The foundation of the global food system is under threat. Around the world, large swathes of uncultivated woodlands, pastures and wetlands, home to much biodiversity, are being replaced with areas of monoculture farmed using pesticides and fertilisers. Crop output is high yet there are major disruptions to delicate ecosystems and their services that keep soils fertile, pollinate plants, purify water and air, keep fish and trees healthy, and fight crop and livestock pests and diseases.
“What if we can improve our food system from the ground up? asked Shalev speaking at Fi Europe in Paris in December. Israeli-American food-tech company, Equinom develops sustainable non-GMO plant-based ingredients.
“What if we could restore biodiversity to our food supply by farming new varieties of non-GMO crops, that don’t just grow well but are tasty, nutritious, and designed to feed people, not livestock. We know that shifting to a plant-based diet is necessary for a healthier and humane future.”
Despite an increase in plant-based diets, plant-based foods will never hit critical mass if taste, texture, and affordability are not delivered first, explained Shalev.
According to a 2019 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) plant diversity is decreasing in farmers’ fields, less than 200 plant species cultivated for food significantly contribute to global food output, and only nine account for 66% of total crop production.
Biodiversity is important for safeguarding global food security and maintaining varied, healthy diets. With less biodiversity, humans have fewer species for food and plants and animals are more susceptible to pests and diseases.
Current global challenges affecting the food system such as loss and degradation of forest and aquatic ecosystems, pollution, overharvesting, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine disrupting the flow of commodities highlight the need for crop diversity to feed ever-expanding global populations nutritious food.
“[Equinom] is doing three major things. We are integrating to an existing supply chain; […] we do not process the ingredient ourselves, but we are using partners. We are using their existing supply chain by elevating the supply chain and changing the grains,” said Shalev.
AI assists biodiversity
The Israeli food tech company uses its ingredient platform, Manna, and artificial intelligence to develop non-GMO ingredients for partnering food companies. By analysing millions of seeds in its database, Manna can predict breeding combinations to develop ingredients that meet exact specifications in half the time of traditional crop development cycles.
Restoring plant diversity naturally is important to Equinom, said Shalev. “[...] we take plants - very old plants that were [bred] one or two hundred years ago that contain the qualities of the traits that we are working upon - and we basically match them. It is non-GMO and non-gene editing.”
Shalev describes Equinom as a “fully integrated food company” with an understanding of four core pillars - ingredients, food application, genetics, and how to produce genetics within the farming system.
“What is the technology behind what we are creating? I have seeds and dairy or an alt-meat application, and I need to combine those two parts. I need to understand how to close the gap. I need to develop two major engines: one that will enable me to take functional traits and convert them into biochemical components,” explains Shalev. “What does that mean? Let's take oil-binding capacity or efficiency in extrusion. When I want to understand how to improve those traits, I need to understand the profile of the proteins that can enable me to have those benefits and those traits.”
From pea and soy to mung bean and cow peas
Equinom has pea and soy proteins available on the market, which the company has bred for over ten years. Yellow peas are currently grown in north America and processed to contain more protein with Equinom’s technologies.
“[…] we are using existing factories, using peas, and we just changed the peas so now the same facility can create 65% even 70% protein,” noted Shalev. “The genetics are powerful [and can] really change the entire food system in the way we process ingredients.”
The company is currently working on other crops including chickpea, fava, mung bean, and cow pea (black eyed peas). Value to the food system is not only created by producing better ingredients but also the ability to create those ingredients in various locations, noted Shalev.
“People ask us, ‘why mung or cow peas?’ as the industry is not using these grains today. When you look at climate change, […] the entire Midwest in the US is not going to be able to grow any more soybeans. So how are we going to overcome climate change? By changing the crops, we are working on - it is basically [by] using more heat-tolerant crops, and that is mung and cow pea,” said Shalev.