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A huge opportunity for innovation

April 24, 2023

Microorganisms have the potential to radically change the math around the energy required to produce food ingredients, according to a leading scientific expert at the Good Food Institute (GFI). “Right now, 77% of arable land is used for animal agriculture which gives us about 23% of our protein supply,” says Adam Leman, Lead Scientist at GFI. “These numbers are poor and won’t work when the population increases by 25%. Our planetary resources will not allow us to continue on this trajectory for the next 27 years and beyond. This is where microbes can make a difference. We want to see global scaling of precision fermentation to make products that taste good, cost less than current products, and increase access.”

An entire cow weighing hundreds of kilograms must be raised and fed before it can calve and produce milk, Leman says, whereas microbes can be rapidly grown in a tank and induced to produce a protein or fat ingredient. “Microbes are also incredible at biosynthesis. With just a few essential ingredients such as sugars, nitrogen and minerals, they can produce complex molecules like proteins, fats and pigments. If we move to an efficient system where microbes make these specialized ingredients without the massive inefficiencies of animal agriculture, then the utility to the food system for each precision fermentation nutrient will increase.”

The biggest challenge, Leman highlights, is scaling, although the world of industrial fermentation has existed for well over a century. Fermentation-derived fuel produces enormous amounts of ethanol from microbes and fermentation-derived pharmaceuticals produce life-saving medicines like insulin. But until a few years ago, little attention was paid to food precision fermentation except for some food-preparation and processing enzymes. “There is now an opportunity to scale out at the level of industry, to open fermentation facilities worldwide as local production hubs. We could build facilities in the hundreds of thousands to millions of liters to enable economies of scale.”

However, more research and development is required to optimize the microbes, their nutrients, the fermentation vessel design, and downstream processing equipment. “All of this is going to take some time and capital, so it’s going to be dependent on finding public and private investment to build the infrastructure and the biotechnology,” Leman continues. “A big driver of innovation will be cost. Food needs to be made at a scale close to the fuel fermentation industry, but at the same time it needs to be safe and pure in a manner closer to pharmaceutical fermentation. There is a huge opportunity for innovation.”

Although precision fermentation is in its infancy as a food producer, the sector has brought in a lot of talent on the biology and engineering sides who are drawing on historical knowledge from the fermentation industry, as well as food science. “Once we can harness that talent and build out the industry, there will be job creation for facility operators, new opportunities for growers to bring their feed-stocks to fermentation, and creative ways to continue to innovate,” Leman predicts.

The trend is for precision fermentation to replace common ingredients such as dairy or egg proteins, fats and oils. “This makes a lot of sense as these ingredients can be ‘dropped in’ to existing products,” Leman adds. “On the dairy side, whey proteins such as beta-lactoglobulin are replacing animal-derived proteins in ice cream and spreadable cream cheese. Meanwhile, ovalbumin is the primary protein in egg whites and is being produced by precision fermentation.”

The industry is also moving closer to bringing dairy proteins such as lactoferrin and casein proteins to market, Leman reports. Lactoferrin is a small fraction of the dairy protein profile, but research is building evidence of its ability to defend against infections. TurtleTree has announced that it will bring a bovine lactoferrin protein made by precision fermentation to market in 2023.

There is also a role for precision fermentation in the wider bioeconomy, especially in recycling food waste. Right now, the industry is mostly using highly pure sugars as a carbon source. But while microbes are proficient at biosynthesis, they’re also adept at breaking down things like peels, stalks, hulls, and lots of carbon-rich plant matter that we currently consider food waste.

“Microbes can break down those starches into usable sugars and take smaller carbon-containing molecules like ethanol or acetate and convert them into energy,” Leman advises. “If we use some of the precision fermentation microbes or even upstream microbes to convert these other carbon sources, sustainability increases substantially. Another area the industry is actively working on is to make use of the biomass – the cells left over after fermentation. These cells contain lots of nutrients that could feed a separate fermentation for a bioplastic or citric acid, or new processing techniques could allow us to use them as fertilizers.”

This article is an extract from the huge manufacturing feature on fermentation in the April/May edition of Protein Production Technology International. To subscribe to the magazine free of charge, please click here

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