With the immense carbon footprint of the meat and traditional dairy industries becoming more common knowledge, the search is on for low-CO2 alternatives. Protein is the new battleground, being both a dietary necessity and, it transpires, a medium for technological innovation. One of the major techniques to be developed is the precision fermentation of protein, using it to generate flavors (such as vanilla), fragrances (a convincing coffee aroma) and ingredients (milk protein) in a sustainable and scalable manner.
In this article we’ll talk through the process, the innovators, and the future of precision fermentation.
Faux-Meat and Meat Alternatives
The meat alternatives industry is big business, valued at $9.9 billion in 2021, with a CAGR of 42.1% anticipated between 2022 and 2030, according to Grand View Research. Some even believe that by 2035 industrial cattle farming as we know it will be obsolete. Instead, microbial products, such as lab-generated meat protein will supply much of that consumer need, reducing the pressure on livestock as a food source. This is anticipated to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from livestock by up to 68% this century, according to one study.
Companies are already working on the problem of scaling meat alternative food production, having largely solved the problems of flavor. They’re making solid inroads into public perception of “lab meat.” As well as artificially cultivated meat, there are traditional meat alternatives like soy and other plant-based protein sources, which technology is rendering more flavorsome, versatile, and competitive. Precision fermentation is the key technology leading to this protein revolution.
What is Precision Fermentation?
We’ve always used fermentation to create food – cheese and beer are just two of our celebrated food products which utilize the biochemical processing of microbial organisms. These microbes engineer organic compounds which we experience as flavors, aromas, or textures. As every probiotic yogurt commercial points out, bacteria (a type of microbe) exist in our gut biome, further breaking down our food as we digest it. In other words, some microbes can be highly beneficial and natural.
Rather than the large-scale biomass fermentation involved in creating Quorn or tempeh, precision fermentation focuses on isolating key bacteria which specialize in the transformation of key food ingredients within a plant-based food source.
In effect, these bacteria behave as cell factories, creating key ingredients, smells, textures, and tastes. Examples would include The Every Company (formerly Clara Foods)’ egg proteins, Impossible Foods’ heme protein and Change Foods’ casein cheese alternatives.
The Challenges of Precision Fermentation
One key difficulty is encoded in the process’s name – precision. Identifying and isolating the right microbes and then targeting them correctly is the big challenge inherent in this process. After all, there’s no point pursuing a technology if it is too difficult and therefore too expensive to scale.
Currently, well-funded start-ups and University-based research facilities are leading the field. There’s also a developing governmental role as food regulators struggle to keep up with the technology. As of April 2022, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had only approved four precision fermented food products for mass production and sale. However, Europe lags behind even that minimal approval level, with no EU approvals made by April 2022. No doubt the approval process will become easier as more and more companies obtain a viable, approvable product.
The hardest battle to win may be public opinion. There is still substantial resistance to the concept of microbial engineered proteins, especially those which mimic meat, even though these techniques are simply an advancement of ancient fermentation processes.
Things are changing though. In the UK, a recent Food Standards Agency survey found that a third of British consumers would try lab-grown meat. And even in France, a recent study of consumers’ opinions of the taste and acceptability of cheese made with microbial engineered dairy proteins, concluded that, “some were clearly interested in consuming these mixed products; indeed, our results suggest that the products might be accepted by almost half the population.”
Companies can counter hesitancy by focusing on the plant-based origins of these products, their low environmental cost, and their health benefits.
Growing Opportunities in the Precision Fermentation Sector
Precision fermentation is quickly becoming a major growth sector within food production and sustainable development. Both investors and governments have a vested interest in supporting precision fermentation proteins and food ingredients. The United Nations has a Sustainable Development Goal which focuses largely on reducing meat consumption.
As a World Economic Forum white paper concludes, “Transformation of the food system is essential to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and to meet the Paris Agreement climate‑change targets. Innovation and experimentation in both alternative and traditional proteins will be critical.”
Even large fast-food chains are increasing their plant-based menus. The major players in mass-produced food will not want to be left behind when it comes to serving up protein alternatives. When Pizza Hut and McDonalds offer non-dairy cheese and cultured meat products, it will inevitably speed-up the public uptake of these products.
The potential of precision fermentation in terms of the variety of products which can be cultured, is not to be underestimated. The generation of Omega-3 for nutritional supplements is just one example of the potential extension of this technology beyond food production.
Invest in Business Intelligence to Follow the Precision Fermentation Sector
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