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Climate change could make expensive eggs a new normal. What is food tech doing about it?

a rack of eight eggs sits on a counter with 4 in the front and 4 in the back. each egg has a face drawn on it with the first looking scared, the second looking worried, the third laughing, and the last looking absolutely terrified
Image credit: Unsplash / Tengyart

For the past two months, the price of eggs has scrambled, inflating by 138%, with your average Grade A eggs costing between $4.25 and ten bucks a dozen. When it comes to organic, consumers are witnessing prices as high as $18.

While the worst may be behind us — The Guardian reports the peak price was back in December and has since dropped by 52% — the decline has yet to reflect lower prices for consumers and revert to the normal $1 and some change.

The price of eggs reached a boiling point due to the double-yolk of inflation and the viral avian flu. Already, the flu has wiped over 52 million birds out — and not just chickens.

Inflation will eventually reach a downturn and the unprecedented avian virus may run its course, however as scientists try to understand how global warming is affecting this wave of avian influenza, decades of research pinpoint the indirect linkages climate change has with the ecology of the disease. There are even entire books on the subject.

If inflation and bird disease wasn’t enough, larger supply chain issues related to climate change, show that runny egg prices, and other high costs for grocery staples, could likely be a near-future normal.

“This is literally a bread and butter issue,” Andrew Behar, CEO of As You Sow, a nonprofit shareholder advocacy group said.

“People are already suffering from extreme weather events including climate change-induced mega-droughts, heat waves, and historic flooding. The coverage of these events has focused on the cost of lives and property damage; what hasn’t been discussed in mainstream media is the impact of these events on agriculture and how it reduces supply driving up grocery bills for all Americans. We call this phenomena climate inflation.”

We’ve seen climate change directly affect food prices before, from Europe’s drought driving the price of meat and dairy to the highest point in a decade to winter heatwaves making vegetable salad a luxury dish in California.

As Yale Environment 360 explains, similar events are driving up the costs of raw commodities, including cotton for clothes and food staples like rice, olive oil, almonds, wheat, dairy, and coffee. Soon, eggs may be among them.

Aside from the long-term effects warming has on crops and farmers, extreme weather events can wipe out production in the blink of an eye. The casualties of Pakistan’s floods dominated headlines, but the catastrophic effect the floods had on Pakistan’s vegetable, cotton, livestock, wheat, and rice fields is a food security and humanitarian crisis. Not only is it continuing to affect the country, but it reverberates throughout the global economy.

Behar puts it blatantly: “Climate is costing you and your family more and more every day.”

On top of the climate-connected grocery supply chain issues, the poultry industry will be adversely affected by heat stress. As a 2021 study published in the Elsevier Journal of Thermal Biology shows, high temperatures affect the whole hen house, leading to decreases in growth rate, body weight, egg production, egg weight, egg quality, meat quality, semen quality, fertility, and hatchability… the list is endless.

No matter which way we crack it, climate change ensures that expensive eggs are the future.

However, as the study’s authors show, not all is lost. Gene editing to make hens more resilient to higher temperatures and disease may be one mitigation strategy. While one biotech startup, eggXYt, is already experimenting with gene-edited chicken cells, some other startups are foregoing the chicken altogether.

Shell eggs and plant-based eggs are hovering at the same price right now. In some cases, the plant-based option is cheaper. But the market for plant-based eggs is small — just about $30 million in the U.S. Vegan eggs make up only 8.5% of liquid egg sales, a market dominated by the California-based startup Eat Just Inc. which makes Just Egg. In fact, as Bloomberg reports, Just Egg makes up 99% of liquid egg sales.

According to Just Egg, there isn’t a better time to try plant-based. The company even took out a full-page New York Times ad with this message: plants don’t get the flu. However, if egg alternatives are the future, transparent bottles of Just Egg likely won’t be the only brand in the grocery store aisle among cartons of ten-dollar-dozens.

The egg shortage isn’t only a direct consumer issue. As Graeham Henderson, Director of Sales at alternative egg startup Zero Egg says, “We’re hearing time and again from customers that this HPAI outbreak is absolutely impacting their decision to expand menu options to include plant-based eggs.”

​​“Restaurants around the country are just starting to make a comeback from the slowdowns and labor shortages caused by COVID, and now they’re facing this. It’s a real problem, but one that also poses an opportunity.”

Zero Egg, creates what it calls the “only plant-based egg that does it all.” The startup reports the egg shortage and increased pricing has led to a spike in their sales.

“Until we prioritize the health of animals, the health of our planet, and our own health,” Liron Nimrodi, Zero Egg’s CEO and co-founder said in a statement, “We’re going to keep seeing bird flu outbreaks. This is our new normal.”

Zero Egg isn’t the only startup preparing for the climate change’s impact on eggs.

Around this time last year, Texas Startup Crafty Counter unveiled what they call the “world’s first” vegan hard-boiled egg. Dubbed “Wunderegg” the plant-based boiled egg uses an amalgam of ingredients — almonds and cashews for protein, along with coconut milk, turmeric, and black salt — to make an egg they say mimics the taste, texture, and “sensational” experience of the hard-boiled egg, something that’s hard to accomplish with the Just Egg industry leader.

Mumbai, India-based Evo Foods came a couple of months later to reveal a different version of the humble boiled egg: the world’s first vegan “heat-stable” option. With $1 million in pre-seed funding, the startup was able to veganize not only boiled eggs, but the traditional poached egg of an egg’s benedict along with scrambled eggs, omelets, and other dishes.

Continuing the trend, Every Company launched the first animal-free egg white the same month. Called the Every EggWhite, it is made through precision fermentation or lab culture. According to Food Dive, the eggless egg white offers both the taste and functionality of egg whites for bakers and chefs.

Formerly known as Clara Foods, Every Company previously partnered with Budweiser to brew an egg substitute.

Now, Every Company is the first company to achieve an alternative for what its CEO, Arturo Elizondo, calls “the crown jewel” of the food industry. “Unique for its functional properties that make it almost impossible to replace – until today,” he said in a statement.

Another startup disrupting the food tech space is Fiction Foods, reimagining the scrambled egg.

“Why must food come at such a high environmental cost?” Fiction Foods founder Brendan Brazier asks via the company’s website. “Inefficiencies that have been allowed to exist in our food production system are clearly ripe for disruption. They are from an era decades old, that desperately needs rewriting.”

Last February, the Los Angeles-based startup introduced a “Proprietary Cell-based Performance Scramble,” a nutrient-rich liquid designed to not only replace the chicken egg but to enhance mental and physical performance as well.

According to the startup, the Scramble has 15% more animal-quality protein than a chicken egg, more zinc than oysters, more probiotics than yogurt, more omega than salmon, and more antioxidants than blueberries.

Brazier, who co-developed Beyond Meat’s “Beast Burger,” says that their goal is to exceed the chicken egg’s capability, all while leaving it alone. “It's not a fake egg, but a whole new culinary experience, that is made from a signal-cell organism called euglena that contains animal-like and high-quality protein, but without the animal,” he said in the February press release.

Over in France, Le Papondu launched what many other startups have already achieved: a vegan beaten egg. But what sets them apart is their current efforts to produce an industry first: a whole egg alternative, which will eventually come in a biodegradable shell.

Right now, the Le Papondu’s egg comes in a plastic shell, and it is likely the only option on the market with a cracked fried egg that actually looks like the sunny-side-up real thing. Like many of the aforementioned startups, Le Papondu is already in restaurants, breaking eggs and making omelettes across France.

The “eggflation” of 2023 may end soon, but if climate change has anything to do with it (and it does) this eggflation will not be the last. The chicken and the egg might’ve came first, but as global warming impacts extreme weather, supply chains, and chicken disease, these egg alternative startups may one day prevail over the real thing.

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