There is a revolution taking place in the food industry.
This isn’t the typical ‘food revolution’, the kind they talk about in programmes like Masterchef when they poach eggs in lemonade and fry chicken in sambuca. This is an entire bottom up re-imagining of the way food is produced, using Big Data to bioengineer plant proteins to develop substitutes for animal protein.
The logic is clear. There are vast numbers of the 400,000 plants in the world that haven’t even been considered as foodstuff. In a world where hundreds of millions of people still go hungry day to day, it seems churlish not to try every available avenue to feed them. There is also the issue of global warming, with livestock and the methane emitted by cows one of the main threats to the ozone layer. According to the World Watch Institute, 18% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions comes from livestock production. The livestock business is one of the most damaging sectors to the earth’s increasingly scarce water resources, being a primary cause of water pollution, euthropication, and the degeneration of coral reefs. There is also the moral issues around animal cruelty with eating meat.
While Quorn and various other firms have been producing meat substitutes for some years now, very few people would ever confuse their wares with the real thing. Companies such as San Francisco start-up Hampton Creek are now taking a different approach. They are trying to solve the problem by utilizing advances in Big Data, exploiting the ability to gather masses of data to analyze as many as 18 billion plant proteins a day and storing all the information in a massive database. They then use machine learning techniques to predict whether the proteins are useable in food. One of Hampton Creek’s early innovations is an artificially produced chicken egg, made using proteins from the Canadian yellow pea and an American variety of Sorghum. They’ve used this egg to make mayo and cookies. Gordon Ramsey has described the mayonnaise as ‘absolutely incredible’.
Not only are there innumerable benefits for the environment, the egg replacement is also 18% cheaper as an ingredient in food, and they are trying to lower the cost even further. While the mayonaisse and cookies are currently more expensive than their traditional counterparts, costs are going down, and they are set to become a fixture on supermarket shelves in years to come.