How to improve the future of food and agriculture – Jack Bobo

How to improve the future of food and agriculture – Jack Bobo

“I want us all to imagine that we are in 2050, and we’re looking back on this moment, this day, and we ask ourselves: did we do everything that we could do to make the world the place that we want it to be?”

Jack Bobo, CEO of Futurity, opened his keynote presentation at the Alltech ONE Virtual Experience with a challenging question for the audience. If our mission is for a better future of food and agriculture, what can we do to achieve this? The answer begins with a simple yet effective solution: we need to listen to the narratives surrounding these industries.

“We give meaning to the world around us through the stories that we tell… so today in my presentation, I’d like to talk about three different stories of what food and agriculture means.”

The three stories Bobo focused on were those of:

  1. Conservationists.
  2. Consumers.
  3. Farmers.

These three groups of people have one goal: a plentiful future of food and agriculture. However, these three groups tend to actively work against each other. But why is that?

Starting with conservationists and the planet

In 2018, the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report documented that 60% of wildlife populations on the planet have disappeared between 1970 and 2014. We also know that 20% of the Amazon has disappeared in the last 50 years.

“So, this dramatic loss in biodiversity has occurred within the lifetimes of many of us,” said Bobo. “Biodiversity is undergoing this incredible challenge, and things are not looking good.”

According to these findings, the future will suffer the same trend of degrading biodiversity.

“So, we have this tremendous challenge of not destroying all of our wild spaces,” said Bobo. However, the bigger question is, “How do we make sure that we leave a world for our children that’s as good or better than the one we received?”

Many people wonder: Is agriculture the problem or solution to our conservation struggles? People tend to believe the former, yet Bobo is not convinced.

“But how do we talk about it?” asked Bobo. “What’s the story that we need to tell?”

The stories we hear about biodiversity tell us that:

  1. Of global respondents, 80% believe that poverty has either increased or remained the same over the past 20 years.
  2. The food system is broken, and agriculture is failing the people around us.
  3. All deforestation is due to agriculture.
  4. We do not have the means to feed the rapidly growing population.

The stories we need to tell about biodiversity are that:

  1. Statistically, there is less poverty than there was 20 years ago — “Yet the public,” said Bobo, “think things are getting worse.”
  2. We are producing more food on the same amount of land than we were 50–60 years ago — “This is important,” said Bobo. “If food production stays ahead of population growth, well, that means people become better fed, they rise out of poverty, nutrition and hunger disease.”
  3. Better productivity and higher yields mean more food is being produced due to higher efficiency — “Improved productivity has saved a billion hectares of forest around the world. So more than a quarter of all the forest — nearly a third of all the forest — would be gone today without productivity increases.”
  4. The rate of population growth was at its highest in 1968 when we were growing at 2.1% per year. However, today we are growing at about 1% per year. As we continue to project toward the future, that number will keep going down. Because population growth will slow dramatically but, “if that productivity was to continue, every day after 2050, it gets easier to feed the world,” said Bobo.

“And so, I want to look at this question of sustainability, and how it impacts the stories we tell about the world we live in,” explained Bobo.

Diving into sustainability with consumers

Bobo says that sustainability is not a destination — it is a journey. However, sustainability means different things to different people. Is it organic food? Regenerative agriculture? GMOs? Consumers, in particular, seem the most concerned about sustainability in agriculture.

The stories we hear about sustainability are that:

  1. Farmers need to use less fertilizer and insecticide in order to reduce run-off into the local environment.
  2. We need to farm organically.
  3. Europe has pushed to intensive agriculture and is reducing the amount of fertilizer they use and the size of their farms. This should be a global initiative.

The stories we need to tell about sustainability are that:

  1. It is a challenge for farmers to use less insecticide and fertilizer because it means that they will probably produce less food — “If you produce less food on that farm, that means you’re going to need more farms,” explained Bobo.
  2. Organic agriculture produces 20–30% less food. If the whole world farmed organically, we would need to dedicate another 20­–30% to farms, and 40% of all the land on earth is already allocated to agriculture. This would have a devastating impact, according to Bobo, including the loss of our forests.
  3. Europe practices intensive agriculture but also imports 70% of its animal feed needs. Most of their imports come from Brazil, the country with the greatest level of deforestation — “So, in many ways, Europe has exported its environmental footprint to arguably the most biodiverse country on the planet,” said Bobo.

No matter how you dissect it, it is clear that we have a problem: we need to produce more food. The Food and Agriculture Organization states that we are going to need 50–60% more food by 2050, but why is that the case if we are only going to see about 20% more people? This is directly due to an improvement in income and overall wellbeing, and when people are making money and feeling well, they buy more animal protein. Yet more protein means more crops to feed animals, hence, a spike in food production.

“The former director general of the Food and Agriculture Organization, Jacques Diouf, once said that the amount of food that needs to be produced in the next 40 or 50 years is equivalent to the amount of food that was produced in the last 10,00 years,” explained Bobo. “Let me repeat that. The amount of food we need to produce in the next 40 or 50 years is greater than the amount of food produced in the last 10,000 years of human civilization.”

The challenge is daunting, and while agriculture is getting better, it is not getting better fast enough.

There are no silver bullets to solve this challenge, but we do know that we need to increase our food production as sustainably as possible.

Bobo explored possible solutions, such as:

  • Shifting diets: Many people believe that becoming a vegan or vegetarian is the solution to the problem. It is important to think about changing our diets to improve our health, but is this the way to also improve the environment? — “It’s not going to solve all of our problems,” said Bobo. He further explained that, even if the United States and Europe shifted their diets completely, people from low-income countries will be making more money in the next 30 years, which means they will be eating more protein. “So, shifting diets is important, but it can’t solve the problem all by itself.”
  • Food waste: A third of all food produced is lost to food waste. In developed countries, a third of food is wasted post-consumer. But, in third-world countries, food is wasted because of loss in the fields, supply chain and storage — “If we could somehow address that third of food that’s lost through food waste, then that would get us most of the way to our challenge,” explained Bobo. However, there are so many types of food waste (storage, distribution, consumer, field) and food waste issues with different products (tomatoes, soybeans, corn, cantaloupes) that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to solving the issue.
  • Technology: There are high-tech solutions, like gene editing and genetic engineering, and abundant ag-tech data that proves cover crops produce a higher return on investment and a lower environmental footprint.
  • Alternative proteins: “Of course, these alternative proteins are part of the solution,” said Bobo. “The problem we have, though, is that companies that are producing these different products… they’re talking about them as the solution. That plant-based proteins can eliminate livestock. That cell-based agriculture is going to make dairy obsolete.” This approach suggests that there is a silver-bullet solution to a really complex problem, “and as we’ve already discussed,” said Bobo, “there’s not one solution to the problem.” Bobo also notes that the protein market is a trillion-dollar opportunity and will only get bigger in 2050. “And so, who really believes that plant-based meat is going to become a trillion-dollar industry in just 30 years?” asked Bobo.

These solutions are all necessary for achieving sustainability. However, they have become competitors in the market rather than working together as a single solution. Bobo says we need to think about what the future will look like, and work toward opportunities instead of focusing on problems.

“We don’t need one solution,” explained Bobo. “We need them all.”

Actively working on these solutions with farmers is the best and most effective way to achieve the goals of conservationists and consumers.

Working with farmers

“I’m just happy that consumers and conservationists are now joining farmers on this journey of sustainability,” said Bobo. “Because we could use their help. Instead of framing it as agriculture is the problem to be solved, we need to help them to understand that agriculture is the solution to the problem.”

What we find from data collected by the World Resources Institute is that if agriculture continues to improve the way it has been, 60% of the gains we need to achieve a sustainable future will happen just by farmers continuing what they are already doing. The data also talks about incentivizing steps that will increase productivity and improve efficiency in:

  1. Livestock production.
  2. Reducing methane emissions.
  3. Using less fertilizer.

“Well, efficiency is something farmers want to do… So, these are huge opportunities. These are not challenges,” said Bobo.

However, if agriculture is the solution to our problem — the answer to improving the future of food — then why do we still hear that agriculture is the problem to be solved?

“Why do we talk about a broken food system when the food system was never not broken?” asked Bobo.

While it may be broken, Bobo assured the audience that the food system is better than it has ever been, and it will only continue to get better every day. But it is just not happening fast enough. Yet if we continue to spend our time spreading false stories and narratives about farmers being the problem, we cannot actively work with them toward a solution.

Organic agriculture may be critical to saving the planet, but it does not mean that genetic engineering and gene editing are not.

New alternative proteins are critical to saving the planet, but so are dairy farms and livestock production.

“It takes a menu of solutions to solve a problem,” explained Bobo.

Final thoughts

Bobo asked us an important question at the beginning of his presentation: Thirty years from now, will we be confident that we did everything that we could do to make the world the place that we want it to be?

Again, conservationists, consumers and farmers all want the same thing: a safe, plentiful and sustainable future of food and agriculture. The only way to achieve that goal is to start telling the same story, even if we are not always on the same page.

“Because if we do that,” said Bobo, “we all can save the planet.”

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Waste not, want not: Insect farming for the future of sustainable protein

Waste not, want not: Insect farming for the future of sustainable protein

Entocycle located near Tower Bride and London Bridge in London, produces protein from the larvae of the black soldier fly. Keiran Olivares Whitaker is the CEO.

Housed inside historic railway arches close to London’s Tower Bridge is an operation at the forefront of a sustainable farming revolution. It is nothing like a traditional farm: small, urban and, most unusual, indoors. But, this cozy, inner-city space houses a herd of thousands that could change the way we look at sustainable protein production.

You may ask, “What kind of farming system could possibly operate under these conditions?” The answer is insect farming.

This urban enterprise is called Entocycle and is the brainchild of Keiran Whitaker. An environmental engineer, Keiran saw the potential benefits to crops and livestock that come from harvesting insect protein. Combining the processes inherent in nature with pioneering technologies, Entocycle accesses an untapped resource that could be vital for the future of our planet.

Its production revolves around harvesting black soldier flies, which Native American warriors once used to clean their wounds after battle. In a sense, Keiran is doing something similar in his fight for sustainability, helping to heal the food web with this alternative protein.

A lifelong vocation

For Keiran, the idea of working toward a more sustainable future has never been one that he has had to consider. It has been ingrained in him from an early age.

“From day zero, I have lived in a household where we recycle, we compost, you turn the lights off, you turn the tap off,” explains Keiran.

Speaking on Alltech’s AgFuture podcast in 2018, Keiran described how it wasn’t until he started to see the world, witnessing firsthand the effect that humans are having on the planet, that he was inspired to take action.

“I worked in Southeast Asia, Central America, South America, and I lived up here in North America for a while,” said Keiran. “Almost everywhere that I went, especially in the developing world, rainforests are being cut down; our coral reefs are disappearing — not even dying, they’re just disappearing — and our fish populations are nonexistent.”

The harsh reality of what was happening all around him convinced Keiran to return to the U.K. and get to work. Now, through sheer energy and determination, he has pioneered a new way of addressing the growing issues resulting from global protein consumption.

To supply livestock with a nutritional diet, current international agricultural production leans toward plant-based protein, like soy, or fish protein. But, each of these natural resources comes with a unique set of issues.

Soy production is predominantly based in North and South America. To fulfill global demand, suitable farmland needs to be utilized, which ultimately leads to clearing down sections of forested land, including the rainforest. Even transporting the product around the world has its own carbon burden.

Using fish protein also has a serious knock-on effect when it comes to sustainability. Much of this protein is harvested from krill, a resource at the most basic level of the world’s food web. By using up these stocks, we cause a domino effect that resonates up through the rest of the food web, eventually causing more problems for our quality of life in the long term.

And the waste is history

Another issue that Keiran set out to address, not only in animal production practices, but globally, was unnecessary waste. Figures from the U.N. show that we are currently wasting 1.3 billion tons of food per year. This again is something that Keiran has been addressing from a young age.

“If you ask anyone who has seen me eat, there is never any food on my plate,” says Keiran. “That is how I was taught. Finish everything on your plate because all that food has so much effort put into it.

“So, if you kind of go through the back story — delivering to your plate, delivering to the grocery store and then the farming of that — the tale of that food is so long that if you just end up throwing away that 30% — which is what we are doing globally — that’s just horrendous,” he continued.

With these problems in mind, Keiran started looking for a solution that would not only fulfill global agriculture’s need for protein without harming the planet, but one that could actually help it, too. He searched for inspiration in the natural world. What he uncovered was a way to not only establish a never-ending source of protein, but to do so in a way that is waste-free.

“Nature does not have any waste,” explains Keiran. “The apple falls from the tree, the worm eats the apple, the bird eats the worm and off we go up the food web. That’s all we do at Entocycle.”

Instead of apples, the Entocycle larvae feed on locally sourced beer and coffee waste, working through 1.5 tons of it over the course of a week. In the process of digesting this waste, they excrete soil, which according to Keiran could potentially be used as an alternative fertilizer. He refers to it as “a byproduct of nature.”

A food system for the future

While the idea of eating insects might not sit well with a lot of people, the benefits are undeniable. Entocycle has developed a farming system that is truly sustainable. It is completely self-contained, depending only on itself to keep running. It leaves no negative impact on the world. On the contrary, the only thing it requires from us is the material we deem to be waste, and even that is turned into something that benefits the planet.

Possibly the greatest aspect of this system is that it can be implemented anywhere, at any time, as is proven by its central London headquarters.

“This technology can go literally anywhere, whether it’s in Arctic regions of Northern Sweden down to the Sahara Desert,” says Keiran. “It doesn’t matter if there is an El Niño, a La Niña, a drought, a flood. We can produce this the same, all year round.

“Traditional agriculture will just go through seasons,” continues Keiran, “and that’s normal. That’s nature. This is a new future.”

Keiran does admit that Entocycle’s work is most likely going to be used to supplement traditional farming techniques, rather than replace them completely. But he believes that change is coming, and it will be enterprises like his that will lead the way.

“We’re going through the massive agricultural revolution,” Keiran asserts. “I like to say the engineers of today are the farmers of tomorrow.”

Gallery

Amanda Radke: Alternative “meat” vs. traditional beef – Which is really more environmentally friendly?

Amanda Radke: Alternative “meat” vs. traditional beef – Which is really more environmentally friendly?

Consumers are growing more and more environmentally conscious, and many have started to experiment with meat-free options. From plant-based burgers to burgers made entirely of tissue-cultured meat, are these really the “alternative meats of the future?” What does this mean for the beef industry, and which option is actually better for the environment?

The following is an edited transcript of David Butler’s interview with Amanda Radke, beef blogger. Click below to hear the full audio. 

David:            I’m here with Amanda Radke, who’s a South Dakota cattle rancher and a blogger with Beef Magazine. How are you doing, Amanda?

Amanda:        I’m doing great. How about yourself?

David:            Good! Thanks so much for being on the show.

Amanda:        Yeah, you bet.

David:            Let’s talk a little bit about alternative proteins. You’ve been looking into that some lately and done some research on it, right?

Amanda:        Yeah. I think one of the biggest things that I wanted to emphasize in my message today was that I’m not anti-technology, and anything that we can come up with as far as food-science goes to feed the hungry planet is wonderful. So, I didn’t want to pit traditional beef production against anything else, and I’m not against consumer choice. However, some of these Petri dish protein companies are really touting themselves as environmentally and ethically superior to traditionally raised beef, and so I wanted to highlight why the beef cow is incredible in providing a safe and nourishing beef product for us to consume — and, also, life-enriching byproducts, and that simply can’t be replicated in a Petri dish.

David:            So, let’s compare beef to some of the different alternative protein options out there — and I know there are a bunch of them, so maybe the first thing would be to say, what are all the different alternatives?

Amanda:        Sure. Well, we’re seeing plant-based protein patties, like Beyond and Impossible, hitting the marketplace and receiving a lot of traction and attention from retailers carrying those options — and not just marketing them to your vegetarian and vegan crowd but marketing them to meat lovers as a direct replacement to a traditional cheeseburger. We also may see Petri-dish proteins enter the marketplace as soon as the end of the year, and so a lot of what we know about these products is conjecture right now, because these companies aren’t really forthcoming with any information on their manufacturing processes. However, what I do know is that the modern beef producer of today has a lot of great advantages as far as efficiently producing beef and doing it in a way that is not just sustainable to our natural resources, but it’s regenerative, too, and so that’s really what I wanted to celebrate today in my message.

David:            Go into some more specifics on how beef production is regenerative. What do you mean when you say that?

Amanda:        When I say regenerative, I want to look specifically at rangelands and grasslands. A lot of times, consumers will say, “Well, we could just plow up that land and use it to grow crops or cereal grains or whatever to feed people,” but the fact of the matter is that most of this land is unsuitable for modernizing or farming and can only be used by ruminant animals — and if it were not, it would become a desert or a barren wasteland. So, cattle, with each bite of grass they take, with each step of their hooves, they aerate the soil. They reduce fuel for wildfires. They provide habitat for everything from bees to rabbits and mice to deer and foxes, so they’re a critical component to our ecosystem, and they’re just part of the balance. Not only that, but they can upcycle this poor, marginal, inedible, cellulosic material that is grass and they can convert it into a nutrient-packed superfood like beef.

David:            And it’s not just grass, right? What other kinds of cellulose materials do they —

Amanda:        Sure. Well, it depends on the part of the country. They can eat everything from potato byproducts in Idaho to distillers grains in the corn belt, and so they can take byproducts of other crop production and other foods and can convert that into beef as well. I think, a lot of times, our consumers misplace the information or misplace the blame on climate change and greenhouse gas emissions because they’ve been told, if they skip eating meat one day out of the week, they’ll save the planet — but, ultimately, I guess I really want to stress that Mother Nature wasn’t wrong and the beef cow is incredible, and so we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, and that she can play a critical part in taking care of our natural resources and feeding a hungry planet.

David:            That’s good to know. You’ve got some kinds of problems that you’ve outlined, where alternative proteins don’t stack up to beef. Do you want to talk through some of those with us?

Amanda:        Sure. The first problem — and maybe it’s just the advantage of the beef cow — but these companies haven’t really proven their environmental impact. So, when they talk about the natural resources used in beef production, they also fail to acknowledge the energy use, the crops that are needed, the fact that there are still fetal cells that will be used in this production practice, the waste produced, as far as what’s being grown in the laboratory.

This all has an environmental footprint as well, and so I think there’s some burden of proof there for them to show us what their environmental footprint actually is, and can it compete if it goes to scale.

The next problem, as we discussed, is that this lab meat can’t regenerate and build topsoil quite like cattle can, and so, anytime we plow up rangeland and pastures to be used for monoculture and crop production, we’re losing that carbon capture of having that soil covered by grass. So just by having the grasslands maintained and not going into barren wasteland or trying to grow cereal grains or an alternative on this marginal land is something these Petri dish proteins can’t do.

The next, and it’s one I love talking about, is byproducts. When we think of beef cattle, we think of steaks and cheeseburgers, but it’s so much more than that. It’s things like insulin for diabetics, crayons, deodorants, leather goods like boots and belts and furniture, and everything in between. There are hundreds of byproducts that enrich our everyday lives that come from beef cattle — even organic fertilizer for vegetable production; that comes from cows, too. So, byproducts are a huge thing, and if we’re going to try to replace the all-in-one machine that is the beef cow with synthetic or alternative options for all these byproducts, that’s going to have an environmental footprint as well.

Then, another problem, a lot of these companies are promising that they’re antibiotic-free and pathogen-free. I think it’s unfair for any food company to claim that there aren’t vulnerabilities as far as food safety goes, and we need more transparency as far as their antibiotic usage —  where are they vulnerable, where are points of contamination — and I’m thankful that the FDA and USDA are going to jointly regulate and oversee these production practices, but yet, I think there’s a lot more they need to prove before they enter the marketplace.

Finally, someone told me, “Don’t you feel bad eating cattle? Your diet leads to death,” and I think it’s important to note that, once again, every diet, no matter if it’s total vegan or total carnivore, there’s animal deaths involved. Every time a field is plowed, you’re misplacing the wildlife that lived there. It’s just a give and take. As a rancher, I understand the circle of life and I value that beef cattle for what she offers to people, to nourish and enrich people’s lives. However, I think it’s just a convenient thing that the plant-based folks kind of ignore that their diets also cause death and suffering as well, so it’s just a matter of where you place your importance, I guess. For me, I can feel pretty confident that I’m utilizing a beef animal and respecting what she has to offer humanity while also respectfully caring for that animal, too, while she is in our care.

David:            Yeah, good point. I’m sure most people haven’t even thought of the fact that crops do displace natural habitat. Pasture does, to an extent, too. That certainly is a problem, when deforestation occurs for pasture, but if you’re on natural grasslands, that’s not quite as big of an issue. You mentioned antibiotics, and I would think that most people would assume the cell-based or Petri dish-based meat wouldn’t need any antibiotics, because these are not living animals that are walking around and potentially getting sick, so where would the antibiotics come into that process?

Amanda:        Sure. Well, without actually having seen the manufacturing process take place, I think there are a lot of unknowns there, and I can’t speak with authority on how the antibiotics would be used. However, just like any living thing — especially when it’s interacting with humans in a lab — there are those points of vulnerability where antibiotics might be applied and used in that setting. So, I appreciate the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association coming out and saying strongly that we need more information and clarity on antibiotic usage in these Petri dish proteins’ production practices, and that needs to be regulated and overseen by the USDA.

David:            So, you’re talking about some sort of instance where there’s contamination in the lab or in the production process.

Amanda:        Perhaps. It could come out the collection phase, too. We’re dealing with live animals at that stage as well, as far as the fetal cells, and so, yeah, I think maybe it’s — like I said, we’re in its infancy right now, where we don’t totally know and understand the processes.

I really hate fear-mongering about any products that I don’t know or understand, and I’m always very mindful of, no matter what the beef is, whether it’s natural, grass-fed, organic or Petri-dish, it’s an option for the consumers and we’re getting protein on people’s plate, and these products could be viable in the marketplace and a solution to giving people around the world that product. However, where I have problems is in this rush to market and in this rush to get a return on investment with these major investors that are actively participating in these production practices. I worry that food safety, transparency, nutritional information might not be as clear as they should be for our consumers.

David:            So, we need to be cautious there, yeah. Talk a little bit about the natural resources, the inputs, that go into cell-based proteins.

Amanda:        Sure. Again, this is conjecture, really, from what I’ve read and can understand, but you’re going to need, obviously, a fetal calf and cells from that calf. They’ll grow in a suitable medium, and, from what I understand, it could be soybeans or corn, mushrooms, and could even be cattle-based, just depending on the company. That growth medium will grow the muscle fibers and also the fat fibers; they’re grown separately and have to come together. By my understanding, they’re kept at 98 degrees Fahrenheit, and these cells, as they duplicate and grow, they produce waste, and so, then, waste has to be taken out of that Petri dish as well.

It’s a huge process. There might be some opportunities for crop producers, corn and soybean growers, to provide this medium for these cells to grow. I don’t want to be shortsighted and think that these products don’t have a place in agriculture; however, it’s difficult for me, as a beef producer, to see them disparage our industry while also trying to hijack our nomenclature, like beef, and the great reputation that beef has with our beef-loving consumers, and use it to market their product.

David:            Yeah. If you’re going to have to grow the cells in a medium that’s made out of something — because it’s not magic, they have to provide nutrients to the cells — if those are supplied with soybeans or corn or any kind of plant, then it’s not necessarily going to have a smaller footprint than a cow.

Amanda:        Exactly, yes.

David:            It might or might not, but it’s not going to be drastically — it’s not going to be free of inputs, right?

Amanda:        Correct.

David:            And they also will have to maintain this environment at this temperature and keep it in a sterile setting, and that’s going to take a lot of energy.

Amanda:        Absolutely, and, yeah, I think they’re downplaying that side of their story while really focusing on any negatives they might perceive about traditionally raised beef. And so, I want to compare apples to apples — or apples to oranges, however you might look at it — and as they go to scale in the marketplace, they’ll have to prove that burden in the environmental footprint, and then we’ll see, but I really think the beef cow can compete and has a great story to tell and is an important part of our environmental stewardship and our sustainability story, as far as a planet and a human race.

David:            You’ve mentioned that there’s a little bit of controversy over the use of the words “meat” and “beef”. Some of these products, when they come to market, they may want to call them burgers or meat or beef, or meatless, whatever — so where does that stand? Is it a regulatory issue? Is it controversial?

Amanda:        There are several states across the country that are fighting to protect the nomenclature of meat and beef, and I’ve got to give props to Kentucky; the governor just signed a proclamation declaring it Beef Month for May but also signing a labeling law that would prohibit fake meats from calling themselves “meat” or “beef”. I think that’s a great first step in setting those precedents on a state level before it can be federally enforced.

We’re also seeing countries around the world, like Australia, France, the European Union — they’re all addressing these meat-labeling rules and what is best and most informative for consumers. To me, it’s really misleading to have these alternative products be called “meat” and “beef”.

Most importantly, beef producers have invested, through the Beef Checkoff Program, a dollar per animal sold to promote beef. So you have everything from the iconic “Beef: It’s what’s for dinner” slogan, to research to create new steaks that would add value to the carcass, to educating our consumers about how best to prepare beef, and that investment has earned us a great reputation with our consumers. Beef is beloved, and it’s king of the grill, and now, these companies want to take that nomenclature and use it for themselves, so that’s really frustrating, and I think that’s why the beef industry in general is really active in this fight: because beef is beef, period, and its name shouldn’t be slapped on any other product.

David:            Let’s compare sales of alternative or plant-based proteins to beef. Where does that stand right now?

Amanda:        U.S. sales of plant-based meats jumped 42% between March 2016 and March 2019, to a total of $888 million. Meanwhile, traditional meat sales rose just 1% to $85 billion in that same time frame, and that’s according to ABC News. Beyond Meat is valued at $5.1 billion, as of today. I just read a story by a guy, and he predicts that that rising star is going to fizz a lot pretty fast, but I think it’s a clear indication that retailers and consumers are incredibly excited about, at least, the plant-based protein patties and are willing to try it. I just read a study that one-third of consumers are also willing to try lab proteins, and so it’ll be interesting to see what consumer acceptance looks like once they get to try it, if they like it and, again, if beef can hang on to the center of the dinner plate.

David:            So, it’s early days, still.

Amanda:        Yes.

David:            We’ll see what happens, right?

Amanda:        Yeah. I think the plant-based proteins, if you look at their ingredient list, it’s a mile long, and it’s essentially just a processed food; it’s not a whole, nourishing food like beef is, a complete protein like beef would be. So, for me, it’s a little interesting to see what types of consumers are loving this product. Are they the types that are really interested about health and nutrition? Are they buying it out of guilt or fear about the environment or about animal welfare? And, if so, how do we address some of the concerns that they might have about traditional beef and get them back to eating beef as a protein choice in between those hamburger buns.

David:            All right. Well, thank you, Amanda. It was a great conversation and I appreciate your time.

Amanda:        Thanks for having me. I was thrilled to be able to share that Alltech stage with such talented speakers (at ONE: The Alltech Ideas Conference), and it’s just a great event to be a part of.

Amanda Radke spoke at ONE: The Alltech Ideas Conference (ONE). Click here to learn about ONE and how you can access innovation on demand.

From food waste to animal feed: Entocycle uses agtech and insects to produce alternative protein

From food waste to animal feed: Entocycle uses agtech and insects to produce alternative protein

Agriculture produces an abundance of food. Sadly, one-third of that food is wasted, either before it reaches the grocery or after it is purchased. On a planet where roughly 800 million people go hungry, this represents a global tragedy. It’s also an environmental catastrophe.

Wasted food impacts the environment twice. At every step in the food chain, natural resources are consumed and greenhouse gases are produced. When that food is discarded and sent to a landfill or left to rot, it produces methane and other greenhouse gases.

There are many ways to reduce the amount of food that is wasted before it reaches the consumer, and public information campaigns could help reduce the amount of food that is wasted after it is sold or prepared. But some food waste and spoilage is inevitable.

Some wasted food ends up as animal feed instead of being sent to the landfill. But that may not be the best option for livestock farmers who need to ensure a safe, high-quality diet for their animals. Food waste can be converted to high-protein animal feed by using it to feed insects and using those insects in animal feed. In the following interview, Keiran Whitaker, founder and CEO of Entocycle, describes his company’s vision for doing just that.

Nicole: Was Entocycle born out of kind of an “a-ha” moment, or was it an idea that came out of solution-seeking discussions about population growth and unsustainable grain production?

Keiran: I think, personally, I had an “a-ha” moment, but the actual idea wasn’t an “a-ha” moment, per se. My background is environmental design, environmental engineering, and I did a master’s in this field, which I thought was a very good business opportunity to start. I then went traveling just one more time after university, and it turned into a five-and-a-half-year, around-the-world experience working as a scuba diving instructor. I worked in Southeast Asia, Central America, South America, and I lived up here in North America for a while. Almost everywhere that I went, especially in the developing world, rainforests are being cut down; our coral reefs are disappearing — not even dying, they’re just disappearing — and our fish populations are nonexistent. The phrase “plenty of fish left in the sea” just doesn’t apply anymore.

Essentially, I know that we will always find a new technical solution. It’s just a matter of how much we are willing to give up from an environmental point of view until we find that technical solution. So, I want to push it now. You’ll meet very few people who moved from a beach in Mexico back to wet, windy, rainy London in January, but I had my mission and here I am today.

Nicole: Your solution is the world’s first environmentally-controlled, fully-automated system to produce industrial levels of black soldier fly protein. Can you tell me a bit about that process?

Keiran: There are many different types of insects that people are starting to farm: Crickets, locusts, mealworms, et cetera — even house flies. But a lot of them have negative issues. They’re pest species or disease vectors, or they’re just too slow to produce. We focused on black soldier fly because it is non-disease and non-pest. The adults don’t even have the traditional digestive systems, so they don’t eat, which means that the larvae have to get all of that energy before metamorphosing into the fly, so they are the fastest. They literally go from [the size of] a grain of sand to an inch within a space of less than a week, really, and they consume food waste. We’re tackling two problems head-on: the massive environmental burden from food waste, plus a new source of protein. When I say “new,” animals eat insects anyway — it’s just a natural part of their diet — so we’re just returning to a normal function.

For us, our belief is you need to use 21st-century technology to bring what is a 150-million-years-old solution into the food chain. We are talking about robotics automation, machine learning, visual recognition to drive down that price point so it can be competitive. With any new industry, you need to take a holistic approach, so we feel that the farmers of tomorrow are the engineers of today. We will always become more advanced in the way we’re doing things in agriculture. It’s just evolving into this new kind of technological space and we went a bit in front of that.

Nicole: When you’re talking about the larvae eating food waste, a lot of things could come to mind. What specifically are they eating?

Keiran: The insects themselves can eat nearly any food waste — we’re talking everything from manure on a farm to household catering waste — but what we’re looking at and where we think the future lies is in pre-consumer wastes. These are whiskey grains, beer grains — both the solid and the liquid grains — spent coffee waste from coffee shops or industrial processing plants, or rotten vegetables.

They can take anything, realistically. We want to make sure it’s a clean source. We know what’s the input because, then, we know what the output is. As the technology evolves, maybe we can evolve into new areas, but right now it’s beer grain, coffee waste and potato waste, is what we’re using in London.

Nicole: My partner is a home brewer, and the spent grain starts to ferment quickly. Is that when the larvae like to feed most, when the grains are kind of odorous, or is it best to get the grains as quickly as possible?

Keiran: For us, because we are a precision-farming operation, having a standardized input will always give you a better-quality product output. But, realistically, when the apple falls from the tree and starts fermenting, the insects land on the apple, the bird eats the insects and off we go up the food chain. There are amazing things about biology that we don’t see every day, including that many animals digest food external to their stomach before then eating it. Remember, these insects have been fighting for billions of years for the same resources — with fungi, with bacteria — and they’re the winners. They are the big boys and girls in the market, so they will always win. They don’t mind anything — so they would love the smelly grains.

Nicole: Just out of curiosity, are there certain grains that the larvae seem to respond to better than others? In other words, are they more into simply barley-based beers or ones with more glucans that typically come from wheat and rye, like Belgian beers? What kind do they like?

Keiran: Again, we don’t just feed them with a single input. We are using a combination. Much like us, they need a balanced diet, so we use a combination. What we’re currently using — because we sit right in the tip of the very trendy Bermondsey Beer Mile in London, and we have about seven big, very fast-growing breweries doing IPAs, stouts, the whole range — so we take a big plethora of inputs. They love it, honestly.

Nicole: They’re not picky.

Keiran: No. You have to think, this is essentially like a wormery, but instead of taking six months, it takes us six days to go through the same process. When they digest it, they leave behind their fertilizer. We are not just double-impacting with the input wastes in our product; we are also producing two different products, which are protein and fertilizer.

Nicole: How do you actually collect the larvae?

Keiran: We have two processes: we farm the insects ourselves, and we have the world’s first fully-automated insect farmer to do this. One percent is used to repopulate — so, the adult broodstock — and 99 percent go into controlled environment crates, then eat the food waste. At the end of it, you have a fine fertilizer and very large larvae, which we just put over a separation sieve plate and the soil falls through. The larvae go down to be processed into protein flour.

Nicole: When you market this to farmers, do you just kind of take out your handful of dried flies and pitch it into a pond for aquaculture and say, “Look how tasty these are?” How do you market something like this?

Keiran: When I was in Brazil, we used to just feed a lot of the animals on the farm — chickens and pigs — with the raw live larvae, and the amount of amazing happy noises would come. I would be followed around by a gaggle of around 40 chickens at any one point when I walked. The pigs would always know when we’re coming nearby and will just literally stop me. I’m not going do a pig impression of pigs happy, but you can imagine what it sounds like.

Realistically, where we’re looking is at the high-quality nutrition industry —providing just the protein flour to big feed companies, such as Alltech Coppens, to make into specialized pellets, predominantly aiming at the higher-end aquaculture market. But last year, aquaculture was deregulated. Next year, chickens will become deregulated. In 2020, it looks like pigs will be also. So, the market is huge — just in aquaculture alone, they are saying it’s a $100-billion opportunity — so take that across all the different industries. Remember, year on year on year, we’re growing bigger and bigger and bigger in terms of the farming industry. Even though I started off saying farming is a negative influence, I actually think it’s a huge opportunity to increase massive sustainability, and to also feed the growing population.

Nicole: When you say it’s being deregulated, do you mean insect protein?

Keiran: Yes, insect protein — the market it can be used in. I mean, it’s almost a joke in a way, because it’s called fly fishing when you go catch a salmon because you put fly on the end of the hook. Everyone knows you get a premium for free-range chicken because it’s, half the time, in the field eating insects. It’s just a natural source, and we need to commercialize it. That’s where we’re focusing.

Nicole: How does the cost compare to other feed? You said that it is kind of a higher-quality protein.

Keiran: Right now, we all know and the whole market out there knows that insect protein is more expensive purely because it’s such a novel industry, even with the big players out there. They’re still producing just relatively few tons a year.

Where this industry needs to go is the tens of thousands of tons a year per facility. What we’re focusing on is not necessarily producing protein, but producing the technology to produce the protein and, then, finding partners to do that with — whether that’s with large waste producers, feed companies or farmers who already integrated, or even entrepreneurs who are looking to put a new unit in their farm, for example. This is a technology, so we’re looking more at a decentralized model and working with other people, but our focus is on the technology to do this.  

Nicole: What would you say is the true cost of global protein obsession, conventionally speaking?

Keiran: Yes. I think that’s one of the big fundamental issues, is the untraceability, or what is unknown by the final consumer — the everyday mom and dad who are buying the chicken meat, et cetera. We don’t include the water cost that comes from developing it. We don’t include the labor cost, the shipping cost. I would probably say it’s probably five times larger than what we’re paying. But somewhere along the supply chain, someone is paying — and realistically, it’s not us or the end consumer, it’s the early-stage farmer.

Whether you care about farming or not, you should care about the whole supply chain. There is no reason why we can’t be doing more sustainable things today. The only rationale is that people are just following the process as before, so we want to be really pioneering at the front. I think that’s why being in this partnership and this Accelerator with Alltech is phenomenal, because you guys are doing the same thing across the world. If we can tap into even a small part of that, then we have a massively positive effect as well.

Nicole: Can you talk a little bit about how you’ve been able to fund what you have so far?

Keiran: Yes. I saved up a bit of cash while I was a scuba diving instructor, as I talked about. It was not much. I moved back to the UK and moved back in with my folks after about ten years of having lived away. It was tough, I’m not going to lie. But I was almost manically obsessed with developing this technology, so I was working until 4:00 a.m. every day by myself. I found a very cheap place to work from. I then moved to Brazil and built a pilot facility over there for nearly six months. I stayed there for eight months in total.

When I came back to the UK, we got into an accelerator program called MassChallenge. We were one of the winners, so I got £20,000 there. I managed to hire few people. We started winning several big grants from the European and the UK government, including the European Space Agency, actually. We then got into Y Combinator, which is one of the global accelerator programs in Silicon Valley — I think it’s like, one in 40,000 gets accepted each year — so, off the back of that, we raised our first significant seed round and we’re now looking at our second raise, especially as part of the development we’ve done with Alltech. It just opened so many doors to us. It’s upward and onward, I suppose, is the right way to put it.

Nicole: I’m talking with Keiran Whitaker, founder and CEO of Entocycle. Thank you.

Keiran: Thank you very much. Have a great day.

Alternative Proteins – Grasshoppers – Hargol

Alternative Proteins – Grasshoppers – Hargol

Tom:             Selected from more than 180 applicants, Hargol FoodTech of Israel is among the 10 innovative food and agriculture ventures around the world brought to Lexington to make its case for investment. Co-founder and CEO Dror Tamir is among presenters in The Pearse Lyons Accelerator program — his latest stop in what has been an enormously successful whirlwind world quest.  Hargol … is in the grasshopper business. Dror, thank you for joining us.

Dror:             You’re welcome. Happy to be here.

Tom:             We’re pleased you’re here, especially given all the traveling that you’ve been doing. We’ll get into that in just a moment because it’s very interesting. But first, I have to ask, edible grasshoppers. Do tell.

Dror:             Yes. Well, I can start with the story about the expected increase in global demand of protein. It is expected to double by 2050. And we all know that existing protein sources have their limitations. So the demand for alternative, high-quality protein will skyrocket. That’s one story.

                    The other story is grasshoppers are the most widely eaten insect in the world, by about 2 billion people worldwide, mainly in regions where there is a lack of protein in people’s diet. Today, they just collect them in the wild, and it means that they have a very limited season of four to six weeks. We will enable them to farm them year-round and reduce their cost significantly.

Tom:                I understand that you have developed a way to lengthen the normally short breeding season of edible grasshoppers. Is that correct?

Dror:             A little bit different. What we did was shorten the eggs’ incubation period. In the wild, it takes about 40 weeks for the eggs to hatch, which means they can have one cycle a year. And what we did, we incubate in an incubator the eggs and we reduce the period to two weeks, meaning that we can have 10 cycles per year.

Tom:                And how did you come up on this idea? What instigated it?

Dror:             The funny story is, I’m an accountant. So accountants have very strange ideas. But the real story is, my previous startup, Plate My Meal, is dealing with obesity prevention and, while working about that startup, I learned about malnutrition and the lack of protein in people’s diet. So as an entrepreneur, when you see a big problem, you start looking for a solution, and I came up with grasshoppers.

Tom:                When we think of grasshoppers, of course, especially in this country, we think of a bug. However, there are other parts of the world where it’s nothing at all to have a handful of grasshoppers. What is the end product like? Is it a powder? Or is it a grasshopper?

Dror:             Both.

Tom:             Both?

Dror:             Yes. Just south of the U.S., you have Mexico, and the local grasshoppers called chapulines are a national dish. You have tens of millions of Mexicans in the U.S., and the demand for grasshoppers is high, and there is no supply of them. So when we look at the market potential and the opportunities, we look at two different products. One is, we mill the grasshoppers into a protein powder. We sell it to food manufacturers that produce healthy foods based on it. And we also sell to restaurants in Southern U.S. And that’s about 35 percent of the demand that we see from the market.

What does a grasshopper taste like?

Tom:                I have to ask, what does a grasshopper taste like? Not chicken, I’m sure.

Dror:             I’m using that answer, usually. The thing is this: The grasshopper is almost neutral in taste and flavor, so the actual taste depends on the way you cook it. So you can get a taste that feels like shrimps or small fish, a nutty taste, or even a wheaty taste.

Tom:                Tell me about the company’s former name and why you changed it to its current name.

Dror:             Oh, that’s a good question. Former name was Steak TzarTzar, and, actually, everything started as a joke because steak tartare, we all know what it is. And tzartzar in Hebrew means crickets. So it started like that. And the name really caught, and people really liked it until we had our first investor from the U.S., and said we cannot pronounce tzartzar, you have to change the name. So we came up with Hargol, and that’s the name of the kosher grasshopper from the Bible.

Winning global competitions with grasshopper genius

Tom:                Now, as we mentioned earlier, you’ve been experiencing quite a whirlwind of excitement in recent weeks. How is this interest in your product influencing your plans for the future?

Dror:             That’s a complicated question to answer. What happened in recent weeks, we got a lot of attention and attraction from all over the world, and it means that it’s hard for us to maintain the focus we had. Our focus is on the U.S. market. We want to produce an ingredient to food manufacturers. Keep it simple with a single product to a specific market. And the attraction from all over the world, from Europe, from Africa, from Asia, means that there’s very high demand for whole grasshoppers frozen, freeze-dried, roasted, for powders of all kinds of species of grasshoppers, and we have to maintain focus on what our plans are and keep all these new opportunities to a later stage of the company.

Tom:                You have a great deal of momentum going for you right now, and you are in the midst of some pretty serious globetrotting. Can you describe for me what the past week or so has been like for you in your travels?

Dror:             The past actually three weeks, since we finished the Alltech Accelerator in Dublin. We’ve been working hard with their team, with (the) Dogpatch team and Alltech, to perfect our pitch. And the moment we finished that demo day, three weeks ago, we applied to several competitions, startup pitching competitions, five of them, actually, and we won all five. Some of them are in Israel. Some of them are international. The largest one, just two days ago in Singapore, with over 10,000 startups from over 100 countries, and it’s unbelievable for us to imagine that grasshoppers could beat all these amazing technologies. I can only tell that this is the hard work of Alltech and Dogpatch with us to get the pitch to that level.

Could grasshoppers be the next sushi?

Tom:                How do you envision your concept — and I should interject here that I understand that you’re targeting two different markets, the grasshoppers themselves and also the protein supplement, I suppose. How do you envision these concepts affecting the average consumer’s diet or the dinner table?

Dror:             Well, as we see it, the new protein sources, it will take them a long time to replace existing protein sources. It’s hard to change our behavior, our habits. So it’s the same as it was with sushi. In the ’80s, no one would ever try raw fish in the U.S., and now it’s common food you can find everywhere and it’s really cheap. And we believe that it will be like that. It will be only insects or only grasshoppers. You will have a variety of new protein sources: plant-based, algae-based, cultured meat maybe, and many, many other sources. And eventually, they will become part of our diet. And we will have, because of that, many new food applications that we will be able to find in the market, and we also see it getting into the pet food industry and feed industry as well.

Grasshoppers…on Mars?

Tom:            There’s a lot of lore around this insect, many stories, and I know that you have plenty of them. Can you give us a few?

Dror:             Sure. Let’s do some amazing facts about grasshoppers and insects.

First, grasshoppers have been around on Earth before the dinosaurs. They’re an ancient, very efficient creature.

Second thing, grasshoppers are the only kosher and halal insect in the world. They are mentioned on Leviticus as kosher. Actually, that’s the name of the company, Hargol.

And the last thing is that’s our vision in Hargol FoodTech and it will be that missions to Mars will have insects as part of the closed system to support humans on this long and challenging trip.

Tom:                And why is that?

Dror:             Because insects first are really efficient, and they provide zero-waste farming, meaning they can use any waste generated by humans and plants and generate with that protein and fat for the uses of both humans and plants.

Tom:                What do you enjoy most about what you do?

Dror:             It’s fun. We’re having so much fun. We’re having so much laugh about it, so many jokes. The joke I like the most is that our CTO Chanan Aviv, for over 30 years, has been growing, breeding and eating a wide variety of insects, and this is why he is the only guy with hair on his head on our team.

Tom:             Dror Tamir with Hargol, which is among the 10 companies chosen for The Pearse Lyons Accelerator program. Thank you for being with us.

Dror:             Thank you very much.