If you were looking for the next big thing in plant-based foods, chances are you weren’t looking at duckweed.

Also known as lemna, this humble plant has been around for ages, floating on the surface of ponds and lagoons around the world. But it wasn’t until recently that scientists began researching more about duckweed’s unique makeup — and how it can change the food industry.

On a small farm in San Marcos, California, Sheldon Compton (20) harvests duckweed daily. Compton works as an associate farm manager for Plantible Foods, a science-heavy research and development startup on a mission to harness the power of lemna to “create the world’s best plant-based protein.” 

Plantible Foods San Marcos, CA June 5, 2018 ©2018 Rich Cruse/ CrusePhoto.com

Every day, Compton and his team monitor the health of their duckweed. They grow the plant through greenhouse aqua farms and turn it into a crop, cultivating a specific variety of it and then extracting a protein called rubisco. Said to be the most abundant enzyme on earth, rubisco can be found in the green part of plants. Its structure looks and acts very similarly to animal proteins, allowing it to be used as a protein substitute for products like eggs, whey, and meat.

According to Compton, very few companies grow duckweed in the same way with the same end product. Plantible Foods uses a unique method and proprietary technology to produce a complete protein that’s all-natural, organic, and free of allergens with a neutral taste, odor, and color.

“We’re becoming very fine-tuned with how we grow this plant and how we extract the rubisco protein,” he said. “It’s exciting to be a part of.”

The duckweed plant has many benefits, including the fact that it’s more protein-efficient than peas, soybeans, and beef. Perhaps the biggest benefit, however, is the fact that when it grows, it doubles — cloning itself every 48 hours. Because of this, Compton and his team are able to harvest half of the plant’s biomass every other day.

“Not only does that allow us to create so much food for so many people in such a small area, but it also allows us to sequester a lot of carbon per square meter,” Compton explained.

The multifunctionality of the protein is a major aspect that drew Compton to work for Plantible Foods. At once, they’re working to create a more sustainable future, combating the climate crisis by lowering the amount of CO2 produced and providing a vast amount of healthy food options to many people, even those with food allergies. 

Though he’d always been interested in plant-based foods, Compton learned early in life that he has a nut allergy. Because of this, he has to stay away from a lot of popular meat and dairy substitutes that contain nuts like cashews, almonds, and macadamias. For others like Compton, Plantible Foods is creating a protein that’s intentionally allergen-free.

“I feel personally connected to this work,” Compton shared. “We’re making a big difference in how we grow it, combating climate change, but then I also have this personal connection where I’m making things better for people who have similar food allergies.”

Compton grew up in Mississippi, where agriculture is a prominent industry. Even so, the state is known to have high rates of food insecurity as well as high rates of obesity.

“There’s really low access to food and even lower access to healthy food in Mississippi,” he said. “This highlights how rare food can be in our society, even in a place where we’re producing food, and on top of that, how rare healthy food can be. A lot of rural areas are inundated with companies that have a focus on convenience rather than healthy foods. Sometimes, the places that produce our food are the worst food deserts. I’m really focused on filling that gap so nobody has to go to bed hungry.”

I’m really focused on filling that gap so nobody has to go to bed hungry.

Before joining Plantible Foods, Compton graduated from Point Loma Nazarene University with an environmental science degree. His undergraduate classes were a major influence that led him to the agriculture industry.

“A big pivotal point was my applied plant biology class with Dr. Anderson,” he said. “Through that class, I learned the power of the humble plant and the wide variety of things we can do with that to make our world better for everybody.”

When it comes to changing the food industry with the power of lemna, Compton is all smiles. 

After graduating, Compton interned at a ranch in Montana before moving back to Southern California where he joined San Clemente Urban Farms, a nonprofit and philanthropic effort to provide healthy food options to local food banks. He managed the farm and its outreach programs and grew leafy greens to be given to people in need. From there, he joined Plantible Foods in August 2021.

“I think a big driver for me has always been feeding people,” he shared. “I think there’s not much that gets purer and better than being able to provide food for people who don’t necessarily have access to it … In this job, we’re really trying to fill that gap where conventional agriculture isn’t meeting the demands of our population on the earth.”

I think a big driver for me has always been feeding people. I think there’s not much that gets purer and better than being able to provide food for people who don’t necessarily have access to it.

Currently, Plantible Foods has a small research farm in San Marcos as well as a processing plant in Vista, California. Within the next few years, Plantible Foods plans to expand its facilities and locations, while the farm location will remain as a research hub. The goal is to start making commercial-scale products to sell through local supply chains as soon as possible. Products they’ve already tested include cookie dough, Greek yogurt, ice cream, and more.

“It’s going to be cool to see this grow and hopefully affect a lot of lives,” Compton said. “It could make things better for a lot of people.”

Wendy is a former editor of the Viewpoint magazine and contributing freelance writer.