic markets are at stake. The global meat market has an annual value of around 1.3 trillion dollars, with over 500 billion in revenue attributable to fish and seafood, and related products such as milk, cheese, yogurt and eggs generating many more billions. This is incentivizing hundreds of start-ups to develop environmentally friendly alternatives – often using new methods that combine biotechnology, microbiology and fermentation processes.
In Berlin, for example, a company called Formo is experimenting with test tube cheeses; in California, Finless Foods is growing tuna from cell cultures; and in Barcelona, Libre Foods is growing fungi in bioreactors to produce “meat from mushrooms” – a meat substitute that they hope will resonate with vegetarians and meat-eaters alike.
The US-based companies Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have already succeeded in this area: they are among the pioneers of a new generation of purely plant-based meat alternatives that even hamburger fans are gravitating toward. This is in part thanks to a clever combination of fat, salt and additives.
Plant-based hamburgers aren’t necessarily any healthier than the original. But they are helping millions of people acquire a taste for alternative protein products. Last year, growing demand for oat milk, soy yogurt and tofu patties, especially among younger consumers, led to a 7.4 billion dollar rise in US supermarket sales of these products. That’s an increase of six percent.
The management consulting firm BCG believes this is just a taste of what’s to come. Analysts predict that the global market for alternative proteins could grow to 290 billion dollars by 2035. That would spare the earth from greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to Japan’s total annual emissions.
LGT analyst Thomas Hassl also expects meat, milk and cheese alternatives to “play an important role in making our diets more sustainable.” Fermented products have already “gained real momentum and are well on their way to becoming mainstream,” he says. However, he is more skeptical about lab-grown meat. “There’s quite a lot of hype around it,” Hassl says, “but it’s still early days.”
Yaakov Nahmias was skeptical when he first started looking into the matter. But in the span of just a few years, Nahmias, a biomedical engineer, and a researcher and professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has made more progress with his company Future Meat than many of his competitors. Founded in 2018, Future Meat introduced chicken fillets in the spring of 2021 which, at around ten euro per piece, are almost the same price as conventionally bred organic meat.
Nahmias’ success is attributable to an innovative new approach. In his view, projects such as the first hamburger made from cell cultures, launched by Dutch scientist Mark Post (now co-founder of Mosa Meat) in 2013, led to a dead end. All efforts to optimize this kind of production, he explains, have natural limits because fermentation, which drives cell growth, produces waste products such as ammonia and lactate that cause cells to die when they accumulate in the bioreactor.
“Theoretically,” Nahmias says, “the price can be reduced to 200 to 300 dollars per kilogram.” A respectable achievement – but far from being profitable. As he pondered, a thought occurred to the biologist: In nature, the liver filters pollutants out of the body. Maybe that could be replicated in the lab? “So I sat down and designed a system that basically does the same thing”, says the 48-year-old. “It removes ammonia and lactate from the bioreactors.”
The patented technology makes it possible to produce cell tissue far more quickly and cheaply than previous methods, and opens up many other possibilities. “We can also produce lamb, beef and pork,” Nahmias says. And because the lab butchers control all of the ingredients used in production, it’s easy for them to make steak, sausage or ground meat far healthier than their natural counterparts, for example, by replacing unhealthy fat with healthy fat. “You can have a chicken breast,” Nahmias says, “that has more Omega-3 fatty acids than salmon.”
To move his products swiftly from lab to plate, the enterprising researcher has sought out powerful allies. In its most recent funding round in December 2021, Future Meat raised 347 million dollars of Series B funding. Among its investors are the food conglomerates Tyson Foods and ADM.
From Alex Money’s perspective, this is good news. “What needs to happen for that transition to alternative sources of protein to be faster?” asks the economist from the Oxford Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment. His answer is clear: greater interaction between start-ups and large, established corporations. “They have the capital, production facilities, very good insights into consumer preferences – and they also have a motivation to change,” Money says, “because they, like many other companies, are thinking about how to make their product portfolio more sustainable.”
In a working paper (PDF), Money and his colleague Julian Cottee took a closer look at the dynamics between start-ups, venture investors and food giants like Unilever and Nestlé. They concluded that the high profile of the large corporations ultimately benefits all parties, and that they “provide that competitive advantage most desired by venture capital firms in prospective investments – a credible route to market.”
Nevertheless, the transition will probably not be easy. Billions of people will have to develop an appetite for new and unfamiliar foods; so although algae and insect proteins are high in nutritional value, they will still have to fight for a spot on the table. Meat’s importance in many cultures, from Sunday roasts to its role in religious ceremonies, is another challenge. And finally, what would happen to ranchers if demand for their livestock dried up because meat, milk and cheese are being produced in labs?
“Switching to alternative proteins may make sense in the long term. But first there are transition costs,” says Alex Money. “The pace of change is mediated by many more things than technology and taste preferences.” LGT analyst Thomas Hassl shares this view: “You have to remember that the majority of the global population relies on traditional agriculture to survive,” he says. “And you don’t want to shut that down overnight because it would create a new set of problems, this time societal ones.”
He therefore sees little point in looking for a single global solution for lasting change in arable and livestock farming. In Hassl’s view, the goal should be to find the right local mix of different technologies, “to make sure you have the biggest positive impact you can for the environment, and for society.”
Vertical farming may not seem like an exciting option in the Swiss mountains, but it promises many benefits in places like New York, Paris or Tokyo. With the help of high-tech greenhouses, even cities located in the desert, such as Abu Dhabi, can suddenly grow their own fruit and vegetables instead of importing the produce from faraway countries. In fact, locations such as these are especially well suited to this new method of farming because they have a key resource: plenty of sunshine for producing green electricity.
Each plant provides us with 50 000 data points from seedling to harvest.
Sudhanshu Sarronwala, Chief Impact Officer (Infarm).
With their artificial light and computer-controlled climate, indoor farms consume an enormous amount of energy. Studies show that while electricity costs are almost negligeable for conventional greenhouses (accounting for around 13 percent of costs), this figure rises to over 40 percent for vertical farms. The total electricity demand for one unit is around 75 000 kilowatt hours per year. “That is a challenge,” says Sudhanshu Sarronwala, “and therefore, if you are going to do vertical farming, you need to make sure that you have access to low carbon sources of energy.”
But looking beyond this issue, technology is continuously creating new possibilities for agriculture. For example, Infarm watches every fruit, every head of lettuce and every tomato using sensors that gather valuable information. “Each plant provides us with 50 000 data points from seedling to harvest,” Sarronwala explains.
The data is analyzed by computer systems that use artificial intelligence. This means that as each plant grows, so does Infarm’s knowledge about its needs, preferences and yield. “That is invaluable, because the volumes are now too big for a farmer to be able to deal with,” says Sarronwala. “That farmer is in the cloud now. And that farmer – the Infarm brain – makes sure that the ideal conditions of light spectrum, humidity and nutrient intake are all being optimized for that particular plant to have its harvest cycle in two weeks.”
Analysts predict that the global vertical farming market will be worth 30 billion dollars by 2030. But Sarronwala thinks that is far too conservative “Everybody’s been looking at vertical farming based on the crops it has been producing, not necessarily on the crops that it can produce,” he says. Rice, wheat, corn: “a few years from now such staples will become available. And that explodes what the potential of vertical farming is going to look like.”
This is important, possibly vital, considering many plants might one day only ripen in containers because nature has become a hostile environment, thus making conventional farming impossible. “Vertical farming is largely climate resilient,” says Sarronwala. “And once we manage to move into calorie-dense foods like staples, plus all of the fruit and vegetable basket, we’re talking about a true agricultural revolution.”
Header Visual © infarm.
Lightrock, an affiliated firm of LGT, is an impact investing initiative to build a global multi-billion dollar investing platform focused on scalable businesses that provide access to improved livelihoods. lightrock is building a portfolio of companies with pioneering innovation for deep long-term impact. It is part of LGT Group.
One of the portfolio companies is Infarm. You can find more information about this in the MAG/NET article Vertical farming: The food system of tomorrow?