To sustain an expected global population of 9.7 billion by 2050, food production will need to increase by as much as 60% , a United Nations report shows. Ensuring that the nutritional needs of the growing population are met will depend largely on the food industry’s ability to create and uphold sustainable and efficient supply chains.
Precision fermentation, a means of producing gene-edited microbes, yeast, or algae in lab-controlled environments to create specific functional ingredients, is one promising and fast-growing innovation that could help alleviate the issues of global food insecurity and environmental degradation. This technology allows companies to replace protein- and fat-rich foods obtained from animals and crops such as cows, pigs, soy, and palm oil, with “nature-identical” yet more sustainable alternatives.
Switching out farm for factory
Foods produced via precision fermentation require only a tiny fraction of the land as agricultural inputs and could, in future, form the basis for cheaper and healthier alternatives to food and animal feed, said author and journalist George Monbiot in his recent Ted Talk on securing the future of food and the planet.
“We currently face two major issues: the environmental harm caused by the food system and the fact that the system itself may collapse.”
Farming is the foremost cause of land use globally, with agricultural land accounting for around 37% of all land, according to data from the World Bank. Despite representing over a quarter (26%) of global land use, pasture-fed meat produces just 1% of the world’s protein and is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.
“If the biggest issue [the food system poses] is land use, then the best solution is shifting food production off of the land and into the factory.”
According to one study, precision fermentation fuelled by methanol uses 1,700 times less land than US-grown soy, which is the most efficient means of protein production. Looking at beef and lamb, which require by far the largest amount of land per 100 g of protein produced, this figure jumps to an estimated 138,000 and 157,000 times, respectively.
Making protein from carbon, not cows
Helsinki-headquartered start-up Solar Foods makes a high-protein powder using renewable electricity and carbon captured from the air. The company reproduces microbial organisms sourced from soil in gas fermentation bioreactors. The organisms are fuelled with a mixture of hydrogen, produced by splitting water with electricity; carbon collected via carbon capture technology; vitamins; and minerals. The result is the end-product Solein; a protein-rich microbial biomass consisting of single-cell organisms.
“If we could replace the protein we currently obtain from animals with protein obtained from single cell organisms, we could release vast tracts of the planet from our impacts, restoring forests, seafloors, mangroves, etcetera […] we could stop the sixth great extinction in its tracks,” said Monbiot.
Solar Foods uses only carbon neutral energy sources, switching between solar, wind, hydro, or a combination of the three, based on what is most economically viable for each location.
Home-grown, lab-grown food
Precision fermentation could also boost global food security by lowering the dependence of many nations on food imports.
Despite the growth in the size of the global food industry in recent decades, the number of chronically malnourished people has been on an upward trajectory since 2015. This could be attributed to the growing interconnectedness of the food system and its decreasing resilience to withstand shocks such as the Covid-19 pandemic, surging energy prices, and extreme weather conditions.
“Over recent years, the crucial elements of systemic resilience, namely redundancy, modularity, circuit breakers, and backup systems have been stripped out by corporate strategies,” said Monbiot.
“Four companies control 90% of the global grain trade and only four crops - wheat, grain, corn, and soy - account for 60% of the calories farmers produce. Production for the export of those crops has become highly concentrated in the hands of a few nations, including Russia and the Ukraine.”
Singapore bets on food tech for food security
Singapore, which imports over 90% of its food is highly vulnerable to supply chain disruptions and food shortages. To improve the resilience of its food supply chain, the Singaporean government has set a goal to produce 30% of its nutritional needs locally and sustainably by 2030, with less than 1% of land assigned to farming.
By producing traditionally resource-intensive foodstuffs such as meat and dairy sustainably and at scale, this technology could provide a solution to the country’s low levels of domestic food production and lower its reliance on volatile imports.
Several companies such as alternative dairy producer, Perfect Day, and precision fermentation solution provider, ScaleUp Bio, are already active in the Singapore market and are paving the way for the commercialisation of precision fermentation produced food products in Asia and beyond.
Singapore also became the first country to approve cell-cultured meat for human consumption in 2021 when it greenlighted Eat Just’s cell-cultured chicken.
Joining forces to push for precision fermentation approval
While precision fermentation offers potential for the future of the food industry, regulation remains a barrier for many brands. To gain approval for sale in most major markets including the US, Europe and the UK, novel foods produced via this technology must undergo an application process which can be complex and range anywhere from one to four years.
In response, in March this year key players in the precision fermentation space joined to form Food Fermentation Europe (FFE), an alliance seeking to improve the regulatory framework for fermentation enabled foods. According to the group, urgent changes to improve processes that are ‘far too lengthy and opaque’ are required to facilitate market access of precision fermentation produced products.
“[This challenge] can be tackled by improving the transparency and communication around the process and improving timeline efficiency, while maintaining existing European food safety standards - which we fully support,” Christian Poppe, FFE spokesperson and global public affairs director for Formo, precision fermentation dairy-alternative producer, told Fi Global Insights.
“Another challenge would relate to the need to fast track infrastructure for sustainable food solutions so we can improve and increase capacity and production (for example bioreactors for fermentation).”
Amongst its founding members are UK-based Better Dairy, German-based Formo, Finland-based Onego Bio, Belgium-based Those Vegan Cowboys, and Israel-based Imagindairy.
“Our aim is to help by advocating for a much more straightforward and efficient application and regulatory process. Our alliance will focus on working with policymakers to achieve this change and through this we aim to help our whole ecosystem with access to market. We would like to see clear standards and guidance that our nascent sector can use,” Poppe said.
This move follows the launch of the Precision Fermentation Alliance (PFA) just a few weeks prior in the US. According to its founders - Change Foods, The EVERY Co., Helaina, Imagindairy, Motif FoodWorks, New Culture, Onego Bio, Perfect Day, and Remilk.