Why California is the capital of fake meat

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This story is part of our series on the future of cultured and plant-based meat. Read more here.

Two generations ago, California spawned a consumer-led food movement with a big promise: Eating organic fruits and vegetables and pasture-raised meat would save us and our planet.

But this premium turned out to be limited, unaffordable for many and was not lacking for small farmers. As for the planet, it does not seem to heal itself.

Today, another generation of Californians is calling for a change in the consumer-led food system – saving the planet by dismantling industrial animal agriculture and choosing protein alternatives to conventional meat.

It’s a tough pivot to a low-impact, tech-driven food solution separate from soil and seasons, and a gold rush of modern entrepreneurs is rushing to grab venture capital funding. of Silicon Valley and build a better meat-like piece of meat. In addition, some public universities in the state are preparing to become national centers for research and training in alternative proteins.

California cuisine may never be the same again.

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Over the past few years, two California companies have made headlines on alternative protein because they figured out how to improve the rightfully maligned veggie burger. Los Angeles-based Beyond Meat launched its plant-based meats in 2012; San Francisco’s Impossible Foods burger followed in 2016. When Beyond went public this summer, the $ 8 billion market valuation sparked rumors that Impossible was considering a $ 10 billion public offering.

Both companies moved manufacturing to cheaper locations in the Midwest and around the world, but kept R&D and their home offices in California, helping to make the state a magnet for innovators and scientists on alternative proteins.

California is home to the highest concentration of more than 600 companies in the world dedicated to the production of alt protein (1,000 if you include companies whose product line is not limited to alt protein). Half of them have been founded since early 2015, according to an analysis by the Good Food Institute of PitchBook, an industry data service. At least 55 plant-based alternative protein companies and 11 cultured meat alternative protein companies are headquartered there.

Since the start of 2015, venture capital and other funds have invested $ 9.2 billion in alternative protein startups around the world. About $ 2.6 billion has been invested in vegetable meat companies, according to GFI analysis.

Ross Mackay, 30, one of those entrepreneurs, moved from Scotland to Los Angeles in 2019 to start Daring Foods. He came here to tap into California’s concentration of food tech talent, he says. “There is also an audience here for healthier food products,” he adds. During the year, Daring’s non-GMO soy-based chicken was in a few stores. By the end of 2021, he expects it to be in 6,000 stores.

The range of new California alternative protein companies and products can be dizzying. There’s even a company that makes protein out of the air, sort of. Inspired by NASA’s research on how to feed space crews traveling to Mars, Lisa Dyson works with a microbe that feasts on carbon dioxide and other elements in the air to produce a protein powder rich in nutrients. – the basis of a tender chicken with alternative proteins. product. She plans to expand her “air farms” to produce products for her startup Air Protein in Pleasanton.

Alternative protein entrepreneurs speak of their work as a movement, not an industry.

“Meat is the most destructive food for the human environment,” says Impossible vice president of product innovation Celeste Holz-Schietinger, who believes that by 2035, the alternative proteins will have put an end to industrial animal agriculture. “A giant industry must be dismantled. To do this, we must all be successful.

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Four years ago, when Ricardo San Martin opened the Alternative

Meats

Lab at UC Berkeley’s Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology, he said he could see that plant-based protein technology was established enough to foster an agile starter crop.

One semester per year, San Martin teaches 40 students in a classroom. Four times during the semester, they present their projects to a panel of industry experts and funders. “It’s absolutely real,” he says. In addition, each semester, he supervises 10 to 15 students who conduct industry-sponsored research. Some of his students have found support at the company.

After graduation, many of its students found their way to San Mateo-based Kitchen Town, a product development lab and workspace that helps entrepreneurs bring in food products. at the market. A group of his alumni are developing plant-based tuna; another works on herbal chicken skin.

Cultured meat – think boneless chicken breasts and salmon sashimi starting with individual animal cells – has captured the imaginations of bioscientists and engineers at UC Davis. But it was the students who first pushed for a program to prepare them for a hot job market with an environmental mission, says David Block, professor of viticulture and oenology and chemical engineering with a background in biopharmaceuticals.

Block is the leader of the Cultivated Meat Consortium, which launched in fall 2019 with two faculty members and 16 students. By September, the consortium had grown to 17 faculty members from seven departments at four UC Davis colleges and 18 students. (UCLA has a fledgling cultured meat lab under the direction of Professor Amy Rowat, a biophysicist specializing in cellular behavior.)

Launched with $ 4.1 million in funding from the National Science Foundation and two nonprofit cultured meat advocacy groups, New Harvest and the Good Food Institute, Block hopes additional federal funding will follow, as well. than funding for the cultured meat industry.

“It’s not the norm to have an industry that has grown so far from academia,” says Block, noting that private funding requires secrecy to protect rapidly developing intellectual property. As a result, outside scientists have been left largely in the dark. It’s a problem he hopes the UC Davis consortium can correct.

Meat culture is not far from the well-established fermentation industry, which includes Block’s specialty, wine. “I’m optimistic, cultured meat is possible, but it’s certainly not a sure thing,” he says.

To speed up government approval of sales of cultivated meat in the United States, many companies are building pilot production plants. Dr Uma Valeti, cardiac surgeon and regenerative medicine researcher who founded Upside Foods, plans to open his suburban San Francisco plant to the public for tours. The company says it will be up and running by the end of the year and will initially produce chicken fillets.

At the Upside pilot plant, visitors will enter through the test kitchen, where they can cook with cultured meat and taste dishes created by chefs using it. They will be guided along a walkway lined with windows that allow them to see into the main production room where meat is produced in bioreactors, which Valeti calls growers. The ambience will be something like that of a high-tech brewery.

Walking through the construction site, Valeti explains that future visitors will understand that the only waste from this process is treatable water. The experiment is designed to bring out the stark contrast to the industrial transformation of animals.

It wasn’t easy for Valeti to move to Berkeley from his home lab at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, but his Silicon Valley investors insisted. Now, he says, “we need an ecosystem that includes universities, industry investors, a big tent of support. “

He found it all in California.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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