Diminishing biodiversity, deforestation, climate change, and energy intensive animal farming are just some of the challenges facing the global food system today. In coming years, higher incomes will be a driver for increased meat consumption particularly in developing countries.
“The future of protein supply is very gloomy,” says Eugene Wang, founder of Sophie’s Bionutrients speaking as part of Fi Europe last December. “We think it's time to rethink the future. How much land will still be left for production in the future and especially for protein production […] It is a very energy consuming operation.”
Singapore-based Sophie’s Bionutrients makes plant protein using microalgae. Wang started the company after his daughter suffered an allergic reaction to shellfish and was inspired to develop a process to obtain nutrients from the ocean without using animals. During his presentation at Fi Europe, Wang discussed various emerging, sustainable methods of alternative protein such as cell-culturing.
Transforming food production with bioprocessing
Bioprocessing is used to develop foods, manufacture pharmaceuticals, sustainable materials and alternative fuels. In the food industry, it is an effective way for food manufacturers to create products using biologically-derived products such as enzymes in the creation of new products.
According to a Lancet Commission report on healthy diets from sustainable food systems, a global transformation to healthy diets by 2050 will require an over 50% reduction in the consumption of foods such as red meat and sugar. Equally, significant shifts are necessary to meet sustainable food production by 2050, including immediate measures made to reduce greenhouse gas emissions caused by meat production and fundamental changes in land management practices, turning agriculture from a carbon source to sink.
With reliance on animal farming for protein, Wang estimates feeding 10 billion people in the future will require 2.5 billion cows, 50 billion chickens, 2 billion pigs and 400 million tons of seafood. Furthermore, with space on earth decreasing, it would be necessary to have at least one or two more Earths to house animals and survive comfortably.
Referring to R&D developments happening across the food industry, Wang said: "A lot of protein production should happen in the bioreactor. Bioprocessing is a lot more efficient […] Thanks to the pharmaceutical industry, they use this concept to grow a lot of pharmaceutical compounds. Now, I believe the same process can be applied to food ingredient production as well. And if we can do so, we can use the same process to grow different kinds of animal cells.”
Cultivated meat and seafood is an area of technological food production gaining momentum where bioprocessing is used to grow different types of animal cells. Alternatively, growing microorganisms through microbial fermentation, already used by Sophie’s Bionutrients to develop microalgae, could be more efficient and sustainable for the future of protein, said Wang.
Moving towards a healthier, sustainable, and safer food system
Agricultural pollution and the contaminants released into the environment, from fertiliser runoff to methane emissions, have negative consequences for the planet. The by-product of conventional animal farming, food crops, animal feed, and biofuel crops create harmful waste.
“[…] using bioprocessing, you don't need any of the harmful chemicals […] used in animal farming or industrial agriculture and without using those chemicals, you can imagine this process will be really healthy for the environment and to the human who consumes [the food].”
Most crops need a growing season of at least 90 days and meat production can require months – even years - from rearing, growing and finishing in the case of beef production. Substitution to more plant proteins using bioprocessing has sustainable and cost benefits, according to the Sophie’s Bionutrients founder.
“[With] our microbiology, you only need to you only need about three days, then you can harvest [..]”
“[…] we can grow in the bioreactor, in the fermentation tank, the culture, meat and seafood. The single cell microbial fermentation that we are [developing] will be a lot more affordable in the future; this is what we envision in the future.”