Innovation Blog

Sustainable Food, Sustainable Climate

As startups make sustainability their raison d’être, their innovative products, proteins and ingredients pave the way toward overcoming climate change

Climate change is the defining issue of our time. Its impact reaches far and wide, touching on many important sectors including health, agriculture and food security. Yet despite the complexity and difficulty of mitigating climate change, human efforts can be made to stabilize, counteract and even reverse some of the effects of climate change.

The solution may lie in innovative products currently being developed by foodtech and agritech startups that have made climate change and sustainability an integral part of their vision. These dedicated young companies often bring scientific breakthroughs that have the potential to revolutionize the industry.

Sustainable ingredients

The environmental case against animal agriculture is increasingly compelling, as diets higher in animal-based foods have been found to cause more harm to the environment than plant-based diets. Meat substitutes have substantially lower land and footprints than animal products, as traditional animal farming and meat production require vast amounts of land and water for raising and grazing animals, as well as for growing feed crops.

Sustainable ingredients are key for the food industry and can have one of the biggest impacts on climate. As meat-free diets continue to increase in popularity, plant-based foods or ingredients, also known as alternative proteins, have become one of the fastest-growing segments in foodtech. This includes fermented products and cell-based meat and fat production.

Three startups that count themselves among MassChallenge Switzerland’s alumni—Planted, Cultimate Foods and Michroma—are all dedicated to reducing climate change through their innovative products.

Less land, less harm

Planted is combating negative impact of the traditional meat industry by producing plant-based meat, and worked with MCCH in 2019 to grow its product line. The company aims to have their products lead to the reduction of cattle farming and one of the industry’s important influences on climate change — land degradation.

“We aim to use less processed protein, requiring less energy and water inputs, thus reducing the environmental impact of our most important raw materials,” says Planted Co-Founder Pascal Bieri, commenting on their focus on low-impact raw materials. “We are convinced, that using plants as ingredients in our products is better than animal meat from an economic, environmental and societal view.”

Land degradation is a serious side effect from raising cattle and increases land toxicity while limiting biodiversity. Cattle farming demands approximately 10m2 of land per cow, which adds up quickly when burgeoning populations have facilitated access to animal protein. Poultry farming uses far less land—EU regulations allow for chickens to be raised on the amount of space of a single sheet of A4 paper per bird.

“Aside from the health benefits, scientific evidence states that plant-based diets significantly reduce the amount of land needed for agriculture by 76%,” says Bieri, whose company not only puts the planet’s environmental needs, but that of the welfare of animals, first.

Traditional animal farming is also water-intensive, requiring large amounts to raise and process livestock, as well as for growing feed crops. By removing these needs, cultivated meat uses significantly less water. In terms of water footprint, 1kg of chicken breast consumes 235l of fresh water, while Planted’s chicken alternative, planted.chicken, consumes 85% less. 

Animal fat substitutes

Another company fighting climate change by reducing animal consumption is Cultimate Foods, which is focused on improving the taste and texture of plant-based alternatives using a fat substitute that closely mimics the mouthfeel of animal fat. Cultivated’s technology offers several advantages over traditional animal farming and meat production when it comes to land and water use.

 “We need to completely rethink how we produce our food and change consumer behavior,” admits George Zheleznyi, Co-Founder & CEO Cultimate Foods. “In contrast to traditional animal farming, cultivated meat production requires much less land since it can be produced in a controlled environment, such as a laboratory. This means that cultivated meat has the potential to help reduce deforestation and habitat destruction associated with animal agriculture.”

Cultimate Foods’ fat ingredients can make a substantial contribution fighting climate change: assuming a 10-20% average share of fat in a meat product, the total volume of substituted meat can be multiplied five to ten-fold. The company’s goal is to achieve a production capacity of 30,000 tons by 2030, which is equal to 150,000-300,000 tons of animal meat excluded from the food chain.

Sustainable colorants

In order to improve the visual aspect of alternative proteins, many producers use colors, flavors and fragrances that are often produced using petroleum-based derivatives. But even natural replacements can also be harmful to the environment, with extremely high water consumption, land use, and pesticides and herbicides. One kilo of carmine, for example, needs more than 100,000 insects to produce a kilo of colorant.

One company working exclusively on sustainable colorants and fermentation is Michroma. Their fungi-based approach allows the company to quickly produce natural colorants while simultaneously upcycling agroindustrial waste to feed fungi in their bio-factories.

“We use fewer resources such as land and water and reduce transportation costs,” says Michroma CEO Ricky Cassini. “Compared to traditional production methods of artificial and natural dyes, our natural food colorants have a significantly lower impact on the environment.”

Just like the partnership of alternative proteins and cultivated fats, Michroma also works closely with companies to improve the ingredients they are using and the sustainability of their products.

“Our natural food colorants are a great fit for plant-based meat alternatives, confectionery, dairy, extruded cereals and many more food products, as they provide a more natural and healthier alternative to synthetic food colorants,” says Cassini. “Overall, our partnership with companies helps us achieve our mission of creating a more sustainable food system.”

But to achieve a more sustainable food system, positive change is desperately needed. According to the latest report of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), there is no time to waste if we are to stave off the dire consequences of climate change to both the planet and its people. Startups that focus on sustainable ingredients and alternative proteins are critically needed to support vast changes to the animal agriculture industry as the world’s hunger for animal products increases while natural resources like land and water remain limited.

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