3D Printing A Meatless World: Ersatz in 3D Printed Food

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3D printing food is seen as a sideshow by most in our industry. When we have dug deep into food 3D printing or looked at 3D printed salmon, 3D printed food for the elderly, chocolate, and Redefine Meat, it was apparent that the promise was far greater than achievements. Michael’s in-depth guide into 3D printing food so far shows us as much. After hundreds of press releases, precious few pastry or other chefs use 3D printers day today.

Investor thirst for meat alternatives may soon fundamentally change this, however. With meat being expensive in terms of cost to us and to the planet, an opportunity is being created to reinvent the food systems that serve us. With Beyond Meat and Impossible making a splash in retail and restaurants, young people turning more and more toward veganism. Many others are forgoing meat a few times a week. Several significant trends point toward a meatless lifestyle becoming a success. Meat shortages have further undermined the ethical soundness of the sector and have forced die-hard meat-eaters to experiment without it. All of this means that investors are very interested in this market.

Engineered foods that substitute industrialized processes for more traditional ones have become increasingly common recently. While there have been some slip-ups in Hampton Creek’s mayo-less mayonnaise fracas and the like, the trend seems inexorable. Large firms such as Unilever and Nestle were already very good at selling you an item made up of a myriad of other items that lowered costs. Margarine, for example, is a near-total waste product that could cost less than a $1 a tonne.

The initial food revolution that lead to the supermarketization of our world has, therefore, already given us many successful meat and other ingredient replacement products. Wars, shortages, and economics have led to nearly all cherished traditional products being replaced, at least for a short time, to an ersatz alternative. There is nothing new about Beyond Meat that hasn’t shaped or been tried throughout the ages.

Chicory coffee is an example of a wartime Ersatz Good.

We can be sure, therefore, that the economics of replacing meat is very sound. If we look at the published numbers by Beyond Meat itself, the company claims that it uses 99% less water, 90% less greenhouse gasses, and 46% less energy than regular meat production. At the same time, a low-cost, industrially-produced, plant-based product emerges that can be manufactured at scale, but retails above the price of meat. Doing good is hard. Doing good profitably doubly so, but doing all of that at scale could be a food miracle. We could change the way through which we consume food.

The value chains prevalent in foods could also be altered significantly. Now, big firms such as ADM and Cargill make much of the food for the giant supermarkets or food brands. Very strong direct-to-consumer brands that sold meatless meat via the internet could be entirely vertically integrated alternatives to that system. Lights-in-infrastructure, big-in-ideas startups could very well further democratize food distribution and retail. Microbrands could be made quite easily now. What’s more new channels could proliferate.

Quest Bar is an energy bar startup that had a $1 billion exit. Notably, it grew through targeting fitness professionals retailing through them and in gyms. Rival Rxbar targeted the cross fit community and retailed exclusively via gyms. Both firms did not seek to be in the supermarket aisle. Both did not want to be desired by everyone. In an internet world, could the food system fragment?

Deals between an Impossible Burger and, for example, Uber Eats could also reshape this world with perhaps Impossible becoming a supplier to all of Uber Eats directly. Even more radically, maybe it could front its product for free and get a cut of higher-margin sales only if they would happen? Could startups of all kinds come to replace fish, cheese, and many other products?

Would this undermine the designated origin system that gives us brie and Champagne and replaces it with VC-backed hype? The meatless meat opportunity is not just a startup, trend, and not just an interesting investment area. The knock-on effects of success in the food industry can have far-reaching consequences for how we consume and who controls the food supply.

It would be easy to write a hagiography of the recent developments in meatless meats. It would also be relatively straightforward to sing the praises of the meatless meat industry here, as well. It is clearly unethical to eat animals (but I do continue to do so), and it is unsustainable to do so. I think that this is clear.

We can’t feed all of the world’s meat-eaters with the same amount of meat that they have, in their newfound wealth, been accustomed to. Having 77% of agricultural land devoted to livestock while the rest is all of the world’s crops is clearly inefficient. What was once a staple will be a rarity and delicacy going forward.

Maybe we can at least agree that this will be more respectful to animals and our planet. The increase in the cost of meat and its replacement is a hugely influential trend that will reshuffle markets and make a host of entrepreneurs new food billionaires. As recent examples of startups in food have shown, however, we should be skeptical of what the Silicon Valley set feeding us. A lot of those companies will fail but, with over 900 startups targeting the food industry, some might succeed.

The VCs are the people that brought us Juicero, which is Nespresso Cups for juice. I could explain it here but I’d rather point you to this hilarious article here. Must read if you’re an engineer! So, even though the replacement of meat is an ethically just thing and would be good for the planet and perhaps help feed more people, we will be delivering ourselves into the arms of robber barons. Flighty short-term money with planned exits that are shorter than the span in between Olympics is not conducive to quality control and honesty. If you just want to blow up ten balloons as big as you can, knowing eight will burst, you’re going to over-inflate.

When capital dominated and ethics was last in short supply, things such as the Embalmed Beef scandal occurred. I do not doubt that our meatless meat startups have similar fun high jinks in store for us. They will toy with origin and content and focus the story right, but focus the product wrong. It will be a Mast Brother’s scandal redux writ large. I find it much more likely that we’ll be seeing many more Mast Brothers, Juiceros and Hampton Creeks than we will be seeing quality food companies.

With 3D printing, we can extrude materials and create structure in patties and another paté-like foods. We can improve the taste, texture, and looks of things. At the same time, we can print fish or other cells to create tissue that is close to or actually the real thing. We can be a differentiator and supplier to the meatless meat industry. A few 3D printing startups are already active in the space. We ourselves are of course, thriving already, but we are puny. We’re perhaps a $20 billion industry growing at a reasonable clip. But, Impossible Foods recently raised another $500 million, giving them a total of $1.3 billion in funding. In other words, for all our potential, parts of our industry could be swallowed whole in some Sand Hill Road clash of the titans.

Image Credit Marco Verch.

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