Plant-based meat alternatives won hearts and mouths as Impossible and Beyond Meat burgers swept stores and fast-food chains last year. A protein substitute with a smaller carbon footprint than livestock, plant-based meats offer a solution to the tremendous environmental impact of agriculture and give consumers a way to vote with their dollars.
Innovation in food technology is bigger than ever, and alternatives to traditional resource-intensive foods go far beyond the hamburger patty.
Here are three food technologies changing the game in 2020.
Protein powder made from air
Launched in 2017, Finnish tech startup Solar Foods created solein, a protein powder made using soil bacteria, carbon dioxide, water, and renewable electricity. While the powder is made out of a little more than “thin air,” as the company’s marketing materials might suggest, it’s a green alternative to traditional protein sources, which require tremendous amounts of land and resources to grow. The substance’s production processes are “completely disconnected” from the agriculture industry, Solar Foods CEO Pasi Vainikka says, thus reducing the global burden that farming poses to the environment.
Solein, which is designed to be added as a protein supplement to bread, pasta, yogurt, and more, will be ready to compete with soy on the global market by the end of this decade, Vainikka recently told the BBC. While the company’s growth raises questions of emissions from scale, the CEO remains confident that Solar Foods could produce enough solein to be sold globally using mostly solar and wind power, thus limiting its emissions and making it an (almost) carbon-neutral alternative to meat and soy. Additionally, because solein is grown in a lab, its production would not be dependent on seasonality or weather patterns and could become a reliable solution for food insecurity in low-income nations.
Last November, Brooklyn startup Air Co. launched the world’s first-ever carbon-negative spirit. After capturing and liquifying carbon dioxide from nearby beverage manufacturing plants and ethanol factories, Air Co. uses electricity to distill it into ethanol and oxygen through a process called electrochemical conversion. The end result is an 80-proof bottle that sells for $65 and removes an estimated eight trees’ worth of carbon from the atmosphere in its production.
Want clean energy and lower power bills?Check availability
Air Co. is now the most eco-friendly spirit on earth, though its creators, Greg Constantine (formerly of Smirnoff) and chemist Stafford Sheehan, are quick to admit that’s not saying much. “The spirits industry … has never been innovative,” Constantine told Bklyner recently. The standard bottle of vodka is made with resource-intensive ingredients (fermented grains like corn and wheat) and emits around 13 pounds of carbon into the atmosphere. Air Co. not only averts these emissions but goes a step further, removing one pound of carbon from the atmosphere during its production.
After Air Co. launched with a splash at the end of 2019, the founders said they planned to roll the vodka out in stores and at bars in the New York City area by early 2020, so it’s worth keeping an eye out for.
Fish food that feeds on greenhouse gasses
Innovation in the food space is officially no longer limited to products designed for human consumption — scientists at California-based NovoNutrients are now using carbon-sequestering technology to produce low-cost feed for fish growing in fisheries. The technology is designed to solve two environmental problems: the burden of excess carbon in the atmosphere and the growing strain on global fish populations (and subsequent demand on man-made fisheries).
Using microorganisms to convert carbon dioxide into protein, CEO David Tze has created a substance that provides an alternative to fishmeal, the standard powder given to fish in large-scale fisheries made out of the ground-up bodies of anchovies and other fish. Because most fisheries rely on fish supply to support their own stocks, they’re dependent on a shrinking animal population as they attempt to serve a growing human population. Novomeal seeks to solve this paradox.
The bacteria Tze and his team use consume CO2 diverted from industrial sources. The product and the process are both “entirely decoupled from agriculture and fossil fuels,” Tze told Inc. Magazine in May 2019. He plans to put the product to market in early 2020.