Photo: Perfect Day.

The future of alternative proteins is about way more than plants. That was the main takeaway from a talk my colleague Catherine Lamb hosted this morning at The Spoon’s SKS conference in Seattle.

Joining Lamb onstage were Dr. Lisa Dyson, cofounder and CEO of Air Protein; Morgan Keim, the Corporate & Business Development Manager of Motif FoodWorks; and Perumal Gandhi, cofounder of Perfect Day. All three are experts on the white-hot alternative protein space. All three run companies that are creating new forms of protein, using not animals or plants, but microorganisms, technology, and — in one case — the air itself.

Onstage, the three of them and Lamb discussed some elements we need more of to make alternative proteins more widely available to the average consumer and care for the planet at the same time.

1. Better Production Methods
As Dr. Dyson outlined in her talk, traditional protein, whether derived from animal or plant, requires land. As the recent burning of the Amazon forest illustrates, this way of farming is not sustainable for either the planet or the 10 billion people expected to be on it by 2025.

Air Protein’s solution is to remove land from the equation. Using a technology originally developed by NASA, Dr. Dyson’s company created a closed-loop system to feed microorganisms carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and nitrogen to create a carbon fermentation process that makes proteins.

You can read an in-depth profile of how the technology works here. Onstage, Dr. Dyson focused more on the possibilities a company like Air Protein could introduce into the food system, like saving land and preserving natural habitats. For example, a traditional soy farm would have to be the size of Texas to produce as much protein as an Air Protein farm the size of Disney World can make.

2. More Ingredients
Motif FoodWorks also uses a fermentation process to, as Morgan Keim explained onstage, create better versions of animal-based foods we know and love and, in many cases, are loathe to part with, doomed planet or no (ahem, cheese).

At SKS, Keim noted that one of the keys to making alternative protein more widespread is finding and including the kinds of ingredients that will help it function just as real meat (or egg or dairy) does. For example, is there something that can be added to alt protein that will help it maintain the right color once it’s in the form of a burger patty and cooking on the grill? What ingredients could make alternative proteins as digestible as their animal counterparts?

Motif is currently using custom microbes to try and answer some of these questions. As Keim noted during the panel, the possibilities are practically limitless with the right mindset.

3. Transparency
But all those custom microbes and genetic modification processes have to be disclosed to consumers, something Perfect Day’s Gandhi discussed onstage.

Perfect Day, for example, makes a point of calling out that its products are “flora-based” — that is, they’re made from genetically modified microflora (a.k.a. bacteria). But as Gandhi explained onstage, even when discussing GMOs, people are actually more receptive to the product when you don’t try to hide information like that. If companies can effectively explain to the average consumer (read: not vegetarians or vegans) why and how a product like flora-based ice cream is better for them, people will generally be more open to the product.

That’s the hope, at least, and so far over the last few years, consumers have shown an increasing appetite for alternative forms of proteins, even those with genetically modified elements. We’ll be digging more into this movement towards over the next day and a half, so stay tuned for more on new forms of proteins and the role they’ll play in our future food system.

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Jenn is a writer and editor for The Spoon who covers restaurant tech and food delivery, developments in agriculture and indoor farming, and startup accelerators and incubators. On the side, she moonlights as a ghostwriter for tech industry executives and spends a lot of time on the road exploring food developments in more remote parts of the country. Previously, she was managing editor of Gigaom’s market research department and was once a competitive pinball player. Jenn splits her time between NYC and Nashville, TN.

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