Seemingly overnight, plant-based protein in everywhere. Impossible burgers are on the menu at restaurants across the country, Taco Bell is testing a taco made with synthetic chicken and plant-based milk producer Oatly just completed an IPO that valued the company at $13B.
In the west, a lot of this dovetails with health. People are living longer and healthier lives and they are looking for higher quality, more nutritious foods to help them do that. Plant-based alternatives generally fit that bill compared to traditional western diets based around red meat, heavy starches and carbohydrates.
At the same time, markets are opening up across Asia where the growing middle class is driving increasing demand for protein of all sorts. But not at the expense of health. The governments of South Korea, Singapore and India, in particular, are very focused on not repeating the mistakes of the western diet and are looking at plant-based diets as a way to improve the quality of their food systems without adding new healthcare costs to the mix.
New demand, new technologies
But there is a disconnect between the surging demand for plant-based meats and other alternative proteins and the reality of the agriculture supply chain: It remains difficult for farmers to produce enough protein-bearing crops to meet this need. The current system is simply reaching its limit – from the amount of protein available in today’s plants to the techniques used to extract it during food production – to live up to the promise of plant-based foods at scale.
The simple truth is that we need seeds that contain higher quality protein in greater quantities than is available today and we need better ways to extract it during processing. Once we get to the point that a unit of effort in the field can produce two to three times the protein from each plant we’ll be able to exponentially increase the protein supply without sacrificing quality. But how?
That’s the challenge that synthetic biology companies like Benson Hill, Zymergen and Ginkgo Bioworks are working to solve. Leveraging technologies like fermentation, microfluidics, CRISPR and more they are dramatically improving our ability to direct and steer biology in ways that will help us solve these challenges.
For instance, Benson Hill has developed a seed that increases protein content in the end crop, which enables farmers to increase their protein output without changing how they grow, without changing grain elevators, without changing production methods and without changing the supply chain. That means that companies like Impossible and Beyond Meat can now buy higher quality protein crops, reduce the amount of downstream processing to their end products and more efficiently source protein to meet their increasing demand.
But synbiology is more than just big data. It’s microfluidics, it is directed breeding, it is gene editing and more, all based on predictive modeling to turn these statistical models into actual, field level insights and products.
This impacts more than just protein capacity. By improving the process efficiency and quality of plant-based proteins, these companies are able to greatly reduce downstream processing to improve the end product. When growing protein-rich crops, at some point producers have to extract it from the plant in order to manufacture their foods. But the traditional extraction process damages the taste, forcing food companies to put additives into it to get the case back. And so the ingredient list gets longer. But increasing the protein quality and the nutrition off the field simplifies post-processing and reduces the amount of ingredients that end up on plant-based food labels. That saves producers money while making consumers happier. A win-win.
Investment as rocket fuel
The transition of Zymergen, Ginkgo Bioworks and Benson Hill to the public markets is a signal that we’ve laid the foundation to truly scale this technology. The research is happening, the products are in the field being grown and now it is time to accelerate the growth of plant-based meats. Not just among known companies like Impossible but at the thousands of other similar companies around the world that are also innovating in plant-based alternatives.
We’re at an inflection point in this market and it is just getting started.
Think back to where information technology was like 40 years ago. As of 1980, IT accounted for just 0.8% of GDP and less than 3% of all employment. Investment, growth and large-scale adoption changed all that in the 90s and, by 2015, the tech sector had grown to 5.2% of GDP. Our lives today would not be the same without that development.
The same thing is happening right now in plant-based protein. Like the telecom transition it is starting with building out the infrastructure to support mass adoption, driven by synbiology companies. Once that is in place, consumer adoption will increase and new developments will only serve to create better and better versions of what already has been proven to work.
Today it might just be a farmer growing soybeans in their field. But that routine work is poised to help meet the demand for better food in places like Asia while also helping Americans and others improve their health by eating closer to the ground. Maybe that will be in the form of plant-based alternative proteins. Maybe it will be traditional animal-based meat that’s produced more efficiently and humanely using higher quality feeds. As investment shifts to support the work being done by synbiology companies like Benson Hill that’s when we’ll start to see improvements in our food, our health and our day to day lives.