Odi and amo: The arrival of Zero Acre Farms: Biofuels Digest
The remarkable story of Zero Acre Farms was released into the public domain this week with the news that the company, focused on producing “healthy, more sustainable oils and fats” from sugars, has raised $37 million. dollars in an oversubscribed Series A. include Steve del Cardayre, Jay Keasling and Jeff Nobbs.
If this is starting to sound a little familiar, you might remember LS9, which was founded on the principle of making fuels from oils made from sugars. Jay and Steve were two of the rock stars in this epic story of business development, until it didn’t exactly work out, mainly because the economy didn’t sizzle after oil prices crashed.
The technology was good, the problem was economic, and investor disinterest in climate change hampered the company as it grew. The company was eventually sold to REG and became REG Life Sciences, with a mission to make chemicals from oils made from sugars, until it didn’t exactly work. The assets were acquired by Genomatica.
Solazyme tried to make food processors from oils made from sugars, which worked great until it didn’t. The assets were acquired by Corbion, which now makes super products like AlgaPrime DHA, now competing vigorously in the bioeconomy’s 50 hottest projects.
So there’s reason to be optimistic about this technological approach, the co-founders are deeply experienced in the art of making oils from sugars. Apparently healthy oils and hopefully delicious oils. But let’s be careful, the sweetest fruit is often high in the tree and won’t give in to clumsy picking.
There’s another caveat that should be offered, and it goes back to the tone of the company’s denunciation of, well, pretty much anyone else in the food chain near a seed oilseed.
Allow me to quote. The fat is mine.
“We are proud to be the first company to make it our mission to completely remove industrial vegetable oils from our food system.” says co-founder and CEO Jeff Nobbs.
The attack continues.
“The increase in vegetable oil consumption is the most significant dietary change of the last hundred years and is linked to increased rates of obesity and chronic disease, including heart disease – now leading cause of death in the world.”
And it goes on and on.
“Vegetable oils also play a part environmental toll. More vegetable oils are produced in the world than all the beef, chicken, shrimp and cheese combined, which contributes to record rate of deforestation and carbon emissions. In fact, two of the first three drivers of global deforestation are oilseeds, soybeans and palm oil. Zero Acre Farms is preparing a new category of healthy oils and fats, made by fermentation, no deforestation.”
So let me paraphrase.
To hell with you oilseed-based producers, businesses and supply chain. Straight to hell now. Especially you, George Washington Carver, to hell with your 150 ways of making food from an oilseed like a peanut, you go straight to hell and we give you a smelly room over there, you bad guy.
I hope I understood correctly.
I guess I would have bought into that attack, if a great friend and leader of the bioeconomy, Jay Keasling, had mentioned all of this while accepting the 2013 George Washington Carver Lifetime Achievement Award. After all, the award is named after a man famous for promoting the cultivation of vegetable oils for a growing set of food uses.
I was there when he gave the speech. This was Jay Vintage, a moving origin story about ultra-low-cost malaria treatments, and his hopes that synbio’s development timelines will be crushed by innovation. Brilliant, humble, hopeful, personal. No mention of foods except a fleeting reference to growing plants that will need less water or fertilizer.
Here are some George Washington Carver “more ways to use vegetable oils in food” inventions that Jay could have sent to hell.
Salted Peanuts, Peanut Butter, Regular, Breakfast, Peanut Milk Butter, Pancake Flour, Peanut Flour, Peanut Surprise, Malted Peanuts, Bisque Powder, Peanut Flour, Meat Substitutes, Chocolate Covered Peanuts , Chili Sauce, Peanut Cake, Peanut Brittle, Dry Coffee, Cream Candies, Instant Coffee, Peanut Flakes, Peanut Hearts, Chop Suey Sauce, Mock Oysters, Mayonnaise, Worcestershire Sauce, Peanut Meatloaf… The list is lengthened increasingly.
Personally, I do not wish to condemn Dr. Carver, but to bless him. Showed us the way for many vegan ideas before they were all the rage. Showed the way for some struggling American farmers to pay the bills.
The world is not becoming obese because of Carver’s innovations or vegetable oils. People become obese because they consume too many calories. People should cut out snacks, exercise more, reduce stress levels. Of course we should. Join this Platoon! Drop that cupcake!
Yes, food companies should probably spend less time trying to lure people into a big bowl of Captain Crunch and more time figuring out how to sell healthy vegetables to hungry audiences. It is a difficult challenge. Some traders try, some don’t, some take the all-too-easy route of selling what tastes good or what can be made cheaply.
It could be said of everyone, in all walks of life, that sometimes we don’t listen to the better angels of our nature. Not living up to our potential is the original human disease. Pointing fingers at niche offenders for the evils of the world is a bad way to sell new technology.
Back to Zero Acre Farms and the mission to “completely eliminate industrial vegetable oils from our food system”? Completely to delete’. Oh good?
Consider some hard facts. There is, I read, 199 million tons of vegetable oil demand. Zero Acre Farms does not suggest people remove oils from their diet, but use healthier ones. So let’s go to the Digest Calculator and add up the externalities.
Capital expenditure for advanced synbio industrial facilities is around $1,300 per ton of annual capacity, more or less, so consider raising $259 billion to expand production. OK, not all uses are food. But think about the cost of the infrastructure. And figure out how to keep the rural banking system from collapsing when many oilseed collateral becomes worthless and agricultural prices convulse.
Let’s be frank. Here is a group of very smart people, the founders and early investors of Zero Acre Farms, who probably have a great start for a technology. They probably don’t have a finished industrial process, detailed engineering, technical economics of their ambition, or an idea of how to accomplish the industrial transformation they talk about. So shut up, be humble, deliver something, have good thoughts, practice yoga if needed.
So, let’s be positive about the arrival of new technology. I will be supporting Zero Acre Farms and will be happy with their success. I think the company can do better when it comes to messaging, humility, and humanity.
We have to work on carbon reduction, yes. Healthier diets, yes. This technology is worth following, these founders are serious people. As Peter Paul & Mary once sang, “They Got A Good Thing Goin’ When The Words Don’t Get In The Way”.