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How science is engineering a more sustainable diet

More and more of what we eat (and wear) is coming from bioreactors rather than traditional farms.

How science is engineering a more sustainable diet
[Illustrations: Romualdo Faura]

What would have, until recently, seemed like sci-fi is now reality: Chicken grown from cells in a bioreactor is already on a restaurant menu in Singapore. A new facility in Israel will be able to churn out enough cell-based meat to make 5,000 animal-free beef burgers a day. More than 700 companies are now working on next-generation alternatives for traditional animal products, with the aim to improve animal welfare and help shrink the carbon footprint of the food chain. Investors poured a record $3.1 billion into the alternative protein industry in 2020. Though there are challenges—a 3D-printed steak still doesn’t look quite like a steak—it’s increasingly possible to engineer versions of food that seem indistinguishable from traditional farm-raised fare. Technology makes it possible to program microbes to become “cell factories” for key ingredients like casein, a protein that helps make dairy products taste like dairy, or heme, a protein that Impossible Foods uses to give its plant-based burgers the metallic tang of blood. Similar technologies are enabling the manufacture of a wide variety of products, from leather-like materials for clothing and accessories to plant-based hair extensions. Here’s a sampling of some of the goods that have emerged from new biotechniques designed to create alternative foods and materials.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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