The following is a excerpt from the new book, Technically Food: Inside Silicon Valley’s Mission to Change What We Eat by Larissa Zimberoff, out June 1, from Abrams Press.
The Promise of Tiny Things
“Look for the leaning white mailbox,” Tony Martens wrote over email. I turned onto a dirt road with potholes, coming to a stop near a mobile office trailer. In the distance were the hills of northern San Diego. Behind the offices I could see several tattered-looking, plastic-covered hoop houses. Martens walked out with an open and inviting grin, and welcomed me to their new digs: “We just rented these.” The founder towered over me as he pulled up his jeans with his wrists. His excitement was palpable. Maurits van de Ven, his co-founder, walked out of a door with a wet head, holding a plate of broccoli and fake meat. I tried to determine who was the science guy and who was the business guy, but I couldn’t tell. While Martens talked about how they got from Amsterdam to a dirt road in northern San Diego, California, van de Ven ate his lunch.
Plantible Foods grows lemna—a tiny, floating aquatic plant—not quite an alga, but a bountiful source of RuBisCO. In photosynthetic plants, RuBisCO is the enzyme responsible for the first step in carbon fixation, whereby carbon from the atmosphere is taken in by plants and converted into other forms of energy like glucose and protein. Lemna, which is used in Detroit-based Nonbar, is 40 to 45 percent protein. RuBisCO is the most commonly found protein source in the world. Despite being eaten by birds and aquatic animals, in some places wild-growing lemna is considered a noxious weed—like kudzu—because it can completely cover a body of water and hinder the growth of other plants. But growing it for its protein, and for humans, has potential, according to these founders.
“The cool thing about RuBisCO is that it behaves like an egg white, whey, or casein,” Martens said. “You can create cheese, dairy, or meat-like textures more efficiently, and at a much lower concentration than soy, pea, wheat, rice—you name it.” The problem was that in the more common sources, “green leaves that we can chew,” growers don’t want to isolate molecules from foods that are already an easy sell—such as kale, spinach, lettuce. I was beginning to see the challenge. Waste streams from farms, like broccoli leaves or carrot tops, were another good source for RuBisCO—but getting a consistent, clean supply is an obstacle that would shift seasonally.
It says a lot about the level of excitement in an industry that two thirty-year-old entrepreneurs left Amsterdam (where they were surrounded by water), and moved to northern San Diego (mostly sand) to launch a business growing tiny aquatic plants (that need water), and which will somehow replace eggs in baking or milk in yogurt. The buzz in the food world—a mix of Gold Rush enthusiasm and activist sweat equity—is due to a mix of two things: investor wealth coming primarily from Silicon Valley hunting for the next unicorn, and earnest zeal for saving the planet. While our established food system had the brain- power, labs, and financials, big corporations had little motivation to look for alternatives. To believers in conventional or industrial agriculture, Earth’s resources are endless. According to then-President Trump, climate change doesn’t exist. Thankfully, there are many who do believe in climate change and are paying attention to the near constant wildfires, melting icebergs, and warming oceans that have inspired a whole swath of food companies with different goals. It’s worth noting that Big Food is watching, and buying up New Food, which may either squash all this ingenuity and do-goodism or allow it to prosper.
Lemna is green like a perfectly polished Granny Smith apple. In the hoop house at Plantible, it floated quietly atop an oval-shaped pond as paddle wheels circulated the water and air breezed by. Plastic wall coverings kept the temperature warm and humid inside. A drip-drop sound somewhere added to the meditative feeling I had gazing down at tens of thousands of wall-to-wall, double-leafed plants. “It’s hypnotic,” I told the pair. They laughed. I wasn’t the first to make this observation. “Can I taste it?” “Sure,” they said. I dipped my forefinger in and brought it back up coated in watery green fragments. It looked like broken-up edamame. I put it in my mouth. It tasted like iceberg lettuce or the stem of a tulip, which I’ll admit I’ve also tasted—watery and crisp.
“We’ve looked at basically every green leaf there is,” said van de Ven. “From alfalfa to chlorophyll containing algae that all have RuBisCO. Then we looked into the duckweed space,” he said. I took a moment to consider the “duckweed space.” Once propagated, the organism keeps growing itself, giving Plantible a self-perpetuating supply chain with no downtime. We walked through a few hoop houses, which the pair inherited from a company that went belly-up after trying to make a go at growing algae commercially. (See: believers!) Then Martens led me over to the protein processing area—another room on wheels.
Plantible’s frugality was the antithesis of the startup I worked for in the late nineties during the Internet bubble where we played Foosball and sat in overpriced Herman Miller Aeron chairs. In addition to scoring property with eighteen hoop houses on it, and leasing cheap pre-fab offices, Plantible has economized. Instead of fancy microfluidizers that cost the equivalent of a new car, they use a blender. “It’s hard to compete with the Vitamix,” said Martens fondly, slapping the gadget on its side. Once whipped up, the green slurry went into what looked like a swimsuit dryer, the kind that eats your drawstring in ten seconds flat. Inside the spinner, protein and fiber were separated. Then, with the use of heat, the chlorophyll (the green pigment) was removed; finally, the polyphenols (the flavor) were removed using activated charcoal. The end product is a white, flavorless protein powder that Plantible can sell to food manufacturers. As for the polyphenols and chlorophyll, the startup is attempting to find ways to sell them off—possibly to nutraceutical companies. For now, the extraneous flavor and color found in lemna remain unrealized waste streams.
This economy, however, means that Plantible is stuck shipping small amounts it can produce in its own lab to eager companies that want to test its protein. Many New Food companies struggle with whether to supply ingredients commercially or make their own consumer-friendly products. For now, Plantible is focused on scaling up its protein production. “Every day I get, like, twenty emails asking for samples,” said Martens. “And we’re like, OK, we need to keep the samples for ourselves so that we can develop our own products.” Yogurt was high on the list, but that’s a competitive area of the supermarket. As an egg replacer it may have more luck.
Six months later I checked back in with Martens. It was July and the coronavirus was raging across the United States. Despite the pandemic, Plantible had closed a $4.6 million round of funding in April. The founders had rented RVs and were living in them on the property. The team had grown and was testing different species of lemna for growth rate and protein content. While Martens had finally swapped out his beloved Vitamix and swimsuit dryer for a colloid mill and centrifuge, Plantible was still producing less than one kilo a week. In 2021, they hope to have a pilot plant that can produce ten kilos a week.
When Pat Brown, the founder of Impossible Foods, first began making his now famous burger patties, he used RuBisCO as one of his ingredients. “It worked functionally better than any other protein, making a juicy burger,” Brown said. The problem, Brown told The New Yorker, was that no one was making it at scale. The eager Dutchmen from Plantible are betting they can prove Brown wrong, and the R&D team at Impossible even has a small amount of Plantible protein powder to test.
To get to the point of creating protein for just one customer, for instance Impossible Foods, Plantible would need more of everything. “Let’s say [Impossible] needed one thousand tons of RuBisCO protein per year. That will mean that we need to operate two hundred forty acres,* which represents 0.0003 percent of the soybean acreage in the US.” These were all estimates, but for now Plantible is operating on a two-acre farm with only one acre covered in soothing, hypnotic lemna.
If lemna can succeed where algae so far haven’t, perhaps the business model will help propel the entire industry? Whether it’s as a protein source, or a new food colorant, algae is both promising and vexing, which brings me back to its complicated status for entrepreneurs. It gets investment dollars, but not nearly the same levels of the other food-tech in my book. Investors say they want to fight climate change, but the money rarely funnels down to floating green bits. In November 2020, Jeff Bezos announced the winners of a $10 billion climate fund. None of the winners are looking at the food supply. Nonetheless, like the passionate founders I met, I am hopeful for the future of algae. In a vote of confidence in algae as a climate-friendly solution, the US Senate added the organism to its 2018 farm bill. Upgraded from a supplement to a crop, algae was granted a range of support aimed at promoting its use as an agricultural product—from crop insurance for algae farmers to the establishment of a new USDA Algae Agriculture Research Program.
While our own protein sources languish in the familiar, cows’ diets are proving far more adventurous. UC Davis is running pilots expressly looking at ways to introduce seaweed to cows’ diets to reduce the amount of methane they produce. It has run trials with both dairy and beef cows, and the results are compelling. Preliminary results have been shown that adding a small amount of Asparagopsis armata (red seaweed) lowered enteric fermentation, aka cow burps, which is what releases methane into the atmosphere. Even a tiny amount works. A diet of just 0.5 percent seaweed led to a 26 percent decrease in methane, and a one-percent seaweed diet produced 67 percent less methane.
Albert Straus, founder of Straus Family Creamery, and owner of an organic dairy farm in Marin County, California, received a USDA National Organic Program waiver to run a six-week experiment feeding his dairy cows a seaweed supplement from Blue Ocean Barns. Straus thinks that cows are essential to reversing climate change, and hopes to prove that by getting his farm and dairy to carbon neutral by the end of 2021. Whether an umami-rich diet changes the taste of steak or milk remains to be seen, but at some point in the future, one that isn’t just in science fiction fantasy, the seaweed won’t feed people but will feed livestock instead.
Update: Since reporting my book, Plantible Foods says it’s increased production capacity at its two-acre pilot facility by 150x. Currently, it is working with a small group of commercial partners to launch its lemna-based protein, and preparing for commercial scale up so that it can fulfill several commercial contracts.
*Two hundred forty acres is equal to just under 182 football fields, or 3,722 tennis courts.
Larissa Zimberoff is a freelance journalist who covers the intersection of food, technology, and business. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg Businessweek, Wired, Time, and more. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Excerpt from the new book TECHNICALLY FOOD: Inside Silicon Valley’s Mission to Change What We Eat by Larissa Zimberoff published by Abrams Press.
Photos courtesy Plantible Foods.
© 2021 Larissa Zimberoff