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"One small burger for humankind" - The Whiskey Point Food Circular Economy Initiative

Sustainable, urban food is happening - circular economy, anaerobic digestion driven, algae-based, vertical and cellular agriculture

Photo of Leonard Lerer
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Back of the Yards Algae Sciences LLC

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small company (under 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

Bubbly Dynamics LLC - The Plant

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 1-3 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?


Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

The city of CHICAGO is the third largest city in the U.S.A with a population of almost 3 million people. The total area is 600 km2.

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Our project is based at The Plant, a building dedicated to food business incubation based on circular economy principles. The Plant is located in a neighborhood called the Back of the Yards - on the edge of the old stockyards. The actual site is called Whiskey Point, where dozens of whiskey bars were conveniently located to serve the thousands of workers who labored under terrible conditions in the Union Stockyards, at one time, the largest open stockyard and meat processing site on the planet. We are viscerally connected with the Back of the Yards - our name is Back of the Yards algae sciences - why? Because we are learning from history and creating a new history that distills the positive and reverses the negative! The positive is the fact that we are bringing food innovation back to a district where industrial meat was invented; where packaging and food logistics were advanced in order to bring meat from the U.S. prairies to the entire world. But the food innovation we bring is not based on cruelty to animals; exploitation of the poor and immigrant classes; environmental degradation and the relentless pursuit of profit at human and ecosystem cost. We are about zero-waste through anaerobic digestion and an algae-based circular economy; about sustainable reuse; about zero-cruelty through cell-based meat; about social justice in terms of making alternative proteins accessible to billions and about creating real environmental, social and economic value. What better place to do this than on a site where millions of pigs were brutally processed - "the hog butcher for the world" (Carl Sandburg).

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

To understand the soul of our project, read Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel, The Jungle, which touches on the history of immigration, labor rights, food innovation, social injustice, cruelty to animals and humans, and the birth of industrial food. 

The stockyards are gone today - the area is desolate and industrial to the uninformed. All that people associate this area with is the South side of Chicago, with its reputation for endemic poverty and gun violence. The reality is lot different: our building is surrounded by a tranquil yet vibrant, mainly immigrant community. Yet, fresh food is hard to find and we are just a few streets away from some of the poorest neighborhoods of Chicago. 

The Plant is an old pork processing building that was destined for demolition. It was saved by a visionary, John Edel, who painstakingly turned it into an amazing facility - onsite brewery, small businesses, large anaerobic digester in development, and even a museum celebrating the labor and industrial history of the old stockyards.

Our initiative is about the rebirth of the stockyards, where the spirit of innovation that prevailed for more than a century is channeled into a more sustainable, just, and impactful food system. Instead of throwing waste into Bubbly Creek, we have sufficient digester capacity to create value from Chicago's food waste; instead of exploitation we are empowering the local community through consultation, collaboration and training; and instead of the cruel mass slaughter of animals, we are making vertical agriculture, plant-based proteins and cellular agriculture a real part of the urban food chain. 

We are in a working class, poor neighborhood - where thousands of immigrant and poor families quietly struggle to make a better life for their children. While we have sophisticated laboratories at the cutting edge interface between cellular agriculture and the circular economy, we have never sought the limelight. We are relatively unknown, yet we have more bioreactor capacity than 2/3 of the cellular agriculture biotechnology sector companies that get so much publicity and hype.

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

We believe that today's food system challenges are systemic, as they will be in 2050. In the case of the environment, our inaction today creates the challenge that will be faced in 2050. The diets in the Back of the Yards are influenced by a food desert and the pervasive presence of low-quality food sources, so in 2050 today's children will suffer from a range of preventable chronic diseases; similarly, we will see so many swings in the cultural norms related to food over the next decade.  In 2050 we will still struggle, as we do today, to integrate sustainable innovations into our food chain, with a range of vested interests and sheer inertia often winning out. And what about the challenge of the current structure of food innovation investment? Venture capital would rather support another "Theranos" claiming to be able to grow cell-based meat at industrial scale than invest in the basic stuff such as bringing the circular economy into the urban food value chain. Similarly, big food corporations are looking for trends that sell to consumers, not sustainable innovation. This will not change by 2050. As for policymakers, they have limited options open to them to drive a more healthy and equitable food system. 

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

We are attacking food system challenges that face our planet's rapidly urbanizing populations - be they in Delhi or Chicago or Lagos. 

We are a unique collaboration focused on using circular economy innovations (including zero-waste and extracting the maximum value out of finite resources) to provide our planet, and our cities in particular, with sustainable, accessible and wellness promoting food. 

We are committed to researching, developing and implementing (at a pilot-industrial) scale new ways of making our food better and less environmentally damaging.

We aim to be a resource at the interface between the circular economy and the global food chain open for collaboration with all stakeholders – communities, institutions, academics and industry.

We are currently working on an anaerobic digestion-algae remediation-cellular agriculture platform. We have invested heavily in: anaerobic digesters on pilot and maga-industrial scale, algae photobioreactors; robotic cell culture; analytical tools like HPLC and CMS and our people are committed to making this breakthrough work happen.

So, how does this address the CHALLENGES? Let us give you some practical examples:

Economics - Our circular economy-based food system directly addressed the issue of the economic sustainability of urban food systems. Today, urban and vertical farming is far from being sustainable - mainly due to energy consumption. The biostimulants and growth media produced by our approach do increase growth speed and yield enough to make vertical farming a real part of the food chain for billions, not just a privileged few.

 Diet - Algae are a great, sustainable and effective source of alternative or plant-based protein. Plus there is a lot of evidence that the algae and algae extracts that this project produces are excellent for nutritional supplementation - improving the school performance and growth of toddlers and children in inner-city and nutritionally disadvantaged settings.

Technology - We are bringing cutting edge cellular agriculture technology out of the laboratory to the urban setting. We are not talking about lab-grown meat and a $1000 a pound here; we are talking about feeding millions and more with plant cellular agriculture.

Policy - We are showcasing real changes to urban food policy - for example, the true application of food waste management and innovative re-use.

Culture - Come and visit us to see how support the "culture" of real food in a disadvantaged community in the face of the onslaught of "fast food"  

 Environment - Today, anaerobic digestion is not seen as an important part of strategies to improve our global environment. This is because anaerobic digestion is mainly associated with biogas (and therefore greenhouse gas) energy generation and with waste management from industrial animal farming (an environmental disaster). We are about value-adding and food making anaerobic digestion in urban and peri-urban settings - this is breakthrough work. 

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

Come to the Back of the Yards for a burger - bring your kids along for a high-protein algae shake ... oh, they had one already today as part of a school nutrition program, the one that showed that protein supplementation with algae improves growth and school performance in disadvantaged communities. So let me tell you about the burger - well, the meat did not come from killing an animal. It was grown right here in the stockyards in that big tank and it was grown using cleaned up (remediated) food waste from the city of Chicago. Do you see that big tube outside? That is an anaerobic digester and its where all the leftovers of the restaurants, breweries and food manufacturers in this city gets turned in to electricity and food for growing meat and algae and plants. Yes, the lettuce and tomatoes on your burger were grown here also - using lighting that gets its electricity from the anaerobic digester, and plant food and special mixtures made from algae to make all these vegetables grow quicker. Yes, we are hiring and training - because we are producing more and more; and look, there are some new companies in the neighborhood working on new kinds of food ..............................................................

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Our vision is happening - just look at the illustration showing how we are building an innovative circular economy food system based on anaerobic digestion. This is true regenerative urban agriculture happening right here in the midst of one of the most disadvantaged neighborhoods in the US. In 2050, many of the processes that we are developing will be commonplace. For example, today, anaerobic digestion has a justifiably bad reputation as a real solution for waste management; its association with industrial agriculture has done anaerobic digestion reputational damage. Also, in 2050, the concept of value-added anaerobic digestion will be accepted and we hope to help make this happen. Similarly, in 2050, cellular agriculture will be feeding billions of people with meat, fish, chicken, crustaceans and some plant products -- the only way this will happen is if we use a circular economy model, and we are contributing to making this happen. 

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Told about it by stakeholder
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Attachments (3)

The Future Is Circular.pdf

Our work mentioned in the New York Times

NYT 21 Sept 2019.pdf

Our work mentioned in Forbes


Join the conversation:

Photo of Constanza Castano

Hi, Leonard Lerer ! Welcome to the Food System Vision Prize Community!

Thank you for sharing with us The Plant project. Way to go! I can see how your solution brings technology to create new trends. I wonder how do you see your solutions adding to a systems-focused inspiring 2050 vision in terms of the Food System Vision Prize Themes: Economics, Diet, Technology, Policy, Culture, and Environment?
Our 04 Food System Map and 02 Prize Statement can offer some inspiration in that regard:
You can update your submission at any time until January 31st.

Remember, this is the moment when you can connect with other Visionary teams, provide feedback and get inspired by other submissions.

I look forward to seeing your 2050 Vision evolve through the coming days.



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