Putting Sustainable Food on the Table: A Biotech CEO’s Experience at COP27

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The 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) was a series of milestones for myself and TurtleTree. It was our very first time attending the conference and on top of that, we were showcasing our vision of sustainable food through our very first concept beverage, Zenith, to the world.

On the first day, a few COP staff members wandered into the Singapore Pavilion where our TurtleTree booth was at. Intrigued by Zenith, they each took a can and sipped it conservatively, commenting on its refreshing ginger-lime flavor and attractive packaging.

The next day, this same group of COP staff came back to our booth, but this time with some extra friends. In between enthusiastic gulps of Zenith, they told us how they had felt the effects of Zenith soon after finishing the can.

These staff had been on-site for nearly three weeks, spending late nights and early mornings trying to get Sharm El-Sheikh ready for the world. None of the sugary beverages or caffeinated drinks available at the venue had been able to give them that much-needed, sustained energy boost the way Zenith had.

Over the next two weeks, we continued to hear many of such similar stories in between handing out can after can of Zenith to everyone from passionate activists to journalists and world leaders. We came to Sharm El-Sheikh with 2,500 cans, and I’m glad to say that we left without a single one.

Charting A New Way Ahead for The World of Nutrition

Zenith at the Singapore Pavilion.

When we were creating Zenith, we knew that we wanted the heart of this product to be functional nutrition: a science-backed and holistic approach to health—and also a top nutrition trend, according to the latest market research.

While the statistics in consumer reports are fantastic, there was nothing quite like seeing these figures play out in real life in Egypt.

There’s a reason why functional wellness has been identified as a rising consumer trend. Good enough is no longer good enough—people don’t just want to be just satiated; they want food that does more.

In this primary iteration of Zenith, we did this via ketone esters produced using precision fermentation, the core technology that will drive our production of bioactive milk proteins, like lactoferrin, in 2023.

Despite its array of benefits like immune support, gut health, and iron regulation, lactoferrin use has been largely confined to the infant formula industry. That’s because it’s incredibly expensive to extract lactoferrin from cow’s milk, which in turn sees lactoferrin used only in high-value products like infant formula.

However, with a highly productive and sustainable technology like precision fermentation, we can finally tap the potential of dairy bioactives like lactoferrin to create delicious, sustainably produced food products that do more.

And lactoferrin is just one protein found in human milk; there are over 2,000 of them in total.

We can’t wait to unlock this whole new world of better nutrition.

Singapore: The Small Country Achieving Big Things

Meeting fellow changemakers like Singapore’s Minister for Sustainability and the Environment, Grace Fu, and the co-founder of reusable menstrual products company, Freedom Cups, Vanessa Paranjothy.

It seems fitting that these TurtleTree milestones coincide with an inaugural moment in COP history: For the first time, a food systems pavilion was set up, putting food and agriculture at the heart of negotiations in this global climate change conference.

This couldn’t have come at a more appropriate moment. After all, our food production contributes to a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions. Never has it been more paramount for us to reverse climate change, all while feeding a growing population and restoring nature.

It’s not an easy task—and certainly not one for the faint-hearted.

That’s why having like-minded visionaries run alongside you helps to make things feel more manageable in this marathon of creating a sustainable food future.

At COP, I experienced just how integral support like this is for enacting the change we want to see in our food system. For one, simply trying to get our product into Egypt, and on time, required the efforts of what felt like a whole village.

For weeks, we worked round the clock with Singapore’s Prime Minister’s Office (it was their first COP as well), jumping through hoops to get our product from the U.S. to Egypt, and then cleared by the local Egyptian authorities.

In true Singaporean overachiever style, the Prime Minister’s Office managed to bring in not just one, but three game-changing, Singapore-made future food products to COP. Pulling off this task was only possible with different teams and specialists coming together.

This was just COP. Now imagine trying to get those very same products out into every part of the world. A mammoth task no doubt, but a proactive and progressive government can make a huge difference to whether this becomes a reality.

Across my two weeks of speaking on panels about the future of food, I noticed myself bringing up this same point: Despite being just three years old, TurtleTree has achieved so much, not least because of the rich food tech ecosystem that Singapore has built up.

The access to top-tier talents, world-class technology, and open communication with regulators has been invaluable in helping us find our footing all while accelerating us steadily towards our goals.

COP27 is but a two-week climate change conference. To effect real change, we have to continue extending this same spirit of forward-thinking and partnership between governments and organizations, and across countries, 365 days-round to truly fix our food systems.

Learning To Speak Everyone’s Language

Talking all things future of alt proteins with Bernat from Heura Foods, Brian from Alfa Laval, and Charles from Tetra Pak.

Here’s a question that kept coming up during the COP27 panels I was on: How do we get consumers to adopt novel food products?

A brilliant answer I heard summarized the answer with an apt acronym: E.A.T.

Ease of access. Affordability. Taste.

I’d like to add another letter to that acronym: F.

Familiarity.

While we received lots of enthusiasm around Zenith, I also noticed many people blanking out when hearing about the technology driving Zenith’s sustainability credentials: precision fermentation.

In essence, with this technology, we program fungi to produce our desired bioactive dairy proteins. We feed these microorganisms a tailored nutrient broth and grow them in a highly controlled environment. The fungi then excrete our protein of interest and when concentrations are high enough, we harvest the desired protein to make food products.

Did I lose you?

Did the technology sound weird and unfamiliar?

You’re not alone.

One of the biggest challenges the food tech industry faces is finding a way to demystify our scientific processes.

How do we let the average person know that our technologies are not quite as foreign—and hence unsafe—as they seem?

For example, precision fermentation, despite sounding like something out of a H.G. Wells novel, is actually a decades-old technology used to produce everyday items like insulin, vanilla flavoring, and rennet for cheese. I’ve noticed that when I anchor my explanation in something familiar like that, people start to fear the technology less.

As many of us start to move beyond R&D and into commercialization, the task ahead is to find ways to connect our novel creations to the hearts and minds of the everyday consumer.

Sometimes, with all our science and tech at the forefront, we forget that we’re essentially a food company at the end of the day. And food is all about connecting with people on both a visceral and emotional level. Being able to do this successfully will be nothing short of a feat.

A Taste of the Future

Keeping hydrated in Egypt with Zenith!

As the outcomes of this year’s COP negotiations show, getting everyone on board with a more sustainable future is certainly no walk in the park. It’s going to take plenty of dedication, intention, and above all, a heart for humanity to remind us why we all embarked on this path in the first place.

Players, big and small, all have great potential to create impact.

You, as an individual, too have great potential to create change.

With all the enriching conversations we had with fellow changemakers at the COP, I’m excited to push through with fresh ideas on how we can all go even further in changing the world of food.

And we can’t wait to let all of you have a taste of what’s to come.

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