Alec Lee: Food’s synthetic future

20 : 09 : 2016 Synthetic Biology : Food Waste : Whole System Thinking
Alec Lee Alec Lee

Artisanal. Hand-crafted. Gluten-free. Organic. These are the unavoidable buzzwords of the foodie marketer. The best marketing campaigns get you to pay as much as possible for as little as possible. It’s time to be intellectually honest about the organic movement. It’s not about nutrition. It’s not about objective quality (yes, an artisanal brand won… but Dunkin’ Donuts took second). And no, gluten probably has no effect* on you whatsoever. We’re paying for mythology.

Cultural lag is the phenomenon where social adoption trails technological innovation. This lag causes friction, but that friction doesn’t last for ever. If history teaches us anything, it is that those who bet against technological innovation lose. The beauty of mythology is that it changes when a new, compelling narrative emerges.

Today we are on the cusp of significant technological breakthroughs in food production, the likes of which have never been seen before. It took humanity nearly 10,000 years of agriculture to develop many of the crops and animal herds we consume today. It took only a few centuries to develop the farming tools that have culminated in large-scale, efficient mechanised farming. And it only took decades to marry science with food, allowing us to directly manipulate the genetic constructs of our food.

The next frontier is our ability to produce food from its molecular components and replace the need for resource-intensive, often unethical food-growing practices. These synthetic foods aren’t just possible, they’re inevitable.

The veggie burger problem

Diehard meat-eaters aren’t sticking to their guns because they love the thought of tortured animal flesh. If a perfect replica of meat were available on the market at a price point equal to or less than that of natural meat, it’s hard to believe that industrialised animal farming would continue.

Food technology has a credibility problem, and rightly so. Food replacements such as veggie burgers simply can’t match the quality of their natural counterparts – yet. In parallel, the flavour industry has long suffered the stigma of only existing to help make unpalatable foods passable. If a technology is to be widely adopted, the innovation must surpass its replacement.

Many of today’s food technology start-ups  – Hampton Creek, Clara Foods, Memphis Meats, Muufrii, Gelzen, New Wave Foods  –  are targeting their niches in recognition of the veggie burger problem. As these technologies come online, the quality of available replicas will increase and the costs will decrease. Adoption will rise as the public sees the cost, sustainability and ethical benefits of engineered foods.

Wine is the beginning

Wine seems like an odd representative of the food technology revolution. Synthetic wine won’t solve hunger and it won’t end animal suffering. Still, there are strong reasons for using wine to build momentum and credibility for food engineering. Firstly, wine is technologically low-hanging fruit. We’ll be able to rapidly bring products to market that not only match but surpass the quality of their natural counterparts. Secondly, wine has deep cultural significance and a high perception of complexity. People are willing to pay a premium for great wine, which makes the unit economics work from day one and creates a strong platform for future products

Because wine is so widely distributed and fast-growing in markets such as China where sustainability and transparency are hot-button issues, wine is a perfect opportunity to gain momentum in the food technology revolution.

But it doesn’t end with wine

Land, water and energy are increasingly precious. If we don’t resolve the growing demand for, and shrinking supply of, these resources, our descendants will fight wars over their control. Having total control over the molecular construct of our food will have widespread positive impacts on the food chain. If we and our descendants play our cards right, I see a future when any food we want will be available at a moment’s notice at the touch of a button. It’s the ultimate manifestation of the locavore movement.

But adopting these technologies will not only benefit future generations  – they’ll affect us today.

*Of course, a small percentage of the population is sensitive to gluten.

Alec Lee is co-founder of Ava Winery. This article was edited from a longer version, which originally appeared on Medium.