Photo: Akua/Facebook

This Food-Tech Startup Is Rewriting the Narrative of Plant-Based Food -- With Kelp

Sustainability News Food + Drink
by Tim Wenger Sep 24, 2021

​​This is The Climate Win, the most positive sustainability news around the world every week.

Veggie burgers have come a long way in recent years. But in this week’s Climate Win we take a look at a veggie burger that takes good taste, health, and sustainability to the next level. Akua, a New York City startup, is among the most forward-thinking food tech startups in the world due to one groundbreaking technique: it produces its product without the use of any freshwater. Currently available only via the company’s website, Akua will debut its kelp burger on New York shelves this fall with west coast markets to follow.

Akua was founded by journalist-turned-serial-entrepreneur Courtney Boyd Myers, who spoke with me about the concept of growing healthy food that actually benefits the environment in which it’s grown. Ocean-farmed kelp supports regenerative ocean habitats. It takes no freshwater, or even land, to grow. And kelp is also surprisingly delicious, Myers said.

“I wanted to start a food company that created products that are actually healthy for you,” Myers says. “My health journey started in my teens. I became completely vegetarian. And when the awareness of the serious problem of climate change grew, it became apparent that if we don’t radically change our food systems, we’re screwed.”

Myer’s life was changed when a friend took her to a kelp farm. It was then that the concept for Akua was born. Kelp presented the perfect opportunity to grow a nutrient-rich, dense food that could be produced at scale and entirely free of chemicals, fertilizers, and any non-natural input.

Akua started out producing kelp jerky, a sustainable snack perfect for travel and outdoor pursuits. 2021 saw the launch of the kelp burger. Not quite as fit for travel, at least not until it’s found on restaurant menus. But still a functional way to satisfy the craving for a burger without the eco-guilt that comes with satisfying it.

“All of the breakthroughs we’re seeing in going plant-based, with creating cellular meat at scale, are really important,” Myers says. “And the last place I see innovation happening is on the agricultural level.”

That’s where Akua comes in. The “everyone should be vegetarian for the planet” argument is not going to convince everyone, and is not necessarily accurate. Small-scale organic farmers of many stripes — including those raising livestock — are doing wonderful things for food systems the world over, as my acquaintance and sometimes colleague Katy Severson reported in this phenomenal piece.

But the fact is that the vast majority of livestock is not raised this way, and livestock emissions account for 14.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions globally, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. For comparison, air transport — a common victim of environmental shaming — accounts for 2.5 percent of global emissions.

Myers set out to provide a solution that’s more sustainable to produce and package than soy or large-scale meat. She also wanted to create a snack — the kelp jerky — that is free of the additives and sodium in common grab-and-go snacks. Travelers can order a 12-pack of kelp burgers via the company’s website for $49.99 and have it shipped to their home or to where they’re headed. Akua’s kelp jerky comes in bundles as few as three for $22.99.

The company plans to debut its kelp burger in restaurants and stores both in Western and Asian markets in the coming years. “Ground” versions of the kelp are coming in the near future, allowing eaters to form their own burgers and add extra ingredients as they see fit.

More climate wins this week

Jeff Bezos pledged $1 billion to further the 30 by 30 initiative, which seeks to protect 30 percent of the Earth by 2030, The Washington Post reported. The money will go towards the Bezos Earth Fund, founded last year, to be focused on the Pacific Ocean, the Andes, and the Congo Basin.

China announced at the United Nations General Assembly this week that it would stop financing coal power projects around the world, The New York Times reported. Whether China plans to discontinue domestic coal investment was not disclosed. The country is currently the world’s largest financier and consumer of coal power.

Harvard University announced last week that it would entirely divest its $42 billion endowment fund from fossil fuel stocks, The Harvard Crimson reported. This announcement followed years of work from student activists and other environmentalists seeking to pull the world’s largest university endowment out of dirty energy. Students, enviros, and green investment funds cheered the announcement, and we expect it to put pressure on other large university endowments to follow.

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