Renowned chef David Chang has recently announced that his New York restaurant, Momofuku Nishi, has started serving the plant-based “Impossible Burger” (aptly named for its uncanny resemblance to an actual meat burger – in flavour, texture, smell and all) for the very affordable price of just US$12 per burger. This is revolutionary – Momofuku’s inclusion of the Impossible Burger marks the first time a product of Impossible Foods, one of the most talked-about companies in Silicon Valley, is commercially available.
The Impossible Burger, unlike any other burger in the world, is made from selected specific proteins and nutrients from greens, seeds, and grains, to recreate the taste and texture of meat and dairy products. For some it may look like no more than a nice gimmick; however, in reality this may be the “Franz Ferdinand shooting” of the new age war – the war over our nutrition.
The battle is between the old food conglomerates, with which we are all familiar, and their newly created technology-based competitors. This war will decide who will feed us in the next decades. One cannot underestimate the impact of the results of this war on the world’s population.
There are two paradigms that nobody argues about. On the one hand, the world is getting more crowded, with more mouths to feed, and our current food production capacity cannot meet the demand. On the other hand, consumers are losing confidence in the traditional food manufacturers. On this basis, it is clear that the world will need to find new, efficient, nutritious, scalable and healthy food sources. Recent investments, and the profile of the investors, show us that at least from the investors’ standpoint, the new Apple or Google will likely be a food production platform.
Eric Schmidt, Bill Gates, Li Ka-Shing, Peter Theil, Eduardo Saverin and many other leading investors have all decided to invest hundreds of millions of dollars (in total) in food platforms, like the eggless mayonnaise producer Hampton Creek (which raised over $120 million); Beyond Meat, a non-animal meat and cheese producer; and of course Impossible Foods, which has raised $182 million in equity since launching in 2012. It has been reported that Google attempted to buy this company, offering between $200 million and $300 million.
The traditional food manufacturers are obviously not going to simply stand still. They are also working on new projects and technologies in the hope of winning this battle. It seems that there are two competing doctrines in this war. On the one hand, there are the new kids on the block. These new-comers are striving to re-invent food, create new sources of food that never existed before: meat, cheese and eggs which are all not made from animals but rather in a laboratory. On the other hand, there are traditional food manufacturers who are looking to upgrade and improve existing foods while scaling production and offering better quality food at affordable prices. The latter are looking to “improve the carriage” but not to “re-invent the wheel”.
The results of this war may change the face of the world forever. New giants will emerge while others may disappear. Farmers may be replaced by scientists, and traditional industries, which have been with us for hundreds if not thousands of years, will become a thing of the past.
As in any proper war, it may be that the biggest winners will be those who provide “ammunition” to both sides. In this war, the ammunition will come from those who are able to produce mass vegetation-based, non-GMO, high quality protein. It seems that just like in other tech industries, in which Israel enjoys great fame and reputation, Israeli technologies and companies are going to play a major role in this battle as well.
Companies such as Kaiima and Hinoman are at the forefront of the development and production of new vegetal sources of protein. We can assume that with the strong demand more will join. The recent announcement of a new food technology incubator by the Strauss Group, Israel’s largest food manufacturer, “The Kitchen”, is a clear indication that Israeli innovation is looking to play a pivotal role in this war. We should not be surprised if in the coming few years the next multi-billion dollar Waze-style exit will come from one of these food-tech companies. There is no doubt that this situation poses enormous business potential for both food technology companies and investors in Israel.
From a legal standpoint, this new battleground presents great dilemmas to regulators, legislators and patent offices around the world. It is clearly in the best interest of governments to push for the reduction of animal related food production, due the inefficient nature of this industry in terms of allocation of resources (for example the production of 1 kg of cheddar cheese requires an average of 10,000 liters of fresh water) and its hazardous effect on the environment (recent estimates concerning animal agriculture’s share of total global GHG emissions range between 10% and 25%). However, while pushing for a change (such as the Chinese government’s decision to reduce 50% of the country’s meat consumption by 2030), one needs to be careful not to create a market failure.
The current intellectual property regime for the protection of food is based on patents and plant breeders’ rights. Each of these rights grants the owner a long term monopoly (20 years in most jurisdictions). Just to imagine that for the first time in history someone may have an exclusive right over the production of our “meat”, “cheese” or “eggs” requires deep thinking. It may be that the current legal systems are not yet suitable to address these new phenomena. One should not forget that the concept of food patenting is a relatively new phenomenon in itself.
Days in which food manufacturers are held accountable in connection with the use of protected plant strains or protected meat formulas, and the resulting legal battles, are just around the corner. New legal tools and legal categories will need to be introduced. Court systems and judges who specialize in the food industry may need to be found, similar to those in the pharmaceutical industry. In addition, a balance will be needed; the threshold for receiving intellectual property protection for these new types of food products should be raised, so that they do not completely eliminate the ability of other producers to reverse engineer foods and compete in the market. Governments and legislators should do everything in their power to keep food prices affordable.
The dramatic changes in the way in which we produce and consume food will require everyone, including food producers, consumers and legal systems to adapt to the new world forming before our eyes. Such changes pose many challenges but also offer many opportunities, and as always, those who adapt quickly and efficiently will be victorious. Time will tell what role the Israeli food/agtech industry will play, but if we are to learn from our past, exciting times are ahead of us.