It’s not easy to feed a rapidly growing planet, and our appetite for meat and biofuels that take up farmland doesn’t help. If only we could create nutrients at will without arable land, skipping all those intermediate steps of actually growing food and feeding animals.
Essentient, a stealth startup based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, thinks it can do just that. The company won’t say much in the way of details, but CEO David Berry has an impressive history. He is the founder of Joule Unlimited, a company that claims it can create renewable fuel out of CO2, sun, water, and microorganisms (though said renewable fuel is currently unavailable).
Berry provides a bit of context for Essentient in the video below, which was recorded at Google’s Solve for X event.
As Berry explains in the video, Essentient’s "nutriculture" technique combines protein science, a molecular understanding of nutrition, and low-cost, sustainable production systems, all in an attempt to improve on the agriculture-based system of consuming nutrients that we’ve relied on for thousands of years.
"We took single-cell photosynthetic organisms, and we asked the question, 'Can we find something that has the right features, the ability to live in saltwater, the ability to have a robustness for our process, the ability to withstand the right sorts of thermal tolerances to be productive outside, and the ability to produce at very, very high qualities?" he says. After much searching, Berry and his team found these organisms. They gave them the ability to take in sunlight, CO2, water, a final ingredient that changes based on the end product, and the ability to secrete a pure nutrient when all these ingredients come together. At a basic level, it’s not much different from what Joule is doing.
Essentient is currently testing a sixth-generation version of its nutrient production system. Berry hopes that the end result will be a system that produces pure nutrients at up to 220,000 pounds per acre per year (the global record for agriculture is 3,600) at less than 20 cents per pound, all while generating 99% fewer greenhouse gases than conventional farming means.
To provide what Berry calls "baseline protein nutrition" for every chronically undernourished person on the planet, it would only take the land area of 250 square miles. To provide complete protein nutrition to everyone in the world, it would take the land area of Rhode Island.
This isn’t just for the developing world, either; there are plenty of applications in well-fed (but still unhealthy) places like the U.S. "If you look at ingredients today, a lot are used because they’re cheap and readily available, but that doesn’t mean they’re the best things we can get," Berry tells Co.Exist. "We can allow people to get fundamental nutrition in such a way that you think differently about the food you ultimately eat."
The company already has some products in the pipeline, including one that gives "gold standard nutrition" and tastes like sugar, another that feels and tastes like fat (without the nasty health consequences), one that helps build muscle, and a product that cuts down on appetite. "This is designed to be formulated with food we know today. We have no interest in replacing food," says Berry.
Combine Essentient’s products with some helpings of test-tube meat and traditional agriculture starts to look a little dated, though by no means irrelevant.