Green Queen in Conversation: Cultivated Meat Pioneers – Didier Toubia of Aleph Farms
31 Mins Read
The below conversation is the transcript of the second episode of the podcast miniseries Green Queen in Conversation: Cultivated Meat Pioneers featuring Didier Toubia, founder and CEO of Aleph Farms, interviewed by show host Sonalie Figueiras. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
In the second episode of Green Queen in Conversation – Cultivated Meat Pioneers, Sonalie Figueiras talks to Didier Toubia, co-founder and CEO of Aleph Farms, a cultivated meat company based in Israel. Didier cuts a unique figure in the space- the conversation was a real eye-opener about his background and how he started working with food and development agencies in Africa and how that informed his worldview about food systems, equity and food justice, and how in turn that led to starting a cultivated meat company specialised in beef steak, which he believes will help right the wrongs inherent in our food systems.
He is so passionate about ensuring access to safe, traceable, and nutritious food for everyone, and not just for those of us in the wealthier countries. So, I think our conversation is quite different from the other interviews in this series. I found it really inspiring, particularly, as Didier has had many careers in his life, from food and development, to biotech, to deep tech. I’m sure you’ll find our chat fascinating too.
Sonalie Figueiras: Hi Didier, it’s great to have you here. Welcome to the podcast.
Didier Toubia: Hey, Sonalie. Good to be with you. Thanks for having me.
Sonalie Figueiras: Yeah, I think you are a key part of the global cultivated meat story, and I want to explore the Aleph journey. So, my first question is: how did your cultivated meat experience begin? When did you first discover cultivated meat, and how did you end up with one of the first companies in the space?
Didier Toubia: I think the origins of my interest in cultivated meat goes back probably 25 years when I studied food engineering and biology in France at the time, and when I studied my major and full Master’s Degree in the south of France, getting deeper into food technologies for the developing world. I started my career in the Ivory Coast in Western Africa with the IFC, a branch of the World Bank. My goal was really to tackle the inherent issues of the food system, especially malnutrition, and food security issues, whilst studying in Africa, and I realized relatively quickly that those challenges can’t be addressed by targeted action, and totally systemic issues of hunger, allocation of resources, and issues associated with the distribution of resources – we can take care of and solve with more focused initiatives, rather than with (targeted) actions.
When I came back to France, 20-25 years later, my main motivation was to address those systemic issues with the food system, the roots of the reasons why we have those issues, both in terms of sustainability, food security, public health, not just in Africa, but on the global level. Actually, a lot of the issues I saw at the time, and the issues we see in Africa today, on the global level, are very much overlapping. So, it really kind of closed the loop for me and connected a lot of the dots with my early experience in the food system, but also with my overall 10 years of experience in the biomedical industry, following me going to Israel. Aleph Farms is at the crossroads between the biomedical world and the food system.
Sonalie Figueiras: So, that’s interesting and different than a lot of the other founders in the space. So, not so much the climate connection: for you, it’s the food security and the nutrition piece of the puzzle, but at the same point in time, it’s interesting, because when people think of going to Africa and dealing with systemic issues around malnutrition, they wouldn’t immediately associate cultivated meat in bioreactors as a solution to the problems that African nations can face. How do you bridge the two there? I mean, cultivated meat is an expensive and deep technology that still requires decades of work before we can scale it to a mass level.
Didier Toubia: It’s through the long-term play. I would argue that the food system [as it works today] is not actually intended to feed the people. During the industrialization of our food system in the 50s and 60s, the focus has been on efficiencies and output, how to produce more food at a lower cost, and large industrial companies developing and making more profit. I think the fact that today, we’re throwing away close to 30% of our food, while close to 900 million people don’t have enough food is a testimonial that the current food system is not designed to bring the right amount of nutrition to the right people at the right time and in the right place. And I think cultivated meat can help decentralize food production.
One of the big issues with our food system today, beyond the focus on profit, is that it’s super concentrated. Historically, we used to rely on 6-7,000 different sources of food. Today, I believe that five different species and eight different crops make up over 70% of the food we consume globally, and the system is not just concentrated in a few species, it’s also concentrated in specific areas of the world. If we’re talking about beef, for instance, it’s primarily in North America, Latin America, Australia, New Zealand, and a little bit in Europe, and a lot of countries are importing beef, for instance, in Israel (where Aleph was founded), we import 88% of all beef. It’s a shared challenge with all the countries in the Middle East, and we see the same pattern in many parts of Asia, including Singapore, where they import technically 100% of all beef, and cultivated meat can help decentralize the production of food because we can grow [meat from] cells.
I’ll explain in a little bit what we do, and how that fits into our vision – That we can grow cells in a closed system independently to the climate or the local availability of land and water, meaning that we can distribute the production of high-quality animal nutrition, both empowering local communities and diversifying the supply, and substituting for part of the inputs. However, it also involves making sure that we make the food system more resilient by diversifying the supply of animal protein and fats. We build circuit breakers and meat plants, and we make the system more resilient to shocks. So, we do see cellular agriculture as a cornerstone of a more secure and resilient food system, and regarding your comment about the cost of cultivated meat, it’s clear that it’s a long play, and I think that cultivated meat is probably similar to solar panels which were extremely expensive 20 years ago, and now, 20 years later, the production cost has come down as the economies of scale started to play, and production processes and product technologies have improved.
We believe that for the next few years cultivated meat will be more confined in the developed world, but [we are] developing a long-term strategy for the Global South, and that’s one of the projects we’ve done with water recently in the US, for instance- I’m actually planning to travel to Ethiopia in the next couple of months to further explore the possibilities. We believe that in Africa where today there is strong pressure to intensify cattle farming (Africa is similar to India in that the sector mostly relies on smallholder farms) to make the system supposedly more resilient and more efficient.
We all know that industrial agriculture is not a good solution, we’re pushing back from intensive agriculture in the developed world to regenerative eggs and organic food. So, I think cultivating cells might be a way to skip this intermediate phase of animal farming industrialization, and to keep the smallholder farms as they are and supply them directly with the growing cells, a little bit like how some countries have skipped the phase of landline phones, for instance, and in some parts of India and China, bringing cells to the global South can help them move directly to cellular agriculture and skip this intermediate phase of intensive industrial animal farming, which is bad for everyone, same as how these countries and regions went directly to cellular phones and skipped the landline intermediate step.
Sonalie Figueiras: I love the vision. I do have to ask, why beef then? You know, why not chicken? Beef is currently one of the most, if not, the most expensive meat in the world. It has a status as something very elite and associated with wealth and higher status. Why start with steak, not even ground beef, the ultimate luxury food?
Didier Toubia: That’s an important question. Our product strategy with implementation at Aleph Farms is, on the one hand, high impact, and on the other, high-value products. I want to explain why beef fits into our roadmap.
First, we believe that the biggest contribution to cultivated meat will be where we have real challenges with animal protein and fat production. If we’re talking about the concentration of the food system, cattle farming is the most concentrated of all the animal production practices. Beyond that, it’s also the biggest impact on climate- livestock production is responsible for about 15% of global emissions, while the environmental impact of chicken is much lower. When we’re talking about the use of land and water, which are also critical parameters as we have been causing land diversion- in the last 50 years we lost 30% of all arable land since the Second World War, and 42% of the crops we harvest every year in the world are intended for animal feed, primarily cattle and cows, and the intensive monoculture of soya and maize is one of the primary drivers of deforestation and the loss of soil quality. The amount of water required to make one kilogram of beef varies between 1,500-10,000 litres, depending on the farming practices, and we might have 40% less freshwater in the next few decades. So, there are some real issues associated with beef production which we don’t see with the other animal meat species today.
Growing cells using renewable energies we’re able to reduce the environmental impact [of beef production] by 92%, in terms of the greenhouse gasses emitted. We can also reduce the amount of land by 95%, and the amount of water by 78%. When we’re talking about cultivated beef, I think it would be difficult to [have similar] benefits for cultivated chicken as long as [we are looking at] climate and environmental parameters. So, this is one.
Second, as we said before, cultivated needs will be relatively expensive. I talked about solar panels, but we can also talk about electric vehicles as an analogy. Innovation is expensive today, and I think there is an inherent conflict within the world of food tech. Tech is associated with innovation and is expensive, and food is a commodity. It should be at a low price, and not like biomedical products or high-margin products. So, we wanted to get into the market and drive initial acceptance to rely on products where we can bring value so that we can reach prosperity quicker, and build a sustainable business model over the long term.
When you’re talking about prosperity, it’s not an absolute value, it’s relative, it’s relative to the equivalent product produced with the conventional egg. When we’re talking about this tech price point, which is maybe 10 times higher than GM chicken, it’s easier to get to the same price point as our cost curve is driven down, than to get to the price point of GM chicken, which makes the whole business model more sustainable and enables us to drive more impact over time.
So, the focus on beef is driven by two decisions: One, to focus on new products where we can really bring benefits and document real environmental impact, and second, based on higher value and higher margins which can drive us to be sustainable as a company earlier. As we drive the cost down and progressively move toward the mainstream, we’ll probably make a cultivated chicken and a cultivated pork down the road. However, it will take a few years.
Sonalie Figueiras: So even though it might seem counterintuitive, it makes the most sense to attack the beef problem, because of its climate footprint, and it makes the most sense to go with steak because it allows for early adopters to get involved, and for you to become financially viable. This is very much the Tesla Model in many ways, right?
Didier Toubia: Yes, I think it’s been the whole idea with Tesla, that it has been able to drive this transition towards electric vehicles because they weren’t the first to make electric cars. In the 70s, there were early electric cars in the US, but they were the first to crack the code of the right product strategy. If we talk about Tesla, it’s not just starting high-end and then moving to the mass market that drives the cost down, which as we just discussed is what we’re doing, but it is also about differentiating the products versus internal combustion engine cars. We’re not trying to copy existing cuts of beef one-for-one. We’re not trying to be an exact duplication of tenderloin or ribeye, but rather developing our own set of attributes and our value proposition, and differentiate ourselves versus conventional meat, so that our products can be successful based on what they are, and not as a copy of anything, which is not a good marketing strategy.
Sonalie Figueiras: Okay. I want to get into your product strategy in a second, but since we’ve been talking about your vision and how you started, I want to ask you: You’ve been doing this for a few years now. Has the industry progressed enough, and do you timeline-wise feel you are where you want to be where you thought you were gonna be?
Didier Toubia: I’ll start with the second question. When we raised our A round in 2019, and we built a business plan back in 2018, so five years ago, we said that we would be in the market by the end of 2022. We’re currently on track for launching Q4 this year. So, we’re probably six to nine months late from our initial plan. I think for a certain type of innovative product, and given the delivery uncertainties we had at the time, we had to invent everything from scratch. I think that this six to nine-month delay within these five years is okay, not bad. So, in terms of timelines, we won’t be that far off and overall, you know, [we are] making good progress according to our plans.
Sonalie Figueiras: That’s pretty good, pretty much on track!
Didier Toubia: I think it is. I think we’re well on track. Plus or minus, you know, 20%, which is kind of the range of the order of magnitude of uncertainty, but overall, we’re on track. I think the industry as a whole has made a lot of progress. When we started, cultivated meat was completely theoretical. It sounded like science fiction. I think that four or five companies in this space, including Aleph Farms, have already developed scalable processes, have done a lot of work on cost reduction, and have already built facilities where they can make cultivated meet at the commercial level and comply with all the regulatory requirements. So, I think that when we’re looking five years back, we can appreciate the progress that has been made, which is phenomenal. I’m not saying that we have solved all the issues or that everything is perfect- there’s still work ahead of us to continue to scale up, meet consumer expectations and move toward the mainstream. However, I think on the technology side, the scientific side, in terms of process development, early industrialization and regulatory compliance, we have made a huge leapfrog, and I’m quite happy to see that. The industry is really on the verge of going to market and starting initial acceptance.
Sonalie Figueiras: That’s good to hear. I’m certainly very optimistic, but I want to ask some follow-up questions. One is about timeline constraints around regulatory approval. Currently, that’s only happened for Eat Just in Singapore for two of their chicken products [Editor’s Note: This interview was recorded before Eat Just and Upside Foods were granted US regulatory approval by the USDA in June 2023]. So, I want to understand, you say you plan to launch in Q4, is that going to be in Singapore? And how confident are you on the regulatory approval side? What about regulatory approval in your home country of Israel?
Didier Toubia: Yes, Aleph Farms decided to focus on the Middle East and Asia first. For the same reasons of food security I mentioned before, I think that there is more need for cultivated meats in those geographies, and that’s where you want to address real issues and have a real impact, so we filed regulatory applications in both Israel and Singapore last year. I can’t share the exact details of where we stand right now, but we believe that we have reasonable chances, and we can be cleared in one of those countries at least in the next few months, and launch after the summer.
We do believe that Asia will be an important market for us moving forward. When we’re looking at, let’s say 10 years ahead, most of the population of the world is based in Asia, and the increase and growth in meat consumption really relies on Asia, while the consumers are also very open to novel foods, and the public-private partnership we’re talking about is working very well. I think that there’s a lot of alignment between the different stakeholders in the animal protein and fat industry in many Asian regions, as well as in the Middle East, to push innovation and new production systems, which can help in getting more food sovereignty. In Europe and the US, I think that there is a strong political will to drive innovation.
In my view, we do see, especially in the last six to nine months, as cultivated meat is getting closer to the market, and more interest associated with the conventional agriculture lobbies, which are trying to delay the launch of cultivated meat, that the internal alignment between all the stakeholders in Europe and the US will take more time, just because traditionally, those geographies are very strong in commercial agriculture, and a lot of farmers don’t yet understand exactly what we do, and feel that cultivated meat could be a threat, which we don’t see in Asia, nor the Middle East of course, because cattle production is very limited.
Sonalie Figueiras: And they don’t have land or enough water…
Didier Toubia: Exactly, exactly. We overlook the importance of land on our planet.
Sonalie Figueiras: Absolutely. I mean, since you brought it up, this pushback that we’re seeing in Western markets, especially in North America and Europe, where there are strong beef farmer identities associated with national cultures- let’s dive into this narrative coming up in the media and across social media that cultivated meat is some kind of “franken-food”, that “it’s too tech”, and “it’s not real food.” For some people, there seems to be a bias against it. I want to ask you: What do you think about consumer perception, and what do you think the average person is getting wrong about the science of cultivated meat?
Didier Toubia: I think that’s a big question and I would like to give three answers. The first one is more related to conventional agriculture and why there is a misperception around cultivated meat, and maybe on the consumer side as well:
First, we do see cells and cellular agriculture as a third pillar of animal-based agriculture. Same as when we started eating meat thousands of years ago, and meat became widespread 600,000-700,000 years ago when we started cooking meat. And then, many years afterwards when we domesticated animals, we were able to milk cows, goats and sheep, and to drink milk and eat dairy products, which was a completely new source of animal-based products at the time- we were the only species drinking the milk of another species. So, drinking milk was very weird when we started, but today, it’s a normalised part of the food culture.
We do see a third source of animal-based products, which is cells. Same as milk, which was introduced to the diet a long time ago, 6,000 to 10,000 years ago, we’re witnessing today, a third source of food, which is, not exactly meat, it probably has more similarities with milk than with meat, and those cells have the benefit of providing an additional source and additional choice for animal-based products, which can relieve a little bit of the pressure on conventional agriculture for raising farming whole animals. We’ve technically passed the maximum scale, which makes sense in terms of farming whole animals because we have too many costs today [in animal agriculture], and the impact is huge.
Now, if we can introduce cells into the food system, which do not require the farming of whole animals, we can reduce the number of animals and better manage them in the framework of regenerative ag and sustainable farming practices and still complement them with an additional source of animal-based products to make sure that we have more choices, and ensure that we can still meet the increasing demand for animal proteins and fats? This is how we look at [the opportunity for] cells. We call it cellular agriculture because we believe that similarly to how meat has been incorporated into the agricultural ecosystem, the same can be done with cells. So, we do see cells as an opportunity for agriculture, as an additional revenue stream and an additional practice which can complement sustainably-produced meat and dairy.
Sonalie Figueiras: So you’re saying that eventually, you’re imagining a system where meat cattle farmers can make money by selling cells to cultivated meat companies?
Didier Toubia: Yes. They [the farmers] have to make money with the cells, of course. If we don’t find the right business model, it won’t work. Actually at Aleph Farms last year, we started a global research project with the Federation University in Australia to develop different business models for incorporating cells into common conventional farms in different parts of the world, because the business structure of farmers and their farming practices tends to vary a lot between different geographies, like in India, the US, Europe- they all work differently. We need to find a way to incorporate cells into agriculture, it will not work otherwise, that’s for sure.
I think there’s sometimes a misperception that cultivated beef is a threat to agriculture. We see it as a solution for an inclusive and just transition. You know, I grew up in France, and for instance, France has traditionally been the largest beef-focused country and exporter of beef in Europe. In the last few years, France became a net importer of beef, and on average, the number of [cow] heads is going down by 2.5% every year. 53% of farms are bankrupt and artificially maintained thanks to government subsidies. The average age of livestock farmers is close to 60 years old, and in less than 10 years, more than half of all these livestock farmers will have retired. So, the current system is not working as it is. So, if we can incorporate innovation and direct a part of the subsidies towards the training and investment in research and building capacities for other sources of animal-based food, we can drive an inclusive transition for the benefit of all the stakeholders. That’s a topic that lacks understanding of what cell agriculture is, which sometimes leads to some pushbacks, which is also driven by a lot of financial interests, and conventional agriculture players are benefiting from tens of billions of dollars of subsidies. So, a lot of financial interests in the current system are very strong lobbies, which are motivated by those financial interests and not by any motivation to make change, but that’s not how we can prepare for the future. So, that’s one thing.
Then, we’re talking about the consumers again, I think that if we are talking about cultivated meat, our first application of the cells is through foods like milk: we can do certain different products for milk. We can make cultivated meat from cells and a range of other products. At Aleph Farms, we publish some of the other products we make from the cells, like collagen, and we have a few other ones. So, we’re not a cultivated meat company, we’re a cellular ag company, and Aleph Cuts is only the first application of the cells.
When we’re talking about cells, there is a misperception that cells are processed food, which is not the case and I want to talk about that a little bit. What we do is instead of farming big animals like cows, we look at small animals (i.e. the cells). Cells are the building blocks of life and the building blocks of animals (i.e. the cows). We’re able to isolate the cells from a healthy animal, fully test them for safety, and nurture those cells to feed them in a controlled environment, the same as how animals are fed and nurtured in a corral or a meadow to make high-quality animal products. The cells that Aleph Farms uses are not immortalized, meaning we stick to the natural genetic material of the cells. We also follow the same processes and the same stations for cell proliferation and maturation, as in nature. So technically, we do what the animal domestication industry is doing: we replicate a natural process, and we control that environment to grant better access to high-quality nutrition with more predictability and more control. The cells are not ‘processed’. Further, we can turn the cells into a range of different products.
While I can’t say that cell-based products won’t be processed in the future, the source from which we’re using the cells by themselves is not processed. When we grow cells in the growth medium, which is the feedstock for the cells, we’re using an animal component-free growth medium, meaning we feed them without any animal input. The cells come from animals. If you think about how we make yogurt for instance, or fermented/cultured milk, we also grow cells in a medium. With yogurt, the cells are non-animal, they’re usually bacteria, whilst the growth medium is animal-based. In our case, it’s the opposite, meaning (what we do) when we cultivate ourselves, we do the same thing as when we make yoghurt, but the other way around. In our case, the growth medium is animal-free.
Sonalie Figueiras: That’s a very helpful analogy.
So technically, growing cells is a process no different than making yogurt, which is considered unprocessed food. These are some of the misperceptions that arise from many plant-based products out there, which are considered processed. So, it’s those kinds of analogies that people are making in their minds with cells and cultivated meat- they have preconceived ideas.
Sonalie Figueiras: People often confuse plant-based meat and cultivated meat, that’s true. Of course, that’s because all of these technologies are lumped under one umbrella. For most people, change is difficult and new technologies are complicated. However, the yogurt comparison is a very helpful analogy. Did you have a third part that you wanted to share?
Didier Toubia: Yes, I wanted to say that as we discussed before, we don’t think animal agriculture will disappear in 10 or 20 years. I know that a lot of vegan activists would like us to say that we’ll disrupt conventional agriculture, and a few plant-based companies make this type of claim, which I think is a mistake, because if we’re talking about regenerative ag, and as I’ve explained, we have a strong focus on climate and food security at Aleph Farms, we do need animals. However, we need far fewer animals, and we need to manage them better. Animals have a role in regenerating the soils and have a role in organic farming and are oftentimes associated in the countryside or in the Global South with social and economic value. As I’ve said when talking about Africa, we don’t want to replace smallholder farms, and the cows have a very important social and economic role there, especially for many, many families. We need to respect that. I think that cultivated meat as an application of sales should be complementary, and a driver for the transition to work less, cost less and be better managed. By the time we understand that, people will be looking at cultivated meat from completely different angles, not necessarily as a threat or not like those guys who are trying to replace the food, but as an additional choice for a meal, and this will open a lot of possibilities.
Sonalie Figueiras: Absolutely. Instead of an alternative, it’s an added option.
Didier Toubia: At Aleph Farms, we’re talking about complementary products, instead of alternative products. I think “alternative products” doesn’t mean anything.
Sonalie Figueiras: Yeah, I wrote a piece saying exactly that. I think we made a mistake with the name of the sector. I want to come back to what you just said about the vegan question, because as you might be aware, for some founders in this space, the vegan question is very much at the heart of what they are doing, and I see that for you, the ethical part about consuming animals is not at the heart of your mission here.
Didier Toubia: I want to expand here: I have a big issue with the industrialization of animal farming. When we grew up in France, 50 years ago, whenever people slaughtered a pig in the village, there was a ceremony. It was on the main square of the village circle, and when people went, there was a ceremony for the animal, and our relationship to the animal, and the value of the animal’s life. Honestly, I don’t have any inherent issue with eating animals, just as long as we realize that, you know, a cow has given its life to bring the steak on your plate. Today, I think there is a disconnection between meat and the life of the animal behind it. When we industrialize and individualize animal agriculture, putting animals into machines to make meat, or raise them, then slaughter them, it’s the same as when we would make cookies in the plant, meaning without any respect for the animal, that causes a lot of discomfort in me. So, regarding the point of slaughtering animals, I would say that I have an issue with the dehumanization, or let’s say ‘object possession?’ I don’t know if that’s the right term, but turning animals into objects?
Sonalie Figueiras: The exploitation of an animal.
Didier Toubia: It’s not giving respect to the animal and not valuing its life. I think it’s a big issue associated with industrialization. When you slaughter animals in a factory in a high-speed production chain, I think it’s a big issue. It’s a big ethical issue. That’s why we believe that if we can relieve the pressure on farming big animals by funding small animals like cells, we can revert and return to more extensive regenerative farming practices with higher animal welfare, and connect back to the animals as our “complementaries” [food sources] as well.
Sonalie Figueiras: It’s really interesting- you keep referring to regenerative agriculture and organic agriculture, and, you know, what we see in the media and the bigger mainstream conversation is that a lot of regenerative beef folks are very against cultivated meat. I think you’ve covered a lot of why that is, the entrenched lobby interests and the misunderstanding of the role of cellular agriculture in the industry. From where I’m sitting, reporting in this space, there does seem to be this kind of very big split between the regenerative people and then cultivated meat as a food technology, so I want to keep pushing on two things. One, I want to talk a little bit about the role of big food in your company because if we look at Aleph’s journey, you have managed to sign collaborative agreements and partnerships or retain as investors some really big names in the food industry such as BRF in Brazil, and Thai Union, and Mitsubishi. So, I want to ask you, are these partnerships that you are going out to look for? Or are these companies approaching you? How do you navigate through working with companies that are, you know, on some level upholding the status quo, which as you described yourself is problematic and not protected against the future?
Didier Toubia: Firstly, we’re only working with corporations that go through very thorough and strict due diligence by Aleph Farms on ESG parameters, and governmental, social and governance. So, we pick the corporations we work with very carefully based on the alignment of values and vision, that’s important to understand.
Secondly, we maintain our full independence. We don’t grant any rights on our IP, we don’t have any commitments to change anything, and we have no plans to accommodate any requirements from the company. None of those companies will have a seat on our board of directors, for instance. We’re working with those companies, but they don’t influence or impact the internal decision process. We remain fully independent.
Thirdly, the reason why we believe it’s important to have them involved. Just like how renewable energy today is driven primarily by the big energy companies that were traditionally oil-based. Eventually, they switched toward renewable energy and were instrumental in driving impact on the transition towards renewable energies- because, at the end of the day, they see themselves as energy companies. So, they want to develop the best solution to provide energy. I think a lot of those protein and fat companies see themselves as protein companies and are not necessarily committed to only producing meat harvested from slaughtered animals. They understand that we need to incorporate additional choices and new production systems for proteins. We want to drive real impact in the market [so] we need the big players to take hold, invest, and [help] scale these industries, same as what happened with renewable energy.
Sonalie Figueiras: So, are these companies coming to you?
Didier Toubia: It really depends. Usually they do. Actually, yes, mostly they do.
Sonalie Figueiras: So, from your side, since you said there’s strict vetting, you are getting these bigger companies coming to you wanting to learn about what you’re doing, wanting to potentially work together, wanting to participate in this new solution? Is that fair to say?
Didier Toubia: Yes. Again, we check them very carefully before we start working with them. We want to make sure they are really serious about it. The thing is a lot of those companies do understand that, you know, they can’t continue with business as usual. So, they need to incorporate, and diversify the sources of protein they’re putting into the market.
Sonalie Figueiras: Absolutely. Let’s talk a little bit about your product launch: You recently announced cultivated petite steak, which as you said earlier, is your own format of a steak product. You’re not trying to imitate a conventional beef steak one-for-one. It’s a new label that you’re calling Aleph Cuts. You also just announced a major partnership with Chef Marcus Samuelsson, the very well-known and well-respected James Beard award-winning chef who really privileges work around diversity and takes a broader view of the food system than most. Is he part of your launch plans? I know he’s come in as an investor and an advisor, but can you talk more about how you’re working with him and about your new label?
Didier Toubia: Yeah, sure. So, the first round of products we’re launching under the Aleph Cuts brand is a series of thin-cut beef steaks, which rely on two or three cell towers from bovine origin going onto a plant-based scaffold matrix, meaning it’s a range of hybrid products – plant and animal cells. We’ve been working very hard for the last few years to make sure those products meet the requirements and the expectations of the consumers, accounting for the fact that food is not a functional product, especially meat, it’s a very emotional product, and food is an experience; especially when we talk about animal products, the emotional connection is very strong and working with chefs to develop the right taste, to give life to our products and to develop the right positioning, but also the right format to create this connection, is really important.
The reason why we selected Marcus Samuelsson-other than that he is a great guy- was because we wanted to work with a chef who could help drive initial acceptance of our products, help us with positioning it and developing the right key messages, developing the right culinary approaches, and promote our specific value proposition. So, we do see chefs as partners: we need to convey quality, but at the same time, make sure the product is not presented as a luxurious and inaccessible food. We’re very cautious not to work with a three-star Michelin chef who is disconnected from the ground. What we liked about Marcus Samuelsson is that a lot of his values are very much in line with ours in terms of care, inclusiveness, courage, and creativity. He’s very much in line with our brand [goals of] premium but accessible [food].
Sonalie Figueiras: Is he linked to your plans to visit Ethiopia? [Samuelsson is Ethiopian-born].
Didier Toubia: Yes. Again, I’m fascinated by Africa, and the thing is that, you know, New Zealand also has a lot of connections with Ethiopia and the Eastern region of Africa, which is very interesting in terms of its food scene, and its economic development as well. So, naturally, we see Ethiopia as an interesting angle for us in Africa- that’s why I’m planning to go there in the next couple of months.
Sonalie Figueiras: Do you have children?
Didier Toubia: I do.
Sonalie Figueiras: Do they know what you do? Do they understand about cultivated meat? How do they see what you do?
Didier Toubia: Of course, of course! They are quite involved in what I do, and I consult with them on many topics, and I get their input in a lot of the decision-making process.
Sonalie Figueiras: Some people say that there is a shift globally with this generation (the Gen Zs), and the Alphas coming behind them, in how they think about food, and animal agriculture, and how they are engaged with this idea that they’re living in a pretty serious climate crisis. Do you experience that? And do you think that that’s going to have an impact on our global food systems?
Didier Toubia: Yes, I do. I think that the younger generation is very knowledgeable about a lot of our global issues, and is very engaged [with them]. In my opinion, they will be the driving force behind the systemic changes we need to implement on the global level.
Sonalie Figueiras: As the founder of Aleph Farms, what does success look like to you? What do you see when you look ahead and you imagine success and your vision being realized?
Didier Toubia: I see a food system which is more diverse than today, with more choices, especially more diversity. Technically, today we have many choices, but with very little diversity. What I mean by that is that we have 100 different options of the same products, but we rely on and choose very few production processes, and the food is very concentrated. So, we have a lot of choices, but very little diversity. I would like to incorporate more diversity in the food system, especially with animal products, and to make sure that we can get back to our planetary boundaries while continuing to enjoy gratifying experiences with the food that we eat. I think it’s important because it’s not just a sustainability issue, it’s also a well-being issue. Food is part of what we are. Going back to high-quality foods, and putting the focus on emotions and experiences, is so important- [we need to get] away from ultra-processed and industrialized food products.
Sonalie Figueiras: What are the biggest challenges to get there? And what challenges are you facing at Aleph, specifically? Is it funding?
Didier Toubia: I think the biggest challenge is the amplitude of the food system. The food system is such a big industry and that is difficult to change. If we’re talking just about animal proteins, which is a subset of the food system, it’s a $1.8 trillion market, meaning that if you want to make a change in this market, it will cost you a lot of time, because of its amplitude. At Aleph Farms, we have a target for getting to $1 billion in revenues by 2030, as a way to have an impact, and typically $1 billion in revenues is exactly 0% market share of $1.8 trillion! So, if we want to have a real impact, we need to become very, very large-scale, and that requires a lot of time and a lot of collaboration with all of the stakeholders in the ecosystem. At the end of the day, to drive the change, we need all the players in the ecosystem to align their interests and work together to make the change. Of course, it will not be just one company, not even just four or five cultivated meat companies driving the change.
Sonalie Figueiras: One thing you haven’t mentioned though is government policy. How much of a role do you think that plays in this change?
Didier Toubia: I’ll go back to renewable energy, which I think is a good analogy for cellular agriculture, no different than any other technologies in the existing market that is intended to drive a systemic change in the way we manage the ecosystem. We’ve seen that for renewable energy to become mainstream took a lot of public-private partnerships and governmental support in investing and scaling up these technologies including loans and loan guarantees, tax breaks and tech agreements. Without governmental support, the renewable energy sector would never have been able to drive the cost down enough to become mainstream. It will be the same with cultivated meat. We need the support for the next 5-10 years until we can drive the costs down to become mainstream.
Sonalie Figueiras: Thanks so much, Didier. I appreciate you taking the time, and being so open and so elaborate with your answers. It’s been fascinating!
Didier Toubia: Thanks, Sonalie!
Green Queen In Conversation is a podcast about the food and climate story hosted by Sonalie Figueiras, the founder and editor-in-chief of Green Queen Media. The show’s first season, Pioneers of Cultivated Meat, explores cultivated meat, a future food technology on a mission to produce animal protein sustainability. In each of the six episodes, Sonalie interviews the pioneers of the industry, asking the hard questions about one of the most exciting food + climate innovations of our time and sharing the personal story behind each founder’s journey.
Green Queen In Conversation is a co-production from Green Queen Media and Cheeky Monkey Productions. This episode was produced by Joanna Bowers and hosted by Sonalie Figueiras.