As the world wakes up to the dual challenge of reducing environmentally devastating livestock farming and feeding a predicted ten billion mouths by 2050, the race is on to develop alternative sources of protein to milk and meat, with Israeli startups multiplying like mushrooms after the rain.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the livestock industry contributes 14.5 percent of all human-caused global warming gases, with cattle responsible for more than half.
In South and Central America, in particular, the need for pasture and for land to grow animal feed is the leading factor behind rainforest destruction — a process that releases billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and drives thousands of species to extinction every year.
Yaakov Nahmias, founder and CSO of the Israeli company Future Meat Technologies, told a World Press Clubs Alliance for Climate conference organized by the Jerusalem Press Club on Friday that livestock occupies 77% of global arable land and uses 23% of the world’s freshwater.
But with an estimated 56 billion-plus farmed animals being killed every year, the meat and dairy industry has reached capacity. There is no more land or water. Furthermore, its attempts to produce more meat more intensively and cheaply have led not only to more animal cruelty (see picture above) but to more disease and greater use of hormones and antibiotics — all of which end up on our plates.
With a rising world population and changing diets, especially in Asia, demand for meat and milk products is only growing.
But in the West, health, environmental and animal welfare concerns are driving growing interest in protein alternatives. The alternative protein sector raised $1.5 billion in investment capital during the first seven months of this year, reflecting an 80% rise on the same period in 2019, according to the Good Food Institute, a not-for-profit organization launched in the US in 2016 to encourage healthier, more sustainable food, with a focus on alternative protein.
By last year, the GFI was setting up a branch in Israel. Its Business Development Director Aviv Oren told The Times of Israel that around 100 Israeli companies are involved on some level with alternative protein, including more than 30 startups with groundbreaking technology that have successfully raised funds.
The drive to find sustainable meat and dairy alternatives worldwide propelled companies such as Beyond Meat (already sold in stores and restaurants in Israel) and Impossible Foods to create plant-based alternatives with similar protein levels to meat but without the cholesterol, antibiotics and hormones and with less saturated fat.
In Israel, companies developing plant-based alternatives to meat, milk and even eggs are looking not only at soy but also at peas, chickpeas and even quinoa.
While Tnuva, Israel’s largest food manufacturer, already features prominently on supermarket shelves with its soy-based “Alternative” brand of yogurts and milks, InnovoPro, which has raised $20.75 million from investors to produce its neutral-flavored chickpea protein concentrate, is currently developing puddings and egg-free mayonnaise. Company CEO Taly Nechusthan this month visited Dubai with a delegation of 12 other Israeli startups in Fintech, cyber and foodtech led by JVP’s founder and chairman Erel Margalit.
גאה ומתרגש לעמוד בראש משלחת של חברות הייטק מובילות וחשובות שלנו לאמירויות. נוסעים לייצר שיתופי פעולה חדשים בין יזמים…
Zero Egg is producing a plant-based powdered egg alternative made of GMO-free proteins taken from potato, peas, chickpeas, and soy.
And Redefine Meat is combining soy and pea proteins, coconut fat, sunflower oil and natural flavorings and colorings into food formulations that it prints out with the aim of achieving the same appearance, texture and flavor as animal meat. The most advanced Israeli company in the field using 3D printing, it plans to roll out its Alt-Steak in high-end Israeli restaurants this year and in European ones next year. Its product was able to surprise the famously phlegmatic celebrity chef Asaf Granit, of Jerusalem’s Mahneyuda restaurant fame.
SavorEat is taking food printing even further. It has designed a robotic chef equipped with a 3D printer that will cook and print out up to eight different plant-based meat dishes at the push of a button.
Another alternative protein field that is growing, especially in Israel — which is now second only to the US in terms of the number of companies involved — is fermentation. This technique, long used to produce beer, wine, bread and cheese, is now being employed in three ways to exploit the alchemist abilities of microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi. (A fungal protein is the basis for the meat substitute Quorn, made in the UK and sold mainly in Europe).
So-called precision fermentation uses microbes as “cell factories” for producing specific proteins, enzymes, flavoring agents, vitamins, pigments and fats. These can be used to produce everything from meat and seafood alternatives to milk, ice cream, butter, cheese and products such as gelatin. Dairy products can be produced without lactose and cholesterol, and livestock-related concerns such as extreme weather conditions or pandemic diseases become irrelevant.
According to a recent report by the Good Food Institute, 13 Israel companies are currently working in the fermentation field. These include Remilk; Imagindairy; Kinoko-Tech, which incorporates the thread-like part of edible mushrooms (mycelium) with legumes and grains; the Mediterranean Food Lab, which is focusing on creating flavors; and More Foods, which uses yeast to create products such as beef strips.
Cultivated, or ‘clean,’ lab-grown meat
The most futuristic alternative protein field, and possibly the one holding out the most promise for real meat-tasting alternative meat, is what Israelis like to call “cultivated meat” but which is better known overseas as “clean meat.” Having picked up various monikers, from “lab-grown meat” to the even more off-putting “frankenmeat,” clean meat is produced from stem cells harmlessly extracted from an animal. These are multiplied in a bioreactor containing nutritious media before being encouraged to differentiate into different kinds of cells, such as fat or muscle.
The world’s first hamburger made by slaughter-free cow-derived cell cultivation was unveiled in London in 2013 and cost 250,000 euros to produce.
The Dutch scientist behind that, Mark Post, is now part of the Maastricht-based Mosa Meat, which has reduced costs and is working on scaling up the production process to get its first products on the market within the next three to four years.
According to Aviv Oren, business development director at the Israeli branch of the Good Food Institute, Israel accounted for four out of the first eight startups in this field.
In 2018, Forbes dubbed Israel the “Most Promising Land For Clean Meat.”
Today, with 57 cultivated meat companies worldwide, there are five in Israel, each with a different focus.
Part of the secret of Israel’s startup success — this is true in a variety of areas — is the close interaction between academia, business and government.
Clean meat producer Aleph Farms, for example, was co-founded in 2017 by The Kitchen, an Israeli food-tech incubator backed by Strauss Group and the Israeli Innovation Authority, and the Technion—Israel Institute of Technology in the northern city of Haifa. Aleph Farms grew out of groundbreaking research by the Technion’s Prof. Shulamit Levenberg into tissue engineering for regenerative medicine.
In 2018, Aleph Farms took the market by storm when it became the first company to go beyond ground meat products and unveil the world’s first steak grown directly from cells.
A week ago, it announced that it was launching a program to set up long-term collaborations with tech companies and space agencies, to integrate its meat-growing innovations into space programs.
One of six Israeli firms among the World Economic Forum’s 100 Technology Pioneers for 2020, and one of the globe’s ten highest funded plant-based food companies by venture capital invested, Aleph Farms is aiming at the perfect cell-based steak, which, according to CEO Didier Toubier, will take three weeks to produce, in contrast to two years at a conventional beef farm.
SuperMeat has its sights set on cell-grown chicken and plans to bring its creations to market soon, at prices similar to those of real chicken products.
Meatech, listed on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, has gone one step further in the clean meat market, by not only growing the animal cells but 3D printing the cultured meat in an accurate shape and structure. Its plan is to eventually print beef, poultry, pork and fish, as well as chicken and goose fat.
Future Meat Technologies, which has taken in $16.5 million in funding and won this year’s Calcalist’s FoodTech Innovation startup contest, is geared to producing fat and muscle cells in the lab. It is the smell of the fat on meat being cooked that stimulates our taste buds.
Further illustrating the close relationships between academia and business in Israel, Future Meat grew out of Hebrew University’s Yissum tech-transfer company.
Israeli companies are also playing their part in the development of high protein, insect-based, meat alternatives.
These include Hargol FoodTech, which aims to be the first company in the world to grow grasshoppers on a commercial scale for the production of protein. To help overcome the Western “yuk factor” of biting into a crispy fried insect, the company is planning to launch grasshopper-enhanced pancake mix and smoothie powders and to cooperate with Tnuva, Israel’s largest food producer, to make grasshopper protein powder for athletes.
Flying Spark is putting its money on Mediterranean fruit fly larvae as the base ingredient for protein powder and oil.
Is it kosher?
While rabbinical consensus has not yet been reached on whether cell-based meat should be regarded as meat or not for the purpose of Jewish dietary law, some religious leaders have stuck their necks out. Rabbi Dov Lior, chief rabbi of Hebron and Kiryat Arba, for example, has said that clean meat is “clearly pareve” (neither meat nor milk) with meat grown directly from cells not definable as meat.
Two years ago, Rabbi Yuval Cherlow of the Orthodox Tzohar Rabbinical Organization advocated rabbinic approval of cultured meat “so that people would not starve, to prevent pollution, and to avoid the suffering of animals.”
He also said, that when the “cell of a pig is used and its genetic material is utilized in the production of food, the cell in fact loses its original identity and therefore cannot be defined as forbidden for consumption,” adding, “it wouldn’t even be meat, so you can consume it with dairy.”
Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the kosher division of the Orthodox Union, the largest kosher certification agency in the world, is still looking for consensus.
An end to livestock farming?
The UN’s FAO expects global meat production to continue rising, but at a slower pace. It forecasts 16% growth by 2025 compared to a base period of 2013-15, down from an increase of almost 20% over the previous decade.
That said, the global consultancy firm, AT Kearney, estimates that by 2040, real meat will only account for 40% of the industry, with 41% coming from the cultivated version.
With predictions like this, meat industry giants are hedging their bets, investing in alternative protein companies in Israel as well as overseas.
Cargill has put money into Aleph Farms, while Tyson (which today brands itself as a protein company, rather than a meat one) has gone for Future Meat Technologies. The German poultry giant PHW is backing SuperMeat.
The big Israeli food companies are also getting involved.
Strauss-Group established the Kitchen Food Tech Hub in the southern coastal city of Ashdod and counts senior staff of PepsiCo and Danone on its advisory council. Its portfolio includes Aleph Farms, Flying Spark, Rilbite and Zero Egg.
Not to be left behind, rival food company Tnuva has teamed up with VC funds Finistere Ventures, OurCrowd and Tempo to set up Fresh Start, a brand new global foodtech incubator based in Israel’s northern city of Kiryat Shemona.
Israel Chemicals Ltd, a mineral and chemicals group, is even getting on the act via ROVITARIS, its alternative protein proprietary technology.
But while Israeli companies excel at innovation and raising funds, their pilot projects are being held back by a lack of suitable facilities and equipment, Good Food Institute’s Aviv Oren says.
GFI Israel is pinning its hopes on plans for a Food Institute at Tel Hai College in Israel’s far north. “We hope it will focus on alternative protein, as most investment in food tech today is in this field,” Oren added.
He noted that the country’s Innovation Authority still lacks a specific grant track for alternative protein.
“Startups here are not sufficiently backed by government funding — the private money isn’t enough, ” he said. “We’re working to increase awareness that this is an important part of food tech and agri-tech. There’s huge potential for startups to grow into huge companies. Just look at the success on Nasdaq of Beyond Meat.”
In the US, 14 % of the milk market is already filled by plant-based alternatives. The equivalent figure for the meat market is just 1%.
The latter is expected to increase with the entry to market of fermented alternatives and cultured meat.
“Will it replace meat? We hope so,” said Oren. “Otherwise, the situation in the world, from an environmental point of view, will be very bad.”