Earth Day: From plant-based meat to vodka made from CO2, fight climate change one meal at a time

ByJuan Carlos Guerrero KGO logo
Wednesday, April 22, 2020
How to fight climate change with your food choices
From plant-based meat to cultured chicken grown in a lab to vodka made from CO2. We look at all the ways technology is changing the way we eat for the health of the planet.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Takeout may be the way to go right now to get our food fix, but before COVID-19 turned our world upside down, food entrepreneurs were already shaking up the food industry.

At the forefront is a food technology company in San Francisco's Mission District.

Several years ago, Eat JUST began selling an egg substitute made out of mung beans.

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"The mung bean has been cultivated for thousands of years in Asia. We remove the protein and use it for some amazing applications," said Udi Lazimy, Senior Sustainability & Sourcing Manager at Eat Just.

Lazimy is the company's Indiana Jones. He travels the world looking for plants and seeds. Right now, the company has a collection of over a quarter of all the families of plants that are known to science.

"We look for plants that are rich in protein," said Lazimy. "So that we can use them to do the same kinds of things that people are used to with eggs and dairy."

Their Just Egg made from mung beans has the same amount of protein as chicken eggs but uses 98% less water and emits 93% less greenhouse gases, according to the company.

Eat JUST is venturing out even further, into the realm of science fiction.

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It has developed a method to grow its own chicken meat. This isn't a plant-based substitute, but real chicken that was grown in a lab instead of a farm.

The process begins by isolating animal cells and providing an environment for them to grow.

"We are basically mimicking the animal's body conditions," said Vitor Espirito Santo, director of Cellular Agriculture. "So we go from a small number of cells to something that resembles a meat product."

Their cultured meat can be made into ground meat, chicken bites or something more structured like a chicken breast.

"This chicken didn't require killing a single animal. Didn't require all that land and rain forests wiped away," said Josh Tetrick, CEO of Eat Just. "It's a way of making meat without all the land, without all the water."

Tetrick touts cultured meat grown in clean lab environments as a solution to zoonotic diseases, like COVID-19.

"Think about the times we are living right now. Diseases called zoonotic diseases, which are essentially from animal to human. Whether it is salmonella, or whether it is the coronavirus that we see today. The root of this is the result of a collision between human animals and non-human animals," said Tetrick.

The company's cultured chicken is waiting for approval from the federal government before it can be sold to restaurants and eventually supermarkets.

Some Bay Area tech companies are looking at other solutions, like beef alternatives.

Impossible Foods in Redwood City has been successful in marketing its plant-based beef in restaurants like Burger King.

It sizzles and tastes like beef, but emits nearly 87% less greenhouse gases than a ground beef patty. It also used less land and water to produce.

"Our secret ingredient is heme," said Impossible Foods communications director Jessica Appelgren when the Impossible Burger was rolled out at Gott's Roadside. "It's a molecule that is in blood. It's a basic building block of life. It's what makes meat meaty, but it's also found in plants."

Impossible Foods gets heme that is similar to beef from soybean plants. Plant-based beef is getting a following from celebrities.

Katy Perry is an investor of Impossible Foods and posted on Instagram that she's going to a plant-based diet during her pregnancy.

Comedian Kevin Hart is a fan of Beyond Beef. During a stop at an Oakland's Castlemont High School earlier this year, he told students he had only eaten plant-based beef and pork for almost a year.

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"I'm very happy at the change. I am happy at the results. I think of my body as definitely benefiting from it," said Hart.

He then brought in a food truck that served Beyond Meat hamburgers and sausages for students to try.

"If my mom was to bring this home, I would not be able to tell the difference if it was real meat or not," said student Jajuan Celestine, who was won over by the Beyond Meat hamburger he tasted for the first time.

Substituting beef can take a big bite out of greenhouse gas emissions. Producing a pound of ground beef emits nearly 22 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when you take into account the resources needed to raise a cow and then to process and transport the meat.

In contrast, growing and distributing one pound of tomatoes emits less than one-third of a pound of carbon dioxide.

Tech companies are branching out into other foods and drinks.

In San Francisco, Endless West is making wine without grapes and sake without rice. It does it by scanning the molecular profile of wine spirits.

A lot of the traditional processes of aging and viniculture require a lot of resources and a lot of time, so we are able to do that more efficiently because the molecules come out pure and more sustainable and scalable," said Alec Lee, CEO of Endless West.

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In Brooklyn, Air Co. is making vodka by capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turning it into ethanol and then into vodka. The company says each bottle removes one pound of carbon from the atmosphere, about the same amount of reduced by eight trees.

And in Petaluma, Miyoko's Creamery is making a cheese alternative out of oats and legumes.

"Cashews are inherently creamy and has a neutral flavor. It's a great base to make a cheese out of," said Daniel Rauch, vice president of Innovation.

Miyoko's Creamery adds cultures and ferments the cashew mix to develop authentic dairy flavors. The cheeses are then aged for several weeks. But unlike other vegan cheeses, Miyoko's Creamery has been able to develop a cheese substitute that melts.

"This is a whole new technology. It's got that stretch. It's got that goo factor. It's scrumptious. It's fatty," said founder Miyoko Schinner. Her company did an analysis that found its cheese products are 10 to 30 times lower in greenhouse gas emissions than cheese from cow's milk.

"On one acre of land you can grow enough cashews to make about 6,000 pounds of vegan cheese a year. One acre of land with dairy cows you can make 182 pounds of dairy cheese," said Schinner.

"When you look at the food system today, it needs a lot of work. It's got to be more sustainable," said Tetrick. "About a third of the world's ice free land is being used to plant soy and corn for animals to eat. That soy and corn often comes from clearing rain forests because you need space and then there is lots of runoff into the oceans."

Not everyone is ready to give up on animals as a food source.

"Animals are essential to reversing climate change," said Albert Straus, founder of Straus Family Creamery. "The whole movement to get rid of animals is really contrary to the science and the practices that are really going to save this planet."

Straus is the first zero waste dairy creamery in the world. It relies on old-school tech like rotational grazing, as well as new technologies.

"We are going to do the first commercial trial on red seaweed to reduce the enteric method," said Albert.

Cow burps make up one-third of methane emissions coming from agriculture in the United States.

And methane is a huge problem. It's 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide at heating up the atmosphere.

A 2019 study by Penn State researchers found that adding small amounts (0.5%) of red seaweed - Asparagopsis taxiformis -- decreased methane emission by 80 percent in dairy cows. Adding more decreased emissions even further.

Straus is going even farther. It is on track to become carbon neutral by the end of next year.

For years, his farm has used a methane digester to processes manure from cows and generate electricity to run the feed truck.

He maintains an easy food solution is to buy local products.

"We import 50% of our fruit. 30% of veggies. 10% of beef. 80% of lamb. 90% of seafood. We are shipping products all over the world and that is not sustainable," said Albert.

"People have the idea that sustainable food is a sacrifice of either flavor or amount. But, it is actually a real opportunity to engage in how food is grown," said Karen Leibowitz, who co-founded Zero Footprint along with her husband and fellow restaurateur Anthony Myint.

Zero Foodprint is a nonprofit based in San Francisco that educates restaurants about buying food from farms and ranchers that practice regenerative farming. It creates healthy soil that that can absorb carbon from the atmosphere. More than 25 restaurants in California are taking part.

"If we can use healthy soil practices to draw down CO2, it actually makes our food more nutritious, more delicious, more resistant against climate change in terms of drought and water runoff to the ocean. We want to create a sea change in the way we buy and sell food," said Leibowitz.

A study published in 2017 by Project Drawdown looked at solutions to climate change across all industries. 11 of the top 25 solutions to climate change were food related, including two of the top three - reducing food waste and eating a plant-based diet.

"The market needs to send a signal that people are interested in this and then farmers will change their practices," said Leibowitz.