Zero Acre Farms has landed
This year has featured a triumvirate of acute climate challenges:
- The heat waves and wildfires much of the world is currently dealing with
- Significant dislocations in energy markets after Russia invaded Ukraine
- Significant dislocations in supply chains, especially including in food
On the third point, when you think of food, you probably think of staple crops like rice, wheat, soybeans, and corn. Wheat is a big one that’s seen disruptions in Ukraine. And climate change has also wreaked havoc on staples in other European countries.
What isn’t always as obvious is what end-product these crops turn into. The fact that corn is used in almost everything has become a bit of a meme. Whether it’s ethanol, high fructose corn syrup (soda & candy), cosmetics, enzymes, etc… it’s in there.
Of course, corn is also used to produce vegetable oil. As are soybeans. And sunflowers. And palm. And safflowers. And coconuts. I’ll spare you a longer list (and yes, I’m using vegetable oil and seed oil relatively interchangeably here).
I’ve been writing more about climate change contributors that are ‘woven into the fabric’ of our society, as I like to say. Fossil fuels. Fertilizer. And, as it turns out, vegetable oils!
But why care about vegetable oils? For one, more and more people, starting with dark corners of the internet, but quickly spreading to doctors and research teams, have sounded the alarm on vegetable oils from a human health perspective.
Additionally, vegetable oils are also bad for the Earth’s environment and for efforts to reverse climate change. Let’s take a closer look at the latter.
The climate challenge
Zero Acre Farms was founded with a focus on human health. I recently sat down with CEO Jeff Nobbs to discuss the business. My first question? How he and his team got started:
I’ve been thinking about the vegetable oil problem for the better part of the past decade. I’ve always been interested in getting them out of our food system and replacing them with healthy fats. I’ve always been interested in food, nutrition, and health. As I got more into food, I also realized our food system plays a massive role in climate and planetary health. This led me to look at food not just as a question of what’s best for our health but its impact on the planet. Some foods are destructive, some benign, and others are regenerative.
Jeff Nobbs also noted that he quickly realized that vegetable oils are the ‘lead domino’ in many food systems and agricultural challenges. Replacing them could help make agriculture significantly more sustainable.
- Up to 30% of all land use in agriculture (!) is devoted to growing crops like soybeans that are then used to produce vegetable oils.
- Two of the top three drivers of deforestation are vegetable oil crops (palm and soybean).
- Nor is land use for these crops particularly efficient:
For perspective on why the land use that goes into producing vegetable oils can be so destructive, Jeff painted a picture of what the chain from seed to oil looks like:
To make soybean oil, you first have to tear down a rainforest, plant soybean plants which take six months to grow, press their seeds for tiny amounts of oil, and then rip out the plants and do it all over again.
What if you could divert that land use and do something else with it? As we’ve discussed in the past, we’re talking about much more than CO2 emissions in agriculture. It’s N2O from fertilizer. It’s deforestation to grow more crops. It’s water use, water pollution, and more.
‘Fancier’ oils aren’t much better. Coconut oil causes more biodiversity loss per liter than any other vegetable oil. Palm oil production has wreaked havoc on biodiversity and rainforests in Indonesia. And Jeff likened avocado oil to the “palm oil of North America.” Olive oil (which I use) requires massive amounts of water and land use. Sorry for being a downer, y’all…
So. What can we do about it? The more structural problem is that vegetable oils are in everything. They’re cheap. They’re tasty. They help make things crispy, and salt sticks to them.
It’s not just that most restaurants cook with them. I challenge you to go to the store and try to buy a bag of chips that don’t have vegetable oils in them. They account for 20% of Americans’ caloric intake based on some estimates. Without passing my judgment on the health question (beyond my purview, and you can read Jeff’s take here and more from Zero Acre Farms here), they will be uniquely challenging to root out of supply chains.
Jeff was also previously a restaurant operator and owner, which meant he was uniquely aware of how dependent on cooking with vegetable oils restaurants can be.
At the time, I was running a restaurant, and we were using a ton of oil. It was a pain in the neck to figure out what oil to use. Everything came with a compromise. It was either horrible for people, for the planet, both, had way too strong of a taste, or wasn’t an oil that lent itself well to a restaurant setting.
Recognizing the potential for environmental and individual health impact, Jeff set out to find an alternative to vegetable oils. And the path to a solution runs through fermentation.
Farm → Fermentation
Zero Acre Farms wants to produce a replacement for vegetable oils that’s a) better for human health and b) as in the name, doesn’t require nearly as much land or resources to cultivate its inputs. To achieve this, they focus on more efficient ways to turn abundant plant sugars into healthy fats and oils.
How do they do it? Via fermentation.
Why fermentation? For one, it’s already the source of a lot of fantastic foods:
Fermentation is responsible for tons of our favorite foods. Bread, beer, wine, cheese, yogurt, coffee, and chocolate. It makes great food and has a minimal environmental footprint. Great taste, small impact, and better for people, too.
Backing up a step… what is fermentation? I’ll rely on Jeff again here for this one:
Fermentation happens when communities of microorganisms’ cultures’ consume natural sugars in things like wheat or milk and convert them into bread and yogurt. There are also oil cultures, which produce healthy fats instead of the lactic acid in yogurt. And they produce a lot of it and produce it extremely efficiently. The tiny microorganisms that make up an oil culture are 80-90% oil by weight. That’s significantly more than avocados, pigs, palm, or any other source of fat.
As of today, their first product, which they’ve been working on for years, is available for purchase. To make Cultured Oil, Zero Acre Farms feeds plant sugars to oil cultures, which fill the culture with oil via the fermentation process over the span of a few days. Then, the cultures are pressed and filtered without the use of harsh chemical solvents. Then, they’re bottled!
Cultured Oil is designed to be a 1-1 replacement for vegetable oils. Based on a lifecycle assessment the company performed, which took into account land use change from other vegetable crops and greenhouse gas emissions, their product has a 10x lower environmental footprint than vegetable oils.
Fermentation is also more resilient than farming.
If any year in recent memory illustrates the importance of resilience, 2022 would be on the podium. As global warming worsens, its impacts on where people can farm will become all the more pronounced. We’re seeing it this year, and not just in places like Sub-Saharan Africa. Terrible yields for staple crops are a reality in Italy this year, too. Whether it’s war or weather, crops are a pretty high-risk commodity. And bioengineering efforts to improve crops will take a lot more time.
Meanwhile, fermentation can happen almost anywhere!
Scaling the seed oil antidote
Zero Acre Farms is well capitalized heading into their product launch. They closed a 30M Series A earlier this year, including climate-focused backers like Lowercarbon Capital. Across their Series A and seed round, the company has raised $37M. I asked Jeff whether investors were primarily passionate about climate or health and nutrition. He said it runs the gamut – from employees to investors, some sit on either side of the spectrum, while a few sit squarely in the middle and are concerned about both.
As far as their product launch is concerned, as evidenced by the fact that you can buy the product if you want, they’re starting DTC. This is a familiar strategy for consumer goods companies with grand-scale ambitions: Start small, seed demand, build production capacity, and then grow.
And as far as grand ambitions are concerned, Jeff and his team have them in abundance:
Our North Star is to eventually be in McDonald’s and have them fry their french fries in Cultured Oil. To do that, we need to build volume and start with consumers. So we’re starting with DTC, selling Cultured Oil, and working on other products from liquid oils to solid fats, all made with fermentation.
The production capacity is coming. Zero Acre Farms ferments on three continents already. And there’s an impetus to scale quickly. Unlike other businesses, supply chain disruptions this year have also benefited Zero Acre Farms:
The oil crop market has been crazy, partly because of what’s happened in Ukraine and Russia. They haven’t planted sunflower seeds, so sunflower oil supply is way down and soybean oil and palm oil prices are way up. This has driven inbound interest with people coming in saying, ‘Hey, do you have an oil that can replace sunflower oil that actually has supply?’
Cooking oils are here to stay. For the foreseeable future, at least. Just like fossil fuels. Or plastic. Or synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. Still, that’s not a good reason not to start designing and scaling alternative, improved solutions. Jeff grounds Zero Acre Farms’ mission similarly:
The path to impact is economies of scale and large-scale fermentation. Cooking oil isn’t going away anytime soon. But if we eat so much of it, we might as well do it in a healthy, more sustainable way.
Education will be a big challenge and opportunity for Zero Acre Farms along the way. Health concerns about seed and vegetable oils are gaining traction. But I’d still say those are probably in their infancy, perhaps in the 2nd or 3rd inning, to use a baseball analogy. Meanwhile, concerns about their impact on the planet are still in the 1st inning, save perhaps for recognizing what palm oil has done to Indonesia’s rainforests.
In sum? It’s always refreshing to see companies firmly rooted at the intersection of human health and the planet’s health. Sure, most climate solutions are also automatically good for human health, at least in some downstream capacity. But Zero Acre Farms holistically embraces both sustainability and a focus on individual health. Hopefully, that proves good for business, as it’d be a win for Spaceship Earth, too.
I’m excited to keep an eye on their progress (and try Cultured Oil, too!) If you’re as excited as I am to try Zero Acre Farms, you can find their wares here.