Will 2021 be the turning point for food technology?

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Jonathan McIntyre believes it’s time to rethink how to talk to consumers about the science of food.

McIntyre has a long career in food research and development, with senior R&D positions at Indigo Ag and PepsiCo. Today, he serves as CEO of Motif FoodWorks, a biotechnology platform to develop plant-based ingredients that can mimic the nutrition, taste and texture of animal products. There’s been a lot of industry excitement about Motif since its spinoff from Ginkgo Bioworks in 2019, and the company is preparing to launch its first ingredients this year.

With all of the science and technology focused on food innovation, McIntyre believes consumers deserve to know more about what these companies are doing and why.

“We need to start with defining what food science means,” he said. 

“There is science in all of food, but we don’t talk about it. …The way it’s cooked, the way it’s harvested, the way it’s cleaned, washed, combined with other ingredients, is all based on science,” he explained. “And in a time where sustainability and other social issues are driving us to a broader definition of what are the best foods to consume, and we are expanding our palate, there’s an opportunity to figure out a way to make those foods tasty and nutritious, especially in the plant area.”

By applying new technologies, companies and researchers are getting closer to making breakthroughs. These could lead to different types of food, or producing the same food in radically different ways. The landscape is already changing. The first cell-based chicken appeared on a Singapore restaurant menu in late 2020, and several companies say they are confident cell-based meat will be approved in the United States this year.

Companies are using technologies such as CRISPR to make crops more desirable to consumers through genetic modification. After decades of working toward approval, the first genetically modified animal product — AquAdvantage salmon — is slated to hit grocery store shelves this year. And a proposed rule change may modify the way most bioengineered meat gets regulatory approval, which many say would make it easier for these products to go forward.

As research and technology continue in 2021, the question remains: Will consumers want to try products that result from these developments? After all, the butterfly seal that shows a product is Non-GMO Project Verified is a coveted symbol to put on packages. And starting in 2022, much bioengineered food — the new label for food made through genetic changes, also known by the acronym GMO —​ will be required to be labeled as such. 

Some who work in food technology have seen their products and research passed over in the past because of purported consumer fear of GMOs. This includes Alison Van Eenennaam, an animal geneticist at University of California, Davis. 


“We need to start with defining what food science means. There is science in all of food, but we don’t talk about it. …The way it’s cooked, the way it’s harvested, the way it’s cleaned, washed, combined with other ingredients, is all based on science.”

Jonathan McIntyre

CEO, Motif FoodWorks


However, Van Eenennaam believes that most consumers do not care whether a product has the Non-GMO seal; instead, other factors take precedence. 

“They want a product that they want for whatever reason. It tastes good, it’s the right price. You know, the three things that normally drive consumers,” she said. 

And the popularity of products like the Impossible Burger, which makes its plant-based heme out of genetically modified soy, could also be changing attitudes.

“There’s this kind of myth that, ‘Oh, they’ll never accept genetically engineered animals,’” Van Eenennaam said. “Well then, tell that to the Impossible Burger people.”

Michael Lavin is founder and managing partner of Germin8 Ventures, which funds companies using technology to bring food and agriculture to the next level. He believes that consumers often have many misconceptions about food and technology, and cited a 2015 study from the University of Oklahoma found that four in five consumers felt there should be mandatory labeling of food products containing DNA — which is in literally everything people eat.

“There is a problem that we need to fix as stakeholders,” Lavin said. “We should take more responsibility to be the brokers who put to bed some of these misperceptions and myths, and really educate the consumer — in a respectful way, of course — to have a greater understanding of what is really in our food, and what should be there, what shouldn’t be there, and what tools are really enabling the things that they want, such as sustainability and impact.”

Optional Caption

Permission granted by Pairwise

 

Literally sowing the seeds for next-generation food

One way to create this sense of trust is by highlighting technology’s potential to improve food for the better. Produce could be an example.

Haven Baker, co-founder and chief business officer of Pairwise, said he was struck by watching his children pack their lunches for school. He required them to include at least one produce item each day. 

“They don’t want to take apple slices because they get brown. And they don’t want to take grapes because they get squishy,” Baker said. “And so what ends up going in day after day is baby carrots and occasionally blueberries. And they’re not eating them, or they’re tired of them.”

Pairwise’s central mission is to use gene editing technologies like CRISPR to create produce that meets distinct consumer needs. With small changes — making greens less bitter or getting rid of the pit in a cherry — consumers are more likely to eat more produce.

Baker said Pairwise is spending 2021 literally sowing the seeds for coming rollouts. It is planting what it hopes to be its first product launch: superfood greens with the nutrition of kale and the eating quality of romaine lettuce. Some limited trials of these products are slated for later this year, and Pairwise plans to officially launch them in 2022. The company is also cultivating some seedless fruit varieties, which should be available for limited trials next year.


“There is a problem that we need to fix as stakeholders. We should take more responsibility to be the brokers who put to bed some of these misperceptions and myths, and really educate the consumer — in a respectful way, of course — to have a greater understanding of what is really in our food, and what should be there, what shouldn’t be there, and what tools are really enabling the things that they want, such as sustainability and impact.”

Michael Lavin

Founder and managing partner, Germin8 Ventures


“When we move to the next perimeter of the grocery store, we think [we are] at the very beginning of technology for improving fruits and vegetables, really getting this fundamental diet problem where … almost none of us consume enough, and the consumer wants innovation and better performance,” Baker said. “This next year, but I think also the whole coming decade, we’re at the place now where plant-based milk was at 10 years ago.”

About a decade ago, Baker said, plant-based milk was just starting to gain consumer attention. In 2019, plant-based alternatives made up 14% of the entire milk market, according to statistics from the Plant Based Foods Association. It had grown at a 5% clip in the year, compared to dairy milk’s essentially flat growth.

Baker projects that, in a decade, GMO produce could potentially make up 14% of what consumers are buying.

Germin8 Ventures is sowing a different kind of seed, but Lavin is hopeful for a similar result: technology that will make tomorrow’s food better, with more nutrition, higher yields and improved sustainability. Many of Germin8’s investments are in ag tech companies that aim to use data capabilities to help run farms better, as well as use high-tech platforms to identify how plants can be used and changed in order to meet consumer needs. 

Lavin said that Germin8 is investing in tech that will support future trends. Right now, consumers are starting to shift some of their purchases to plant-based alternatives — products like plant-based burgers, meat analogues and nut milks. Lavin said what’s on the market now is like version 1.0 of what can be done with technology. Germin8 is investing in the companies that will be version 3.0 and higher.

“I think you’ll see a lot more bioengineered products coming to market and end up in the animal protein space for sure,” Lavin said.

The ‘unpredictability’ challenge of using tech to create desired animals  

Van Eenennaam has spent her career working with animal genetics. She described CRISPR as a technology that can do targeted alterations on DNA, making it a tool that can more easily let researchers create an animal with the desired genetic characteristics. CRISPR can help produce animals that meet many consumer and producer needs: resistance to common diseases, ability to withstand hotter temperatures and quicker growth.

Van Eenennaam worked with a team that in 2020 created a bull-calf that could sire 75% males, which tend to grow more efficiently than females. If this type of calf could be propagated, producers would be able to get more meat while using less land and water, and causing less pollution.

But while Van Eenennaam has spent much of her career using technology to improve food animals, she isn’t particularly optimistic that they will get to market soon. Current regulation puts animals created through any sort of bioengineering technique up to the same scrutiny as new drugs through the FDA, which has made it difficult for any genetically modified food animal to get to market. 

Alison Van Eenennaam is with gene-edited calf Cosmo.

Courtesy of UC Davis

 

Van Eenennaam noted that Genus, a British animal genetics firm, is currently undergoing that review process to bring a pig that is immune to the debilitating disease porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) to market in the U.S. According to MIT Technology Review, U.S. pork farmers can lose $600 million in a year to PRRS. The magazine reported the company hopes this pig can come to market in the U.S. in 2025.

Proposed rulemaking currently under consideration could change the process by moving regulation of these animals to USDA, which would treat them more like other food animals, but it’s not without controversy. The notice of rulemaking was published weeks before former President Donald Trump’s administration ended, but then-FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn refused to sign off on it, reportedly because he was unsure about its legality and potential health consequences. But then-Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for Health Brett Giroir signed off in Hahn’s place right before President Joe Biden’s inauguration. Biden has yet to nominate an FDA commissioner, and it’s unclear what will happen with this proposal under the current administration.

AquAdvantage salmon, the first bioengineered food animal, is an example of how much regulatory uncertainty can slow product approval. The salmon was first created 30 years ago. It was approved by FDA in 2015, but its path to market was slowed as the U.S. considered how to label genetically modified food. In 2019, an import alert for the salmon eggs — developed in Canada — was lifted. The salmon is currently being grown in tanks in Indiana and is finally on track to be sold in the U.S. later this year.

Van Eenennaam described AquAdvantage salmon as “a multi-decade, multimillion-dollar regulatory endeavor.”

“No one wants to invest in a technology with that unpredictability,” she said. “I mean, it was strangled in the cradle, basically.” She continued. “It’s been almost impossible in my career to get funding to do the research.”

What Van Eenennaam described as perceived consumer hesitancy over bioengineered food has stopped a lot of potential development in its tracks. She said typically, grants for new technologies are often given to university researchers to see what works. After proof of concept is found, companies tend to adopt that technology and use it for new products.


“It’s like this self-fulfilling negative prophecy that the public will never accept it, therefore we’re never going to fund that really good idea. And so therefore the public never will, because they never have an opportunity to even see that idea.”

Alison Van Eenennaam

Animal geneticist, UC Davis


That hasn’t happened for bioengineered animals, even though Van Eenennaam said there has been quite a bit of proof of concept. Part of this is because this kind of work is expensive. But she said a bigger part is that companies don’t want to take a chance on a product that has had obvious genetic work because they believe that consumers will be less likely to accept it. 

Van Eenennaam said she’s had grants turned down for two decades because of this perceived consumer rejection. Basically, funders have told her she has a good idea, but it has no commercial potential. 

“It’s like this self-fulfilling negative prophecy that the public will never accept it, therefore we’re never going to fund that really good idea,” Van Eenennaam said. “And so therefore the public never will, because they never have an opportunity to even see that idea.”

Emerging from the R&D phase

Motif FoodWorks hopes to avoid this tech trap. The company, which designs ingredients that make plant-based options a better and more craveable choice, is getting ready to put two of them on the market. 

One ingredient is a fiber that mimics bits of tendons and ligaments found in traditional meat. In a cut of meat, these are visible as small ribbons and mostly transparent bits of film. These are also present in ground meat and help give it a chewy texture. But they aren’t present in plant-based meat, which can be more mushy than its animal-based counterpart.

The other ingredient is a protein that brings more traditional color and flavor to plant-based meat, and distributes more iron than current offers.

McIntyre said he has not seen much hesitation from manufacturers about using Motif’s ingredients. In fact, he said a lot of companies are interested in Motif’s work and want to partner together. Very few” have not been interested because they thought Motif is going too far into science, McIntyre said. Instead, other factors prevail: whether a product meets consumers’ needs, tastes good and is nutritious. 

“What we’re focused on is how do we continue to improve on those experiences, because the consumer has said — especially the mainstream consumer — that, ‘I want to eat more plant-based food, but I don’t like the taste.’ And so if we can help make the product taste significantly better and more nutritious, and do it in a transparent way, I think that’s the biggest way we can touch the consumer.”

But with so much tech-enabled food on its way, manufacturers also may have to change some consumers’ minds. McIntyre said it may be time to return to the basics.

“I think people get hung up on the terminologies a lot, and they’ve been triggered to be scared when somebody says ‘food’ and ‘science,’ because they want to think food is some artistic and or homegrown thing,” McIntyre said. “There is science behind those things, and I think we need to start having a dialogue about what that looks like. …We have to create language that allows the consumer to have a good understanding without being triggered or scared off based on words that are associated with very negative things.”

Non-browning genetically modified Arctic apples are already a success.

Okanagan Specialty Fruits

 

For example, everything, when broken down, is a chemical, McIntyre said. However, consumers find themselves triggered, expecting that a “chemical” is something synthetic or artificial — not something like water or protein.

“It’s almost like we’ve got to create a new Rosetta Stone to have this dialogue, but the No. 1 thing is to not act like it doesn’t exist,” McIntyre said.

Germin8 Ventures’ Lavin said GMOs can start to lose their scary aura as consumers see them in a positive light. He cited Impossible Foods, which was one of the first CPG companies to start using the USDA’s “Bioengineered” seal. As that seal becomes more prevalent on products, and as bioengineered ingredients come on the market, consumers will be less likely to object, he said. 

Demonstrating that technology creates desirable products will also help with consumer acceptance. Pairwise’s Baker said it will be relatively easy for his company to demonstrate the utility of CRISPR to consumers. Imagine going to a peach orchard and happening upon the most delicious fruit, he said. It could take conventional breeders years to come up with the right cross to replicate that tree. With CRISPR, it can be done immediately.

Transparency about the process is also critical to drive acceptance, Baker said.

“In the past, some of the benefits were not obvious. But healthier vegetables, getting rid of seeds that get caught in your teeth, or maybe in some cases cause digestive issues, these are real problems that we can relate to. So transparency around both the problem and the solution will lead to better acceptance.”

Van Eenennaam is skeptical this approach will work with gene-edited animals. After all, the last 20 years have brought big changes in animal agriculture — faster growth, larger muscles, more productivity. But all of these changes have come from traditional breeding. CRISPR can make the same types of changes in a more targeted way, but it’s under the GMO umbrella.


“In the past, some of the benefits were not obvious. But healthier vegetables, getting rid of seeds that get caught in your teeth, or maybe in some cases cause digestive issues, these are real problems that we can relate to. So transparency around both the problem and the solution will lead to better acceptance.”

Haven Baker

Co-founder and chief business officer, Pairwise


“I am a big proponent of genetics,” Van Eenennaam said. “It’s this one breeding method that has been held up as evil, and it’s all come around, in my opinion, due to misinformation from competing businesses. And I think we’ve been, as agriculturalists, stunned at this misinformation.”

It also may be hard for consumers to easily see the utility and superiority of a genome-edited animal, Van Eenennaam said. While an animal that can resist diseases is extremely useful to a producer, a consumer would never see that aspect. Genome editing could be used to make animal products more nutrient-filled, but there are other ways to do that — giving chickens feed with more flaxseed leads them to produce eggs high in omega-3s, for example.

Manufacturers seeing how bioengineered animals impact sustainability could make a difference, Van Eenennaam said. Giving bioengineered animals a little bit of room to get into the food system truly could start something big. She hopes this happens with AquAdvantage salmon.

“People say they want low food miles and reduced environmental impact. And here’s a product that’s locally produced that does all of that, so what more could you want?” she said. “And it’s not being fished from the ocean, so it helps protect wildlife. It’s a really nice story.”

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