HAVING radically changed the way we communicate, do research, buy books, listen to music, hire a car and get a date, Silicon Valley now aims to transform the way we eat. Just as text messages have replaced more lengthy discourse and digital vetting has diminished the slow and awkward evolution of intimacy, tech entrepreneurs hope to get us hooked on more efficient, algorithmically derived food.
Call it Food 2.0.
Following Steve Jobs’s credo that “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them,” a handful of high-tech start-ups are out to revolutionize the food system by engineering “meat” and “eggs” from pulverized plant compounds or cultured snippets of animal tissue. One company imagines doing away with grocery shopping, cooking and even chewing, with a liquid meal made from algae byproducts.
This, of course, flies in the face of an entrenched local and artisanal food movement that has restaurant servers waxing romantic about where items on the menu come from and how they are prepared — the more natural and less processed the better. And yet, despite their radically different approaches, the high- and low-tech culinary camps share a common desire to create a more sustainable food supply and, less loftily, to capitalize on people’s appetites.
“Ever since Sylvester Graham invented the graham cracker, people have been trying to materialize their ethical position into morally or ideological pure foods,” said Heather Paxson, an anthropologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “The graham cracker was supposed to increase the moral fiber of humans by filling them up so they wouldn’t be lascivious from eating meat and other rich foods.”
Whether for moral reasons or because of a Jobsian belief in the superiority of their vision, high-tech food entrepreneurs are focusing primarily on providing alternatives to animal protein. The demand is certainly there. Worldwide consumption of pork, beef, poultry and other livestock products is expected to double by 2020. Animal protein is also the most vulnerable and resource-intensive part of the food supply. In addition to livestock production’s immense use of land and water, runoff pollution and antibiotic abuse, it is responsible for 14.5 percent of greenhouse gases, according to the United Nations.
Venture capital firms like Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Closed Loop Capital, Khosla Ventures and Collaborative Fund have poured money into Food 2.0 projects. Backing has also come from a hit parade of tech-world notables including Sergey Brin of Google, Biz Stone of Twitter, Peter Thiel of PayPal and Bill Gates of Microsoft, as well as Li Ka-shing, Asia’s wealthiest man, who bought early stakes in Facebook and Spotify.
“We’re looking for wholesale reinvention of this crazy, perverse food system that makes people do the wrong thing,” said Josh Tetrick, the vegan chief executive of San Francisco-based Hampton Creek. His company has created an egg substitute using protein extracted from the Canadian yellow pea, incorporating it into Just Scramble, Just Mayo and Just Cookie Dough, which are starting to find their way onto grocery store shelves nationwide.
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While current egg replacers (Ener-G, the Vegg, etc.) and meat alternatives (Tofurky, Soyrizo, etc.) have not achieved a high degree of household penetration, Hampton Creek and its rivals say they can come up with better products by relying more on computational science than food science.
Instead of the go-to ingredients previously used in animal protein substitutes — soy, wheat gluten, vegetable starches — Food 2.0 companies are using computer algorithms to analyze hundreds of thousands of plant species to find out what compounds can be stripped out and recombined to create what they say are more delicious and sustainable sources of protein.