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How can we scale up precision fermentation?

Food innovators have unlocked the keys to make animal-free proteins and fats that are biologically identical to (and just as delicious as) those we currently get from cows and other livestock. So what is needed to get precision fermentation to such a scale that it can make a serious impact?

By Nick Ottens

Image: Onego Bio

Can we still eat all the foods we love, without cutting corners for the environment and animal welfare? Chris Landowski, co-founder of Onego Bio, believes we can. His company has found a way to make eggs without the need for any chicken. The trick is fusing the age-old process of food fermentation with 21st century technology. Precision fermentation, says Landowski, is ‘the newest chapter in the history of making food without animals.’

It’s time we turned that page. Already, dairy, egg and meat production account for over three-quarters of agricultural land use and a third of our water footprint. We’ll need even more if, as projected, global demand for dairy increases 35% and demand for meat 14% this decade. If we don’t either convince billions of people to change their diets or find ways to make dairy, eggs and meat in a radically different way, it will become impossible to keep the planet cool.

Such a way exists. ‘Precision fermentation holds enormous potential to produce proteins no matter the surrounding environment,’ says Christian Poppe of Food Fermentation Europe, the industry group for companies in this sector. ‘As we are looking at a growing global population – and growing protein consumption – we also need to look at how to produce proteins in a way in which we can feed the world, efficiently.’

So, what exactly needs to happen for precision fermentation to scale up? And what is its potential?

Where we’re at today

Since its first use in medicine in the 1980, precision fermentation has matured. It is now profitable to use it to make flavours and sweeteners. Impossible Foods uses a precision-fermented heme protein to give its vegetarian burger a meatier taste. Solar Foods makes a protein powder with microorganisms that metabolise the air. Instead of sugar, they feed on carbon dioxide and nitrogen. Minus makes coffee without beans.

Cheese and other dairy products are obvious candidates for precision fermentation since they are already made using a fermentation process. Cows burp up methane, which is a greenhouse gas. They need a substantial plot of land to graze and about four litres of water for every one litre of milk they produce. By removing the cow entirely from dairy production, Perfect Day has cut greenhouse gas emissions and land and water use by over 90%.

If we don’t either convince billions of people to change their diets or find ways to make dairy, eggs and meat in a different way, we cannot keep the planet cool

At Onego Bio, they harness a fungus to make egg protein with the help of water, sugar and certain minerals. The method can be compared to beer production, in which the microorganism is fed sugar to produce alcohol. The fungus makes egg protein powder 10 times more efficiently, and the end product has the same performance as egg white. It can be used to bake cakes, soufflés and quiches.

‘We get all the nutritional and functional upsides of egg white, without the environmental, ethical, safety and supply chain-related concerns,’ says Landowski. One kilogramme of Onego Bio’s egg protein powder can replace 277 eggs, he adds, ‘so in the future just one of our factories could save over two million chickens a year.’

There’s quite a lot of potential here. Over 700 million chickens are kept in Europe and the US alone to meet egg consumption. Such numbers call for a new technology to develop beyond the start-up phase.

Where we could be in the near future

Estimates vary as to how fast precision fermentation can scale up. RethinkX is wildly optimistic about the potential, predicting that precision fermentation will account for half of all proteins produced by 2030.

Others are more cautious. The Boston Consulting Group believes it will take until 2035 before alternative proteins reach parity in price, taste and texture with conventional products. They estimate 11% of all dairy, eggs and meat will be ‘alternative’ by then: either fermented, plant-based or cultivated, or a combination of the three.

That may not seem like a lot, but even an 11% market share would save an output of greenhouse gases equivalent to Japan’s – every year.

How fast can precision fermentation scale up? Some say it may account for half of all proteins produced by 2030

Scaling up production will require many more bioreactors and whole new food factories. To reach its projected 11% market share for alt-proteins by 2035, the Boston Consulting Group estimates that $30 billion in funding is needed to expand bioreactor capacity alone.

That sounds like a lot of money but to put it in perspective: it’s roughly what Intel is spending on building a new chips factory in Germany.

The money isn’t needed just to build plants and reactors. Research is needed to solve technical problems as well. ‘One of the keys to success is choosing the right microorganism as the cell factory,’ Landowski explains. That can take time.

The Good Food Institute adds: ‘Almost every living organism contains heme proteins of some sort. But which ones perform the best as flavor enhancers for meat products? Which are the most stable – not only during their production, but also through the downstream processing of the final food product and throughout its shelf life?’

Artificial intelligence could help answer these questions, but fundamentally it’s a matter of simply trying things out.

Opportunities to seize upon

As the livestock industry must be worried about losing its dominance in the food market, it will be essential to pave the way for a fair transition. A sudden shift to precision fermentation could ruin livestock farmers, but the technology also offers them new opportunities.

Food Fermentation Europe’s Poppe stresses that farmers will be needed to grow the raw ingredients needed to ferment proteins. ‘The fermentation sector provides a huge opportunity to utilise virtually all agricultural by-products, from sunflower seed waste to sugar fibres and spent grains from the brewing industry, as well as other waste products from the food, biomaterial and biofuel industries.’

A shift to precision fermentation could ruin livestock farmers, but it also offers them new opportunities

Furthermore, fermentation can play a role in ecological restoration. The European Union seeks to restore 20% of its degraded ecosystems by 2030 and all areas deemed in need of restoration by 2050. Already, farmers are required to take a portion of their land out of production to qualify for EU agricultural subsidies, which they must repurpose to support biodiversity. Fermentation can help raise that share, and meet Europe’s ambitious nature-restoration goals, by reducing the amount of land needed for grazing and growing animal feed.

By substantially reducing the numbers of animals needed to make dairy, eggs and meat, fermentation can also give farmers a chance to vastly improve animal welfare.

Getting regulation right

For the most part, it boils down to politics. Scale should allow fermentation companies to reduce costs, making their products competitive. But currently, a major barrier to attracting the necessary funding is regulation. Governments will have to decide if they want to block precision fermentation – or give it a chance.

In its study on the potential of precision fermentation, the Boston Consulting Group showed that governments could double the market share of alt-proteins from the expected 11% to 22% with supportive policies and regulations. How? For example, by extending agricultural subsidies to food innovators and pricing or taxing the greenhouse gas emissions of the livestock industry.

Governments will have to decide if they want to block precision fermentation – or give it a chance

‘We have the tech and we have the willingness,’ says Poppe. ‘What we need is first and foremost for legislators to match our ambition and develop initiatives that would channel radical investment into our industry.’

Onego Bio’s Landowski agrees. ‘The biggest challenge is EU regulation and the approval system for novel foods. Europe is falling behind because of the slow approval process, which can take years.’

How to spark or stifle innovation

Meanwhile, the US takes a more relaxed view of fermentation-derived products. Unlike the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), regulators in Europe consider food genetically modified even if – as is the case in precision fermentation – the gene-edited microbes don’t end up in the final product.

Another difference with the United States is that companies are not allowed to speak with food regulators in Europe before they submit a product for approval. Such ‘pre-submission dialogues’ help American companies understand how exactly their product will be tested and assessed. The EU is afraid it would give businesses a chance to influence regulators.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) can meet with trade groups, which is one reason Onego Bio, Better Dairy, Bon Vivant, Formo, ImaginDairy, Standing Ovation and Those Vegan Cowboys have banded together in Food Fermentation Europe. Together they might make an impact in Brussels, even though their lobbying efforts don’t come close to those of industrial, livestock farming.

Due to strict EU regulations, some European companies working on precision fermentation are looking to bring their innovation to the United States

Even if the EFSA signs off, there is another hurdle: a qualified majority of EU member states, representing at least 65% of the bloc’s population, must give the go-ahead for a product to come on the European market. Given the resistance to food innovation in some countries – Italy has pre-emptively banned cultivated meat – a majority is no foregone conclusion.

It’s why some companies working on precision fermentation are looking to bring their innovation to the United States. ‘From a business point of view, it’s a horrible situation when companies can’t even predict the timing for obtaining the approval, even though they have all the research results proving that the product does not pose any safety risk,’ says Landowski. ‘European precision fermentation companies are forced to turn their eyes to other markets, like the US and Singapore, where they welcome new food technologies with more open arms.’

However, he remains optimistic about the long term. ‘We see a future where natural resources are used most efficiently in a circular food system, and a diverse blend of different technologies are utilised to provide sustainable, tasty and healthy food for all.’

It’s not science fiction. It’s a future we can have – if we want it.

Nick Ottens is an Amsterdam-based journalist and the food lead for Liberal Green, a Dutch political network. He was a research manager at XPRIZE, where he designed prize competitions to incentivise breakthrough innovation in agriculture, food and health care. Subscribe to his newsletter, Atlantic Sentinel, or find him on LinkedIn.


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