The global food system is at a rupture point. From macro issues such as climate change to local issues such as food security, the food system needs to adapt and evolve to meet the needs of people and planet. While plant-based burgers, nuggets and milk can potentially remove some industrial factory farmed animals from the equation, there remains a bigger issue around food security (availability and cost).
What happens when people can no longer afford to feed their families?
In 2010, we observed the impact of skyrocketing prices for wheat – the Arab Spring. According to an article published by PBS, Did food prices spur the Arab Spring? , one of the underlying causes of the uprising was the high cost of wheat and the subsequent anti-government sentiment.
Today, we are observing an unprecedented rise in the cost of food due to supply chain issues from the pandemic, war, climate change and consolidation of the food/ag system. This is not just limited to one region but is impacting the entire planet [2,3].
Potential solutions to solve these challenges are available today. We do not need to wait for government intervention or wait for new technologies, such as cellular ag, to scale – we have many of the tools required to get us started today but we need to take a collaborative, systems approach to implement a regenerative, decentralized food system.
According to a new study published in the journal Nature  and a subsequent article in the Washington Post, Meat grown from fungus? It could save the world’s forests , replacing 50% of the animal protein we consume with microbial proteins (MP) could eliminate deforestation. Microbial proteins (MP) are proteins produced by microorganisms via fermentation of carbon and nitrogen-containing substrates. To get anywhere near a 50% replacement with MP, there are several challenges that need to be addressed.
Challenge #1: Consumers’ willingness to replace 50% of their meat-based diet with products made from MP.
While there is a growing movement from consumers to make food choices based on climate impact, the unlock required to broaden this will depend on taste and cost, followed by nutrition and clean label.
Taste, taste, taste… is THE number one attribute to address. Today’s industrial, scaled solutions based on pea, soy or wheat gluten are improving, however, the taste is still not viewed as being on par with animal-based solutions.
MP produced from mycelium or bacteria have the potential to deliver on taste. Unlike plant proteins that require masking of off-notes, MP solutions can go from very neutral (great for Alt. Dairy applications) to umami (great for Alt. Meat applications). Because of the neutral base, it is easier to formulate solutions consumers will love. We have only explored the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding the different strains and combinations with substrates so there is a potential to further unlock new opportunities in flavor, texture, and nutrition. Imagine strains that are more suitable for Alt. Fish applications while others are more suitable for Alt. Milk applications… the opportunities are literally endless.
Costs will be further explored in the next section but imagine solutions that can leverage other food and/or agriculture production side streams whereas today, companies are paying to dispose of these valuable inputs.
There are several aspects related to the nutritional value of MP:
PDCAAS (protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score) is a method of evaluating the quality of a protein based on both the amino acid requirements of humans and their ability to digest it. For example, cow’s milk, eggs and soy protein have a PDCAAS of 1.0 meaning they have all of the amino acids required for humans. Mycoprotein has a PDCAAS of 0.996  whereas pea protein concentrate is <0.9.
While protein content and protein quality are extremely important, the human body (and pets) need fiber, fat, carbohydrates, and micronutrients. The biomass produced from MP is much more than just protein. It also contains fiber, fat (of which 80+% is unsaturated) and other important nutrients such as selenium, zinc and vitamin D. Therefore, our friends at Eternal Foods have coined the term MycofoodTM as it is truly a food and not an isolated protein.
Increasingly, consumers are looking for Alt. Meat and Dairy solutions that incorporate a clean label with only a handful of ingredients they recognize. Due to the clean taste, functionality, and nutritional attributes of MP, the opportunity to deliver on this consumer need is available – today.
Challenge #2: Demonstrating MP can be produced in decentralized locations, at an affordable cost.
To demonstrate that MP can be produced in decentralized locations at an affordable cost, we need to innovate how the whole system can be connected, regenerative and reimagined.
Regeneration begins with an awareness that complex, adaptive systems are required for evolution.
De-generation begins with an un-awareness that centralized power and control with a mechanistic win-lose mindset/paradigm, will decrease the potential for systems change and evolution.
Sustainability, then, is the measurement of our capacity to move from a degenerative, linear, scarcity mindset to a regenerative, circular, adaptive, collaborative, and abundant mindset. Sustainability is the measurement of our capacity to think greater than our environment, moving from value return and living in the known to regenerative life and living in the unknown (figure 1).
Innovation is the means to create a more sustainable, regenerative future. Our definition of innovation:
Creating mindset, culture, and ways of working that enable a system (company or ecosystem) to continuously evolve and adapt to changing conditions and opportunities, manifesting in the creation of new futures.
As mentioned above, we need to innovate how the whole system can be connected, regenerative and reimagined. The whole system includes the following:
Inputs / Substrates – The primary substrate used as a carbon source for microbial fermentation is sugar, however, growing sugar cane or sugar beets in one part of the world and shipping to another is not sustainable nor regenerative. Innovating on local substrates including food waste, food production by-products and even local cover crops is critical to solving the cost and regenerative equation. Imagine a completely circular system where waste becomes the fuel or input for the microbes to consume.
See the chart below that describes some of the feedstock/substrates and the types of biomass.
Illustrative figure – specific ingredients may have different characteristics
Strains – There are over 600 commercially available mycelium strains with thousands more yet to be discovered. Imagine the opportunities to explore, test, and optimize specific strains to address the needs for taste, texture, cost, and performance. An entire industry will be created to supply, optimize, and innovate on new strains.
Energy / Water – As we have seen with the war in Ukraine, energy is a precious commodity that can have huge impacts on the ability for countries and regions to remain independent. Proving a decentralized food system will require a local energy source from solar and wind as well as capturing water from rain and moisture from the air. Today, the technology exists to power most of the requirements from renewable sources. Imagine the opportunities to create local industries around renewable energy sources to power the local food system.
Labor – No system is sustainable, let alone regenerative, when there is an inequitable difference in living standards amongst the population. Families, communities, cities, regions, countries, and the planet will not thrive unless we address the inequality that exists where a small percentage of the population has most of the wealth, and a large percentage of the population struggles to provide for their families. A decentralized food system would provide high paying jobs while keeping the value creation local.
The current global food system is centralized with 10 companies controlling a large portion of the packed goods consumers purchase.
In the US, the four` major meat companies – Cargill, Tyson Foods, JBS and National Beef Packing – control 55% to 85% of the hog, cattle, and chicken markets .
A handful of companies control a significant percentage of the global grain markets.
This centralized control of the food system keeps wages low for many workers while concentrating profits to the centralized organizations. Local populations who depend on this food system do not share in the benefits of a centralized system.
Education – A decentralized food system offers the opportunity for local schools, K-12 as well as universities, to engage in the creation and evolution of the very system they depend on. Imagine the impact if students, from a very early age, are directly engaged with an understanding of how the food system works. At the university or trade school level, students from across disciplines (ag, engineering, food science, hospitality, marketing, etc.) work in collaboration to continuously evolve the system to meet the needs of the future. This value is continuously regenerated back into the local system for future generations to build on. This is truly regenerative innovation. An example of this in action is the Plant Futures program at UC Berkeley where the mission is to empower college students and young professionals to become the ethical leaders, system thinkers, and enlightened eaters – Plant Futurists – that our food system needs now more than ever. This program is expanding to many Universities across the U.S.
Government – Governments around the world are recognizing that food security and independence are critical for the overall security and wellbeing of its people. From Singapore to Saudi Arabia, governments are investing billions of dollars into programs and capabilities to ensure food independence [8,9]. Imagine if local governments of larger countries took the same approach to become food independent? For example, I live in Bend OR, a town of approximately 100k people that services many rural communities within several hours drive. Bend is 3+ hours from larger communities like Portland or Eugene OR and is completely dependent on trucking in food from these hubs. In recent years, large forest fires have closed these roads for days. Local governments should be focused on creating a decentralized food system to provide higher paying jobs, circular systems that decrease waste as well as nutritious, affordable food for its people.
Manufacturing – In the US alone, there are nine thousand one hundred and eighteen microbreweries! If we can decentralize beer production, why not food via fermentation? The investment in capital to produce MP will not be significantly higher than that of brewing beer. Local governments could invest in the infrastructure just as it invests in essential services like water and waste treatment. Afterall, isn’t a regenerative food system an essential service for people and planet? In my example of Bend OR above, there are 22 microbreweries!! The additional opportunity this affords is to co-locate biomass production alongside beer production and use the spent grain as a feedstock for mycelium production .
Distribution – Imagine producing 25% to 50% of the protein and other macro ingredients locally. The distribution needs are in complete control of the local community and the value creation of those macro ingredients remains local. Local business can be created to support the needs of local distribution to schools, hospitals, food service, etc.
Challenge #3: Demonstrating data can be shared across multiple organizations (interoperability) while protecting the sovereignty of the data.
A decentralized food system will require an interconnected, nodal network to share data and information in new ways. At MISTA, we are exploring how to address this challenge. We are creating the MISTA Studio where companies can explore digital solutions and tools to better understand how AI and Machine Learning can be leveraged to unlock new ways of working, learning, and sharing. This sandbox will enable developers and users to simultaneously understand the opportunities to leverage digital tools required to evolve the food system in ways that nourish people and planet.
Challenge #4: Demonstrating an end-to-end, decentralized model that will likely disrupt every industry and supply chain.
One of our favorite reads at MISTA is Rethinking Humanity – Five Foundational Sector Disruptions, the Lifecycle of Civilization, and the Coming Age of Freedom from RethinkX. They argue that change in complex systems can be characterized by long periods of stability punctuated by short periods of rapid change. This pattern is seen in all complex systems, which include the human body, the economy, and ecosystems.
They nicely illustrate a framework that shows how a convergence of factors can amplify the forces for change, which then overpower the brakes. These self-reinforcing feedbacks (accelerators) can destabilize the system and push it out of equilibrium. The point at which the system moves out of equilibrium is the ‘rupture point’. At this point, a change in system state is almost inevitable, as the accelerators drive rapid change and push the system into a new equilibrium. The rupture point sees an expansion of possible outcomes (a new possibility space). Thus, convergence leads to divergence. Continuation of the current state has a probability of almost zero, while a new state governed by different rules has a high probability.
As stated earlier, there is little doubt the food system is at a rupture point. MISTA’s purpose is to help guide this transformation to a new state in which we emerge with a food system that nourishes people and planet.
Our goal is to create opportunities to demonstrate an end-to-end, decentralized model with Partners and Members from all aspects of the value web where we can connect the nodes of Regen Ag, Biotechnology, Digital, Localization, and Renewable Energy where systems thinking helps us move from value return to a regenerative life.