We are very careful in deciding what we eat, making sure more often that food checks the right health, ethical and environmental boxes. Switzerland proves fertile soil to change its menu, from substitutes for meat based on pea protein to lettuce grown without soil or pesticides. Clare O’Dea digging.
Some new innovations must be tried to be trusted. Like the chicken substitute produced by the young team behind Planted AG in Zurich, a spin-off from the Federal Institute of Technology (ETH).
Before I met with co-founders Pascal Bieri and Lukas Böni, I stopped by the Zurich cafe to try their products. I eat vegetable chicken in a salad mixture with cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, edamame and peanuts. Verdict: looks, feels and feels like chicken, even when it’s served cold.
Everything moves very fast for the young team behind Planted. It has only been two years since Bieri and Böni’s cousins sat together and sketched two pages of their scientific and business concepts. Their main motivation is to do something about the unsustainability and cruelty of mass meat production.
Bieri comes from a business background and Luke is a food scientist. Their idea was to create substances such as meat with four natural ingredients and no additives: pea protein, pea fiber, rapeseed oil, and water. Within a year, after joining two other people – Eric Stirnemann and Christoph Jenny – they founded Planted AG, which then received CHF7 million ($ 7.30 million) in initial funding in October 2019.
The May 2019 industry report from Barclays estimates the substitute meat industry could be valued at $ 140 billion by 2029, which is 10% of the meat market. The planted AG wants to be part of the change.
In a room on the ground floor of the ETH Food science building, the team of workers produces 500 kilograms per day of pea protein chickens which will be sent throughout Switzerland. They use specially adapted (extruding) machines that have a long history in food production, especially for making pasta.
Chicken substitutes are produced through a process called high humidity extrusion. The materials in the tubular extruder are heated and pressurized with two rotating screws, turning the mixture into a mixture. The process of converting extracted vegetable protein into fibrous and elongated animal muscle fiber proteins.
Planted supplies more and more restaurants and starts selling its chicken products online and through a large Swiss supermarket chain. The company has surpassed its location and is preparing to move to the old Maggi (legendary Swiss food brand) factory in Kempthal near Zurich in the early summer, where 22 staff will have more space and production can be increased by six to ten times.
“We want to expand and build exhibition plants throughout Europe. And we want to continue to improve the product and its production process, “said Bieri. I left Bieri and Böni sat on the steps for an impromptu meeting. They field a lot of media interest today and “need to concentrate on the things that are important now”.
Following in the footsteps of Planted, who started with an initial CHF 150,000 fellowship grant from the ETH Foundation, Zurich’s new company, LemnaPro, was awarded the same grant last year.
Cyrill Hess from LemnaPro and her research partner Melanie Binggeli also dreamed big and focused on protein. This time his dream involved the smallest flowering plant in the world, Wolffia, one of a family of plants known as duckweed.
Hess showed me around a climate-controlled room where Wolffia was planted in a shallow pond, covering the water on a glowing green carpet. Under the right conditions, this tiny plant doubles the volume every day.
“I wonder why we don’t eat it because it is a source of sustainable, fast-growing, and high-quality protein. “I started to explore the protein market and why we eat what we eat and that looks like a business case,” Hess explained.
Better known in Asia where it is eaten fresh, Wolffia is a new food in Europe that has not been recognized by European or Swiss authorities. Hess and his research partner, agricultural scientist Binggeli, are trying to get this agreement while they find the right production conditions that can be replicated on a large scale for human nutrition. One possibility is to convert plants into protein powder at harvest.
It is not only the food we eat but the way it is produced that requires rethinking and new technological solutions. About half of the lettuce and spices sold in Switzerland are grown locally. The rest is imported, especially in the winter months.
A Swiss company in western Switzerland, CombaGroup, has developed a greenhouse system for green vegetables that produces healthy plants throughout the year. Green is grown in an environment that is not spotted with water and 90% less space than conventional agriculture and no pesticides.
This method radically reduces or eliminates most of the environmental burden from food production systems, specifically transportation, agricultural runoff and wastewater. In a stress free environment, the plant is healthy and delicious, without any leaves wasted for harvest.
The technology involved is cellular aeroponics. The roots are suspended in the air and repeatedly sprayed with mist enriched with fine nutrients by an automatic cellular spraying trolley.
Located in the timeless village of Molondin with its red tile, 15 CombaGroup employees share their work locations with more traditional farming companies. CEO Serge Gander sees the system as an opportunity for farmers.
“The volume that can be produced with our system is very surprising. Traditional soil culture will yield 30 tons per hectare per year. With our system it’s 800 tons. “
The company has its first projects established in France and Switzerland and is negotiating with clients from Sweden, Kuwait and Russia. The business model is to sell a fully developed system along with a service package.
“We can grow anywhere and especially in places that are challenged, both in land quality, by pollution, climate, access or geopolitical problems.”
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