Food as software: Dr Rosie Bosworth on the alt-protein revolution


Alternative proteins are on the rise. Whether it’s plant-based or lab-grown, alternatives to agriculture are creating proteins that are cheaper, tastier, less cruel, and have a lower environmental impact. Indeed futurist Tony Seba says that the cow is being disrupted in the same way that Henry Ford disrupted horses and digital music decimated vinyl. He predicts the collapse of industrial farming within the next 10 years. Is he right? And what does it mean for New Zealand? I intend to do a series of podcasts and articles, talking to experts, farmers, politicians and consumers about the protein revolution. I hope you’ll come along with me on this journey. I started with Dr. Rosie Bosworth, a future foods consultant with a focus on food tech and alternative proteins.

Vincent:  Hi Rosie, let’s do a 101 on alt-proteins. What are the main alternatives to agricultural production?

Rosie: There are three: plant-based proteins, cultivated proteins or cell-based, and then there’s precision fermentation. The whole sector is growing really fast, mostly it’s plant-based. They’ve really targeted dairy or meat alternatives, especially chicken and ground beef or what we call mince. It’s been endorsed by celebrities, and getting major focus from venture capital investors, and countries are rallying around, building out the plant-based protein sector.

Vincent: I think we all know about plant alternatives such as oat milks and pea and soy based meats. What’s the second category: the cultivated or cell-based proteins?

Rosie: When you talk about plant-based proteins, you’re looking at a vegan option. There’s no animals involved. When you’re talking about cultivated or cell-based meat, that’s often what the media call lab-grown meat. It’s not strictly vegan. You take a swab from an animal cell, and you then grow those same cells in a lab or industrial setting and add micronutrients, such as lipids or carbohydrates or minerals. So you’re going to have that same DNA, the same molecular structure, as meat, but just produced outside of the animal. The advantage being that you’re bypassing all of the inputs that you need to feed the cow. Plus, you know, the cruelty thing.

Vincent: How successful has that been? Has it reached commercial scale?

Rosie: There are many companies in the United States and Israel that are starting to lead in this space. One is Upside Foods, which used to be called Memphis Meats. They’ve partnered with some big food companies to help scale up their production. They started with chicken breast and mincemeat and pork, because it’s much easier to replicate than a gristly T-bone steak. And there are so many options. I tasted some cultivated fish proteins by Finless Foods not so long ago.

Vincent: What’s the Impossible Burger – plant or cell-based?

Rosie: Impossible Foods is a bit of a hybrid. It’s plant-based but with a twist. They use a unique combination of wheat or potato proteins, and coconut fats and all sorts. And then they’ve used precision fermentation to manufacture the molecule called Heme to mimic hemoglobin, which is that bloody red, dripping, umami taste and texture that you get in a beef burger or a steak. I’ve tried it. It definitely tastes like blood. It’s not nice on its own.

Vincent: Let’s talk about precision fermentation, this is the third category.

Rosie: So precision fermentation is what I believe, and others too, will be the game-changer for alternative proteins, or at least will be most disruptive in New Zealand. Precision fermentation uses the age-old process of getting micro-organisms, such as yeast, do their thing and create food. I mean we’re all familiar with beer, right? But thanks to genetic engineering especially CRISPR you can insert a specific piece of DNA of what the desired protein is, be it heme or any kind of flavour molecule or a vitamin, and then let the fermentation process do its thing to produce a gazillion of these proteitns that can then be turned into foods alternatives, be they meat, milk or cheese or whatever. A good example is insulin, which used to be extracted from pigs, really inefficiently, but is now made using a CRISPR-modified bacteria.

Vincent: Fermentation is as old as beer. What’s changed that has made it such a threat to traditional protein?

Rosie: Genome sequencing has now enabled us to do very, very fast sequencing of animals and micro-organisms. It didn’t use to, so the cow was a good way to get dairy protein. But the ability to easily sequence DNA and manufacture proteins from it means the cow is no longer the best machine for protein manufacture. For example, Perfect Day is producing whey casein via precision fermentation. The company has partnered up with big food companies such as Archer Daniel Midlands to take the small scale, prototype to commercial scale. What’s interesting is that they took a copy of bovine DNA that was sequenced by scientists back in 2009. They feed it unique micro-flora and that’s now producing bioidentical milk protein. If it was a really expensive sequencing DNA it would probably be much harder for these startups to play in the space, but now we’ve got this library or database of all these molecules that are already sequenced. And, and if they haven’t been sequenced, it’s also a lot easier to do it these days and cheaper. So, you know, plug them into a machine and off you go and you can produce bioidentical foods.

Vincent: I want to read something to you, which you’ll be familiar with. This is from Rethink X, which says that ‘the cost of proteins will be five times cheaper by 2030, and 10 times cheaper by 2035, then ultimately approaching the cost of sugar’ and that they will be more nutritious, healthier, better tasting, more convenient and with less impact on the environment. Do you agree? And if so what does that mean for New Zealand?

Rosie: Yes I do and this is a significant threat. There’s no denying that we produce some of the best meat and dairy in the world , but technology can and will override all of that with all the advancements that are happening. Our dairy sector is something like 40% of our primary sector, about $19 billion. Most of that dairy output is commodity products, whole milk powder. This commodity end of the market is already being disrupted by plant proteins. Same with mince or ground beef. Precision fermentation will come in and produce our commodity products at an even cheaper rate. It really is quite an existential threat. But it’s also happening at the premium end. You can say we have a real edge with New Zealand infant formula. But again, precision fermentation could and will come in and manufacture human milk protein. It’s already happening.

Vincent: Can it really though, Rosie? I mean, I know the logic is there. But I guess standing here right now, that still seems so far away and a little fantastical. It is possible that you have run with the logic but the economics and the reality is still some time away?

Roise: What I like to tell the industry is that ‘this is what I’m seeing’, and it could be wrong, but what is our plan B? And in the event that even a portion of our primary sector is overtaken by plant-based proteins or if precision fermentation turns out to be far more economical, then let’s debate it. The technology is increasing so, so fast. And then when you look at what’s happening in the market from an investment perspective, investment into the alternative protein sector even in the last year alone, is taking that exponential hike upwards. So what that means is that the challenges with scaling will be somewhat mitigated by this huge flood of capital that is now coming into the market to get these technologies on market and commercialized as scale.

Vincent: You talk about ‘food as software’. And the analogy would be to say, ‘look at what happened to newspapers or the vinyl music business’. But we don’t have to go outside the primary sector right?  Look at what happened to wool – once a massive industry in New Zealand now decimated by plastic alternatives.

Rosie: It’s essentially going to be a disruption first by economics because if precision fermentation can be that much more efficient it will replace commodity ingredients such as milk powder and or mincemeat and the rest will cascade from there.

Vincent: What’s been the reaction when you put this to industry? Have they welcomed the news?

Rosie: Look, if you’d asked me that five years ago, I would’ve said the reaction has been very defensive, and I probably many times thought, why am I doing what I’m doing? It’s not fun because the reaction has often been so terrible. I say ‘don’t shoot the messenger’ but that has been met with a lot of uncertainty, fear, doubt, and defensiveness.

The narrative goes a bit like this: ‘we produce the best milk beef and lamb in the world. And therefore we are safe. There will always be a market for New Zealand, dairy, beef, and lamb.’ That reaction starting to soften by some of the leading players in the industry who are starting to really get their heads around the fact that, okay, this is coming, where is our new place in the sun when, or if this happens? And so some of them are starting to move towards where they can really position themselves on that premium end of the spectrum.

The question is, do we have time? Have we got enough time to pivot, to premiumization of dairy or meat? And should we be focusing on new industries or playing in this new food as software industry or in fermentation technology? Should we be repositioning ourselves as the suppliers of intellectual property or investing in horticulture? These are difficult but necessary questions.

Listen to the interview with Rosie here.

About the Author

Vincent Heeringa

Hi, I'm Vincent! I'm a co-founder of The Feed, a writer, marketer and PR expert specialising in food, tech and sustainability. In a previous life I was publisher of Idealog, Stoppress, NZ Marketing and Good magazines and helped establish the Science Media Centre. I'm also the host of a podcast ‘This Climate Business’. When I'm not burning the midnight oil, I'm hitting the town or planting trees with my wife Sarah. Ping me to talk about all things food. @vheeringa

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