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DARPA Cornucopia to produce palatable food from microorganisms for soldiers

With nutritional status being central to success in battle, food technology has long been considered an enabler for military operations. Food technology has been instrumental in ensuring that troops remain “fit to fight”. Early military leaders realised that how well their men were fed played a crucial role in success on the battlefield. Napoleon Bonaparte famously observed that “an army marches on its stomach”; that is, access to adequate quantities of nutritious food is a prerequisite to success in battle. Moreover, the relationship between food technology and war is two-way: the need to keep troops well-fed has also been a stimulus for the development of new food technologies.


In  December 2021, the Defense Sciences Office (DSO) at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) released a broad agency announcement (BAA) for its Cornucopia program. Cornucopia is a funding opportunity focused on how to produce palatable food from microorganisms such as bacteria, microalgae, and fungi using minimal inputs.


DARPA is soliciting innovative research proposals to develop capabilities for field-deployable,
on-demand production of a range of nutritious, palatable foodstuffs from engineered microbes,
air, water, and electricity.


Companies at the forefront of microbial-origin food are achieving success with food products that are primarily protein, but face an array of hard technical problems to break through to products that more fully meet human nutritional requirements, and report no market drivers for mobile production, nutritionally complete foodstuffs, or tailorable outputs.


To adequately address the critical vulnerabilities faced in food supply chains across a variety of
operational and humanitarian scenarios, Cornucopia will demonstrate capacity to produce all
four human dietary macronutrients (protein, carbohydrate, fat, dietary fiber) in multiple food
formats (e.g., shake, bar, gel, jerky) that meet military nutritional standards and palatability
requirements in a system minimizing inputs, handling, and footprint.


Capacity to produce palatable food from microbial biomass starting from minimal inputs,
including air, water, and electricity at the point of consumption could have significant benefits to
nutrition of U.S. and allied forces, especially under stress, exertion, or injury, as well as to
civilian populations in contexts such as HADR missions.


Such a capability could also improve supply chain security and resilience, relieving the need for lengthy transport, protection, preparation, service, and waste management, allowing more flexibility in allocation of military resources, including labor and fuel.


Cornucopia will exploit advances in chemistry, microbial engineering, and synthetic biology to enable production of highly nutritious, palatable, microbial-origin foodstuffs within thresholds associated with DARPA-defined use cases that frame military and humanitarian missions.


The program will span four years and will be broken up into three phases and three focus areas.


Cornucopia goals are bounded by Military Dietary Reference Intake (MDRI) requirements for Nutritional Standards for Operational Rations (NSOR) and Nutritional Standards for Restricted Rations (NSRR). The program and its efforts will demonstrate the ability to (1) meet daily NSOR specifications for a small forward operating unit comprised of 14 males, due to higher caloric intake requirements, deployed in austere conditions for 45 days; and (2) meet daily NSRR specifications for 100 civilians in the context of a HADR mission for 21 days


The program’s objective is to develop systems that will produce nutritious and edible food for warfighters in remote settings and on extended missions in ways that overcome current obstacles with the supply chain and nutritional quality.


Program Description/Scope

Cornucopia will enable the capability to produce nutritionally complete, microbial-origin
foodstuffs at the point of consumption, consistent with military nutritional standards, starting
with air (CO2, N2), water, electricity, and microbes.


The term “microbe” refers to bacteria, archaea, fungi, protozoa, or microalgae. Out of scope is any approach that cultivates animal- or higher plant-derived cells or organisms. Cornucopia aims to design and test systems that are capable of producing highly nutritious, palatable microbial-origin food to enhance force readiness and operational resilience, prolong mission endurance, defend against supply chain disruptions, support disaster relief and influence operations, and mitigate cascading vulnerabilities in the face of an attack or disaster.

Cornucopia seeks to leverage breakthroughs from academia and industry to produce desirable
flavors from processed microbial biomass containing human dietary macronutrients (protein,
carbohydrate, fat, dietary fiber) in multiple food formats (e.g., shake, gel, bar, jerky). Cornucopia
will enable future microbial food production systems that meet food quality, safety, and
palatability needs, while critically ensuring the absence of food- and water-borne pathogens and
minimizing overall production footprint as indicated by the two program use cases.


Proposals should present integrated, multi-disciplinary teams to pursue concepts that meet all
program metrics derived from the two program use cases. Teams are required to address both use
cases, emphasizing solutions that generalize where possible but focusing where necessary to
achieve specific use case targets.


The system must be robust enough to be operated and maintained for the duration of each test period by a trained warfighter. The end-to-end system for the small unit system, to include bioreactors, or other large equipment, should meet the size, weight, and power (SWaP) constraints of a High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (a.k.a., Humvee) payload at no more than 4400 lb. total weight excluding a generator up to 10 kW, fuel and water. For the HADR use case, the end-to-end system including all equipment (i.e., including generator) but excluding water and fuel must be deployable in no more than four Quadcon containers.


The focus areas include Domestication of Microbes for Human Consumption; Tailor-ability of Microbial-Origin Food; and Integrated System Demonstrations for Military Use Cases. All three focus areas must be addressed in all three phases.


About Rajesh Uppal

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