Social Entrepreneurs Tackle Climate Change and the Future of Food

by Diana Drake

Climate Week at Penn invites students to find their place in the climate movement, a global social movement encouraging people to take actions that address the causes and impacts of climate change.

A panel discussion hosted by the Wharton School’s Venture Lab, a hub for entrepreneurship at the University of Pennsylvania, featured a cross-section of topics that especially inspire today’s problem-solvers: social entrepreneurship, climate change and food.

The threat of climate change, say the experts, is casting a shadow over the future of food. One example is our love affair with a meat-based diet. Meat production significantly adds to the release of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide and methane, which lead to global warming. The same is true of excessive food waste ending up in landfills, where it decomposes and produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas. These are just a few of the ways that the food system is entangled with the warming of the planet.

“Climate change is reshaping our world, and its consequences are profoundly impacting the way we produce, access and consume food,” said Julia Middleton, senior associate director, social entrepreneurship at Venture Lab. “Food Systems are indispensable to life and prosperity, contributing to approximately 12% of global Gross Domestic Product, and providing employment for over 40% of the global workforce. However, the current state of these systems is unsustainable with staggering environmental, economic and workforce costs, especially concerning climate change.”

A More ‘Accessible’ Protein?

The Climate Week panel discussion showcased some of the innovative solutions emerging inside the food industry.

Brian Berkey, a Wharton associate professor of legal studies and business ethics whose research has focused on climate change and the ethical treatment of animals, hosted the conversation with two social-impact innovators. Brice Klein is the co-founder of Momentum Foods and Paul’s Table, a producer of meat products that are 90% plant-based and 10% collagen and fat – a more hybrid approach of animal and plant ingredients within the meat-alternative industry. Sam Strickberger is a Penn graduate who started Impact First Ventures, a venture capital firm that supports social impact projects on college campuses.

Here are 6 of their innovation insights around climate change and the future of food:

🌎 Not quite vegan, but close. Klein’s Momentum Foods was founded in Los Angeles in 2022 to, in part, give consumers an option to phase out meat in their diets. It is an alternative to 100% plant-based products made by companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat (where Klein’s co-founder previously worked), claiming it is the future of protein, made accessible. “My co-founder Saba and I were best friends since freshman year at Stanford and we were always bouncing ideas off each other,” said Klein, who is the nephew of Wharton management professor Katherine Klein, a long-time champion of social impact. “We know there’s potential plant-based meat, but they all kind of suck. What if we break the rules and start adding in animal ingredients? Then there was a lot of prototyping. Can we make a product that is actually much better than any of the incumbent products in the plant-based space, and of equal quality, but a better health profile and an equal cost profile to the meat options? And can we have the impact that we need to have?”

🌎 The impact of first-principles thinking. Innovation in the climate-tech food space sometimes requires questioning the assumptions you think you know about a problem, then creating new solutions. “Brice’s company is very first principles thinking, which is so exciting, and why I feel like young people are going to be providing a lot of the solutions to the big crises that we’re facing,” said Strickberger, whose twin brother Max is an Impact First co-founder. “If we break the rules a little bit, we can make the food taste way better and we can make it way cheaper. Instead of being 100%, vegan, we can make it 90% vegan, and are going be able to hit instead of 2% of the population, 80% of the population. The impact is way bigger. Even when on the surface it seems like you’re compromising and you’re not being pure. It’s a beautiful model of what young people are putting together to make the world better.”

🌎 What problems need solutions? Many food-related processes and products are ripe for innovation, from crickets as ingredients to mycelium protein. “Lots of categories need solutions,” noted Klein, who spent time working for Plenty, a vertical-farming company that grows crops where they’re sold and eaten to reduce transportation emissions. “Plastic use in packaging is huge, product waste, trucking efficiencies of getting products from point A to point B, and food insecurity. There are still a ton of food-desert issues and a lot of food-as-medicine problems to solve.” Klein has been watching the growth of Guac, an artificial intelligence startup that helps grocers order the right amount of inventory; enough to meet customer demand without tons of food ending up in landfills.

🌎 The era of magical startups. Social entrepreneurs, including current and past Penn students, are dedicated to making a true impact related to climate change and food. A few examples include Strella Biotech, which designs and produces biosensors to reduce food waste. A second is a technology for the agriculture industry being developed by Wharton freshman Sabrina Z. to grow healthier food crops for higher yields. “I feel like what’s happening in the climate space generally is pretty magical, and especially in the food space,” said Strickberger. “There are a lot of role models out there…and [a lot] of funding. The conversation has totally taken off. Over the last three years, $100 billion is being invested into climate-tech companies or in the space more broadly. If you have a big idea that’s going to save the world, you’ll have places to get funding.”

🌎 Chicken and cow innovations. Young entrepreneurs are finding the climate dollars to improve the food system, even if they aren’t tech-driven, and building companies. “There’s a ton of stuff out there, and a lot of it is in food,” observed Klein. “Blue Ocean Barns has a food additive for cow feed that is made from seaweed to reduce methane emissions from their burps. We’re still going to eat cows, but it’s a more efficient way to do it. There are companies making roving chicken coops, so that you end up with a regenerative cycle where the chickens are progressively being moved across a field in a moving coop. And then they fertilize the land,” keeping the grass green and healthy. A cautionary note, added Klein, is disinformation in the food system, with traditional meat producers promoting terms like “climate-friendly meat,” even if they are not changing their approach to food production.

🌎 Consider your options…and the intended outcomes. Solving food challenges around climate change is not just for innovators – it demands a range of skills. “If you’re interested in this area, a good place to start is to look at the portfolios of different venture funds in the climate space,” suggested Strickberger. “Go to Lowercarbon Capital and look for the current companies [it is funding] and see what appeals to you. So many skill sets are required to build companies and to tackle the climate crisis — designers, engineers, business operations and human resources.

Added Klein: “One jaded thing to look out for is that an additional set of companies are innovating in the food and grocery space, doing grocery-management automation. Instead of having people manually stock shelves, it’s all done by robots. You have fully virtual grocery stores. They’ve raised a lot of money and are hip and cool. But I routinely question whether they are doing anything other than eliminating jobs. Keep an eye out for whether the things in that food space are doing good for the planet or just raising money for people.”

Conversation Starters

Would you eat a hybrid Paul’s Table burger that is mostly plant-based, but still has some animal fat? Why or why not is this an innovative approach to food production?

Which problem related to climate change and food would you most like to tackle? Have you thought about how you would go about it?

What role can technology and innovation play in making the food industry more sustainable and reducing its environmental impact?

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