Innovation in Future Food Systems: Part 1 of 3

As we launch Space for Food and NASA and the Canadian Space Agency launch their Deep Space Food Challenge, we wanted to explore all the areas in food systems for the future with the Yield Lab Institute’s Thad Simons and Brandon Day.

Whether on Earth or in space (the ultimate controlled environment), if we think about a circular system, innovations are emerging in all phases of our food systems. In this post, we’ll address innovation in three areas: Starting Inputs, Distribute, and Cultivate as we’ve laid out in the accompanying infographic.

Starting Inputs - whether we start with fertile soil and great growing conditions, marginal soil and conditions that we can augment or manage, or barren emptiness where we have to provide everything Mother Nature does on a well run farm, we have to start somewhere. What are some of the innovations we’re seeing?

In soil development, startups like Cemvita, Deep Space Ecology, Microgen, and Helios are all working on ways to make inhospitable soils on Earth, our Moon, and Mars more amenable to life.

Carbon capture is another area of need as we need to manage our carbon footprint on Earth or manage carbon dioxide levels in a space setting - startups like Indigo and Truterra are creating new carbon markets to reward farmers and monetize their carbon-reducing practices. Other startups like SoilMetrics provide verification of carbon-reducing practices so farmers can monetize their efforts in new carbon marketplaces, while CoverCress is developing a cash cover crop for corn and soybean farmers, Symbrosia is commercializing red algae as a feed additive for livestock to reduce emissions, and GroGuru provides SaaS technology for farmers to better convert soil data into better yields.

Meanwhile, the microbiome has emerged as an interesting agtech opportunity area with the increased focus on food as medicine, and linkage between nutrient dense, functional foods to improved health outcomes. A few interesting startups working in this space include Pluton Biosciences (micromining microbes), and AgBiome (helping African farmers with microbial tech for certain pests).

Finally, seeds are now being genetically modified for traits, characteristics that are optimal for indoor/controlled environment agriculture which can be grown year round much closer to consumers, or for other specific markets and applications. Interesting startups that operate in this space include: Unfold (seeds and genetics for CEA), Plastomics (introducing and modifying traits in chloroplast), New Leaf Symbiotics (m-trophs), and Impetus Ag (insect control traits). Meanwhile, Benson Hill is optimizing soy for plant based meat.

Distribute - while SpaceX, Blue Origin and others are generating attention in space flight, getting the starting inputs to where the growing happens is part of an intricate and interdependent supply chain whether on Earth or in space. This requires visibility deep into systems and shared data tools among input providers and growers. Some startups like The New Fork are working on this to improve trustworthiness between input suppliers, growers and consumers. Meanwhile, some startups are working to eliminate aspects of the pre-harvest supply chain, like Pivot Bio who is using infield microbials to eliminate the need to transport fertilizer to fields or SunPath is working on zero loss ways to distribute the #1 input needed - sunlight - directly into and through controlled growing environments - eliminating or reducing the need for an electrical grid.

Cultivate - more than the iconic farm, today we can grow our food with growing chambers, bioreactors, fermentation vessels, or other methods. These innovations borrowed from brewers, fermenters, and floral growers are transforming how accessible food is, and dramatically reducing food’s impact on our environment. Innovations are in areas like:

CEA (Controlled Environment Ag) - with resources, water, energy and arable land, becoming scarce, traditional outdoor farming and agriculture is being pushed to find more sustainable and regenerative paths forward. This has led to CEA startups popping up to meet that mandate, one example is AeroFarms, a vertical farm that recently went public with a $1B valuation. Startups like Freight Farms are creating modular farms, in this case within re-purposed freight containers. Others are focusing on a particular crop, like Oishii, which grows highly-valued vertically farmed strawberries.

Cell Ag - we’re getting very accustomed to plant-based “alternative meat” or alternative proteins. Now, startups like Air Protein promise to make protein (chicken, seafood and beef) from air and its components, others are like Aleph Farms, an Israeli startup that cultivates steak from cow cells without harming the animal, while some are more like BlueNalu, a San Diego based startup that provides cell-cultured seafood.

These are just a handful of the innovators in these areas. If you know of one we ought to include, let us know. Next up - how innovators are helping us Harvest/Process, Store/Distribute, and Prepare food better wherever we go.

Want to dive deeper into the above? Join Space for Food at our free virtual events on April 13 or May 4.

Have a startup or research team in the above areas that you want recognition and support for? Click here to get your team involved at no cost or obligation.