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Story by VLAB’s Eric McClellan. Edited for clarity by MOLD.

“How many of you are meat eaters?” Over half the crowd raised their hand. “Vegetarians?” Less than half. “Vegans? Well at least we have one.” The crowd laughed.

At VLAB’s February 2014 event, “Where’s the Beef: Startups Disrupting the Food Chain,” moderator Stacy Feld, Partner at Physic Ventures, broke the ice with a survey of attendees. Then she asked, “What is the impact of more meat eaters on our planet? It’s bad news.”

Feld outlined a growing global problem. Currently, 2/3 of agricultural growth land supports livestock—land that could be used to grow food for people. Eight percent of global water supports animal husbandry, while much of the world faces a water crises. And according to the United Nations, livestock development produces at least 18% of all greenhouse gases.

While such statistics may not foreshadow global catastrophe, the increasing demand for animal products spells big problems. Billions of men, women and children around the world are growing healthier and wealthier (a good thing). But, with said wealth comes increased levels of consumption and new dietary habits resembling the developed world. [Editor’s note: See McDonald’s recent expansion with its first location in Vietnam] In short, neither global agriculture nor global environments can support the quickly growing demand for meat.

February’s VLAB panelists aim to revolutionize agriculture. But they won’t stop there; they create systems and products more desirable than their traditionally cultivated counterparts.

Andras Forgacs, Founder and CEO, Modern Meadow, outlined three options to meet protein demand without exhausting global resources:

  1. Curb demand…go vegetarian, vegan—But how do you convince entire cultures to change their dietary habits? When the newly-rich believe that a steak on the table represents status, will they trade for tofu?
  2. Cultivate more sustainability in traditional animal husbandry. But incremental improvements in an ancient industry won’t keep up with exponentially growing demand.
  3. Develop better alternatives to traditionally produced animal products.

Forgacs and Modern Meadow pursue option 3.

Modern Meadow cultures meat. That’s right, like beer or probiotics. They grow meat, not animals. Scientists biopsy animal cells and then grow tissues rather than the entire beast. “The process would be 99% more efficient in terms of land use, 96% less water…97% fewer greenhouse gases.”

Resulting animal products enjoy higher quality than their farm raised counterparts: flawless leather grown to a controlled thickness; muscle tissue of uniform characteristics throughout. Forgacs speculates the cultured leather will find its way into consumer goods within the next three years. The meat could make it to supermarket shelves within the next seven to ten.

Brent Taylor, Co-Founder and Vice President of Business Development at BeyondMeat prefers a different approach. He substitutes traditional animal meat with soy-based replacements. “We use a very familiar cooking procedure called extrusion cooking to make both chicken and beef products with the texture and performance of real chicken and beef.” The same taste, texture and performance of the real thing, without the long-term cost.

Ken Plasse, Vice President of Business Development, Nutritionals at Solazyme represents another substitution strategy. Solazyme creates their products from algae. “We use algae—micro algae. Single-celled organisms. Depending on which cell you pick and how you feed it, you can get a variety of different foods. We’re starting with three core ingredients. We use fermentation tanks [with algae]. After three days in our fermentation tanks we can get 65% protein or 65% lipids…”

While companies in the past have sought algae-based oil solutions, Solazyme appears to be the first to offer scale. Rather than ferment algae in open-air ponds as previous companies have, Plasse’s team ferments micro-organisms in a plant resembling a beer brewery. They’ve created a controlled, replicable and scaleable environment.

Each of the companies represented at this month’s VLAB offers fantastic promise. But will they scale? Will consumers adopt lab-grown meat, soy replicas or algae patties? And will investors fund companies long enough to see their products come to market?

Possibly. Rob Leclerc CEO of AgFunder said, “Venture Capitalists are looking at agriculture as a big, ancient industry that is ripe for disruption.” He recommends that startups approach ever-wary customers with transparency. “Don’t have an agenda,” like large notorious food conglomerates; customers might be more trusting.

Watch the full panel discussion in the video below!