Episode length: 17:25 | September 5, 2019
The World to Come - Episode 2: The Power to Recreate Food
TESS VIGELAND: Little Leaf Farms is not your average farm. There are bright, leafy greens growing as far as the eye can see… but they’re not in soil. And on our first trip here -- about an hour’s drive from Boston -- the weather was in the 30s!
PAUL SELLEW: The idea here is that you’re eating lettuce in the middle of winter here in New England and that just doesn’t happen. We’re so used to having the stuff being driven across the country. It’s crazy. And I think right now we're at the beginning of using technology to grow food locally.
TESS VIGELAND: Coming up -- the founder of Little Leaf Farms, and other entrepreneurs -- on innovations in food production. They’re motivated by big goals: being more sustainable, and feeding more people. The U-N projects the world’s population will reach nearly 10 billion by 2050.
This is The World To Come, a podcast brought to you by Bank of America --
exploring life in the future, starting with the visionaries of today. Featuring clients and partners affiliated with Bank of America.
I’m Tess Vigeland.
And in this second episode, the power to recreate food.
FELIX TRAN: You know going forwards we need 70 percent more food production towards 2050.
TESS VIGELAND: Bank of America Global Research Analyst Felix Tran is based in London. He looks at global megatrends, including food production.
TESS VIGELAND: Let's talk about why you went into a career of studying and analyzing food. How did that start for you?
FELIX TRAN: Sure so you know when I joined BankAmerica about five years ago is actually um, I was tasked with my colleagues there exploring this idea of the food security challenge. Fascinating trends on sort of New Moon Shot ideas whether that's vertical farming, lab grown meat. But for me it's you know the personal angle I guess. You know, what’s delivered on your plate. And how, through various supply chains actually gets to you and how sustainable it is. And then just thinking more long term.
TESS VIGELAND: Felix says one way to boost the production of produce is to expand the use of hydroponics.
That’s where you grow plants in a nutrient solution instead of soil. He thinks hydroponic greenhouses could change what it means to “eat local.”
FELIX TRAN: With greenhouses right going forwards, I think you can be very nimble with where you place them because obviously when we think of greenhouses we think of natural sunlight. But we have seen so of greenhouses being developed where more so using artificial light powered by renewable energy from solar panels on the rooftops to make the process, again, more environmentally friendly. So I think that the evolution as it were of the greenhouse, combined with hydroponics and clean energy is could be a very interesting development in this area.
TESS VIGELAND: Several companies are already testing this concept. That’s why our producer was able to taste freshly-picked baby greens in Massachusetts... despite freezing rain outside.
PAUL SELLEW: [Greenhouse SOT] I want you to taste the lettuce
MARY DOOE: Oh my gosh
PAUL SELLEW: You taste that crunch?
MARY DOOE: Yeah
PAUL SELLEW: That sweet flavor?
TESS VIGELAND: Paul Sellew is the founder of Little Leaf Farms.
PAUL SELLEW: In New England, we import over 90 percent of the food that we eat is grown elsewhere. So I've always been a big proponent of growing local and I looked at the lettuce category and I said, ‘wow. I mean it's so concentrated out in the West Coast between Salinas California and Yuma Arizona where according to the USDA over 95 percent of the lettuce has grown.’ I thought there was an opportunity to focus in on lettuce and leafy greens and that's when I started Little Leaf Farms in 2015 and we've been off to the races ever since.
TESS: You know I am always fascinated by origin stories. So I would love it if you would take us back to a time before Little Leaf Farms you know where did your dream begin. How I'm going to be really cheesy here but how was the seed planted so to speak.
PAUL: So I grew up associated with my family's farming business located in Connecticut. So that's where I guess you could say the farming and the growing bug you know sort of was that was planted the seed was planted so to speak. And I built a greenhouse business called Backyard Farms which we built into a 42-acre greenhouse complex in Madison, Maine where we introduced a locally-grown vine ripened tomato into the New England marketplace.
And I saw the enormous reception and sort of the passion that the that all the New England consumers had about supporting a higher quality locally grown product.
TESS VIGELAND: After that, Paul’s goal was to set up the world’s most technologically-advanced greenhouse and try his hand at farming lettuce, year round, in New England.
PAUL SELLEW: So what you're looking at is our Phase 1 greenhouse which is one hectare, or 2.5 acres, and then that's contiguous to our Phase 2 greenhouse which is another one hectare or 2.5 acres.
TESS VIGELAND: The operation relies on a system of intelligent automation that keeps the temperature and light optimal, all the time. The plants themselves grow out of a series of 19-foot-long gutters.
PAUL SELLEW: We grow in a substrate called stone wool which is made from the basalt rock. So it's a mineral based substrate but you fundamentally feed the plants through a process called fertigation where you're taking water soluble nutrients mixing it with recycled rainwater that we capture off of our roof and we then supply that to the plants based on the needs of the plant.
TESS VIGELAND: This greenhouse is so densely populated with lettuce, you can hardly see the separation between plants -- or even the opposite end of the greenhouse.
PAUL SELLEW: On a per square foot basis we're growing about 25 times the amount of lettuce that is being grown in that square foot in California. We're at the beginning of more and more controlled environment systems that are going to be growing food at the doorstep of where the people live.
TESS VIGELAND: Can you describe for me why a company like yours, why a product like yours, is important to the whole notion of community and keeping the community healthy?
PAUL: So what happens if something happens in Salinas or Yuma, right? With that level of concentration of food there's risk associated with that. So just from that standpoint, distributing where the food is grown I think you're going to be a more resilient society and certainly a more resilient community. And then also part of that is we’re hiring local people these are year round jobs with benefits so you know you're investing back in the community by growing it local.
TESS: Look in the future and what would you hope people would be saying about Little Leaf 10 years down the line maybe even 50 years down the line. What do you imagine them saying?
PAUL SELLEW: That we were part of this next generation reinvention of our food system using state of the art sustainable technology growing food close to the population centers building more resilient communities producing the highest quality most nutritious leafy greens, a brand that people trust. They know that when they eat our product they’re eating something that’s sustainably grown in an ethical manner and basically is of the highest quality and being a part of the diversification of our food system.
TESS VIGELAND: OK, let’s go from our salad course to the main course: Protein. We’re going to the other side of the country -- to a big warehouse in the Mission District of San Francisco.
This is the headquarters of a start-up called JUST, Inc. One of the things they do here is study plants from all over the world to see how they can be transformed into all kinds of foods.
They’ve built up an archive of plant specimens.
UDI LAZIMY: We are headed to the JUST plant library which represents a culmination of years of work and thousands and thousands of miles of scouring the world for plants that can be used in our research.
This is Udi Lazimy, the Plant Sourcing Director at JUST. He joined the team after
a career advocating for environmental and sustainable agriculture policy.
Now Udi travels the globe to forage for plants and establish relationships with farmers.
UDI LAZIMY: Most of these things come from, I mean, you know some of them I had to literally put in a backpack and so you know every one of these has a different story and it’s really fun.
TESS VIGELAND: And once he brings these plants back to the JUST offices, I wanted to know… what are they looking for?
UDI LAZIMY: We take a wide diversity of plants within thousands of species and we are looking at them at a molecular level to discover potential functional applications. Could a plant protein of some sort emulsify oils or foam up in a creamy kind of application or gel in a pan like an egg?
Figuring out how to create an egg substitute was a longtime project for JUST. And they hit on a surprising answer: mung beans.
Mung beans are round and green, and about the size of a lentil. They’re a good source of protein and really popular in Asia.
UDI LAZIMY: What we love about it is that to grow mung beans and use it in an egg type of application requires a tiny fraction of the water and greenhouse gas emissions that egg production requires so that’s a huge benefit, that’s something that I love about it.
TESS VIGELAND: But can little green beans satisfy your taste buds when you’re craving eggs? That’s a question Chris Jones, a chef at JUST, takes very seriously.
CHRIS JONES: My favorite food is actually egg. And that’s why it’s so important to me of a mission that we’re doing it.
TESS VIGELAND: Eggs are one of the cheapest sources of protein in the world and global demand skyrocketed over the past few decades. Chris understands how important eggs are as a food source, especially as the population increases.
CHRIS JONES: I was fortunate enough to work in some of the best restaurants in the world, so I got to eat some of the best food. You know coming from kitchens you don't have a lot of money, eggs are very, very affordable. So I can get a dozen eggs, that’s great protein… how do we do that without all the extra effort that goes into doing that. This really is the future.
TESS VIGELAND: After high school, Chris studied under chefs who were cooking in the classic French style. He went on to work in an award-winning molecular gastronomy restaurant in Chicago, and even competed on “Top Chef.”
Then he decided he wanted to do more than prepare delicious food. He wanted to INNOVATE delicious food and help make our food system more sustainable.
CHRIS JONES: I'm a little bit of a crusader so it's not about the business or the money for me
TESS VIGELAND: The company recently put a product on the market called “JUST Egg.”
Another one of the company’s chefs, Josh Hyman, offered to scramble some up in the company kitchen for our producer LAUREN SILVERMAN. Josh had a small bowl of Udi’s mung beans on display next to his frying pan.
JOSH HYMAN: For your viewing pleasure…
TESS VIGELAND: It’s all about presentation, right? He also had a small bottle with a yellow liquid -- similar to the color of real eggs after you whisk them.
JOSH HYMAN: Luckily for us the actual mung beans protein once you mill them and hull them actually ranges from a darker yellow to a paler yellow. So, I'm just going to heat the pan and add my fat.
LAUREN SILVERMAN: There’s some butter in there. Is this how you make eggs at
JOSH HYMAN: Absolutely.
TESS VIGELAND: What’s in the pan LOOKS like scrambled eggs but… they don’t SMELL like eggs. You know that smell of sulphur? This has been a challenge for JUST -- they haven’t been able to recreate it.
JOSH HYMAN: Which, depending on how small and ventilated your kitchen is, is a good thing or a bad thing. So, it looks done so I’m going to kill the heat and we’re going to serve this now for you to give it a try.
TESS VIGELAND: He seasoned it with a little salt and pepper…
LAUREN SILVERMAN: hmm… It’s good, it’s chewier than eggs. It has the same sort of texture overall. It’s strangely similar to the flavor of eggs.
JOSH: And that’s the intention.
TESS VIGELAND: Now that it’s figured out eggs… the company’s moonshot… is MEAT.
They’re using the cells of animals to GROW MEAT.
At JUST, they’re working on making chicken nuggets.
Here’s how it works: a scientist harvests cells from a chicken feather. Then, those cells go into a bioreactor which is a kind of high-tech mixing vessel, along with nutrients to feed the bird cells. Over the next few weeks, the cells multiply and grow.
And the result is something that looks like ground-up chicken meat, then it’s formed into a nugget.
CHRIS JONES: We've got the pot of oil going. This is just canola and we heat up to 350, then we're just going to deep fry one more time get it GBD or golden brown delicious and have you give a try.
Lauren was our taste-tester again.
LAUREN SILVERMAN: I’m going to give it a try [bites] it’s very good, it’s very good...it tastes like chicken [laughs].
TESS VIGELAND: Those GBD chicken nuggets received rave reviews from Lauren, which didn’t surprise Chris. He’s already faced his toughest critic.
CHRIS JONES: My daughter, she's 8, she was in a rainbow unicorn onesie just skating around and I go ‘Hey Savannah you want to try a nugget?’ She said ‘sure dad’ she loves -- kids are chicken chicken nugget connoisseurs. And I gave her one and she ate it. And she just wheeled off and I'm like ‘What’d you think?’ She just gave me a thumbs up. And just wheeled away. Now I’m like we're on the right path if an eight-year-old thinks this is delicious, that’s a pretty good sign.
TESS VIGELAND: So, eggless eggs, laboratory-grown meat, and hydroponic lettuce. With all this in mind, I wanted to turn back to Bank of America Global Research Analyst Felix Tran. What are other ways we might recreate food going forward?
FELIX TRAN: I think increasingly a lot of our food will be coming from localized production that we've talked about basically incrementally less from rural farms and more from a mixture of domestic lab grown produce, meat through to these green warehouses we've seen. And also forsee the food coming increasingly from different sources of protein, right? Potentially edible insects as sort of hidden source of protein as it were. Again have to educate consumers. You know pushing back in the day probably don’t want to eat insects...
TESS VIGELAND: Right of course, but then again you have populations in Southeast Asia that eat them every day. So, you’re right it’s changing tastes.
FELIX TRAN: Exactly. So, it's probably educating the Western consumer there mind another source of protein. And being able to tailor a meal directly for this individual is, I think, you know, where we're heading towards, but the vast majority of the population will always remain you know very much seeing food as another part of enjoying.
There’s a socializing aspect...don’t forget you know there will still be restaurants in our future world where we still want to go out with our friends, families to a restaurant and have a nice steak with a glass of wine.
TESS VIGELAND: A few decades from now, the food on our plates might not look a whole lot different, or even taste all that different.
But as we’ve been hearing -- more and more, we’ll need to leverage technology and innovation to answer the unprecedented challenges facing our food ecosystem. And to feed the world’s growing population sustainably.
Entrepreneurship in the food industry… the power to make major contributions to the health and well-being of generations to come.
TESS VIGELAND: Here’s to the menu of the future. What would you like the power to do?
TESS VIGELAND: On the next episode of The World to Come….
Would you rather collect your water on a net in your backyard?
DAN FERNANDEZ: Water's going to cling onto and then drip down from it kind of like a spiderweb.
TESS VIGELAND: Or filter it out of the ocean?
HAYES BARNARD: OK 98 percent of the water in the world is in the ocean. And so we’ve got to think through other ways in which we can get this water and deploy it to the people that need it the most.
TESS VIGELAND: That’s next time on The World to Come. I’m Tess Vigeland.
BofA Merrill Lynch Global Research is research produced by BofA Securities, Inc. (“BofAS”) and/or one or more of its non-U.S. affiliates. BofAS is a registered broker-dealer, Member SIPC, and wholly owned subsidiary of Bank of America Corporation. Any opinions or other information correspond to the date of this recording and are subject to change. This information discusses general market activity, industry or sector trends, or other broad-based economic, market or political conditions and should not be construed as research or investment advice.Hide Transcript
Go behind the scenes to hear from food entrepreneurs dreaming of how they can help more people have access to nutritional food and the new technologies that are defining the future of farming—and food.
As the world’s population increases, the future of farming, and the question of how more people can access nutritional food is becoming more critical. BofA Global Research Analyst Felix Tran thinks that “going forward, we need 70 percent more food production by 2050…increasingly, a lot of our food will be coming from localized production, incrementally less from rural farms and more from a mixture of domestic lab grown produce and these green warehouses we've seen.” In this episode, we go behind the scenes with entrepreneurs dreaming of how they can help—from a high-tech hydroponic greenhouse, to a start-up experimenting with new protein technologies.
A well-known voice for millions of American radio listeners, Tess spent 11 years as an anchor for public radio’s Marketplace. Over her career, she has received numerous national awards, including most recently a 2019 Gracie Award as Best Host/Anchor, and a 2019 National Murrow Award for Continuing Coverage.
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