For rerouting agriculture’s environmental impact. Meat production, which results in copious greenhouse gases, is expected to double by 2050. But Beyond Meat has created a meat alternative good enough to tempt devout carnivores. It aligns soy and pea proteins so they mimic meaty texture, without antibiotics, hormones, or transfats. Its "chicken" strips and taco "beef " crumble hit the market last year. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) named Beyond Meat its company of the year, and investors such as Bill Gates, Kleiner Perkins, and the Humane Society have signed on.
For pulling gas-belching 18-wheelers off the road. BrightFarms works with the big grocers to harvest lettuce, tomatoes, and herbs on-site (or nearby) in large hydroponic greenhouses. This has resulted in cutting transportation costs and waste, lowering prices, and adding days to the shelf life of perishable foods. Among the greenhouses scheduled to open this year is a 100,000-square-foot rooftop farm—the largest in the world—in Brooklyn's Sunset Park. It should produce 1 million pounds of produce a year.
For gobbling up land for more sustainable crops. Farmland LP is converting to organic the 6,750 acres of land (worth $50 million) it purchased in California and Oregon. It leases the land to farmers who pay rent or a share of their profits. The land is sustainably managed, and farmers and their crops and livestock are rotated from pasture to pasture to keep the soil healthy. The practice stimulates growth—not just in higher-margin organic crops but also 25% more meat per acre. Last year, B Corps, which certifies sustainable businesses, gave Farmland LP—the only agricultural company recognized—one of its highest scores.
For going where food companies don't dare to go. After a year-long test, Chipotle is offering new spicy organic tofu dishes chain-wide. Sofritas, a chorizo-like shredded and braised bean curd, is the first addition to Chipotle's menu in its 20-year history. The chain also launched a branded TV comedy series about an egregious big-agriculture company. Farmed and Dangerous, which appears on Hulu, is a risky satire and big bet for a food company. It invites more scrutiny to Chipotle's sourcing practices, but the chain is appealing to what it believes is a growing consumer interest in how food is produced.
For making grab-and-go snacks that are nutritious and delicious. With its natural ingredients and irresistible combinations—"maple glazed pecan & sea salt"—Kind offers a rare snack-food marriage: health and taste. Another rarity is its transparent packaging: You see what you're getting. Kind makes five of the top 10 products in the nutritional-bar category. Sales have increased eightfold in the last six years. Recently, it introduced a new line of granola bars and expanded into cereals.
For making more nutritious milk. Mike McCloskey, a veterinarian-turned-farmer-turned-entrepreneur, is revolutionizing the dairy industry. Using his patented membrane-filtration process, Fairlife produces Core Power, a silky-smooth high-protein milk—little fat, no lactose, but with natural honey—that athletes, retailers, and the world's largest soft-drink maker are clamoring for. Coke bought an equity stake, accelerating national distribution and exposure (Core Power was the official protein drink of the 2014 Olympic Winter Games). This year Fairlife, founded by a McCloskey-led co-op of family dairy farmers, is introducing a new line of everyday milk, enriched with protein and calcium but with less sugar than traditional milk.
For liberating every last drop. What MIT researcher Dave Smith envisioned as a car-windshield coating has become a breakthrough in food packaging. LiquiGlide CEO Smith invented a lubricant that when incorporated in plastic or glass containers enables the most viscous contents to easily slip out. No more pounding the ketchup bottle. No more senseless food waste. LiquiGlide, which launched in 2012, released its first commercial coatings last year. Condiments are just the start. It's also pursuing medical, consumer product, agrochemical, and oil and gas applications.
For creating the incredible, edible, plant-based egg. Founder and CEO Joshua Tetrick, who worked for years to alleviate poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, has created an alternative to crowded chicken farms. Food scientists and a chef at his high-tech food startup found a plant with the biochemical properties of eggs. Funded to the tune of $30 million by Bill Gates, Peter Thiel's Founders Fund, Khosla Ventures, and others, Hampton Creek introduced its first product, Just Mayo, made with its egg alternative, in Whole Foods late last year.
For creating the next-generation meat market This three-year-old, Missouri-based startup identified the major hurdles faced by small, sustainable ranchers: They can't afford to deliver around town the small orders of specialty cuts chefs want. The company's online meat market allows farmers to connect directly with chefs, and both benefit. The farmers can earn more money because they can sell every bit of the animal, and the chefs tend to pay better prices because AgLocal's platform creates an economy of scale.
For taking its time—and ours. Founder James Freeman views coffee-making as a craft and a sensory experience. At a dozen locations in New York and San Francisco, he's created an alternative to commoditized java served at a fast-food pace. His cafes don't have multiple sizes or candy-like flavors or pre-brewed coffee. And they often have long lines, for what customers believe is worth the wait. Freeman says coffee goes stale within minutes so each cup is individually brewed—pour-over style, a time-consuming process that produces a richer taste. In January, the Silicon Valley-beloved brand received $25.75 million from Twitter cofounder Evan Williams, Instagram cofounder Kevin Systrom, and others, to fund more cafes and an R&D facility.
[Image: Flickr user Ali Karimian]