Though scientists and environmentalists have warned about the dangers of increased meat consumption, Americans’ appetite for it is not slowing down. The last three years marked the largest amount of meat produced on record.
“People know about the harms of industrial agriculture, but people eat more and more and more meat,” says Bruce Friedrich, CEO of the Good Food Institute (GFI). “It’s an inextricable rise despite more and more attention to the issues. The vast majority of people are just not going to apply ethical considerations to their food choices.”
Fermentation, Friedrich declares, can be part of the solution. “Fermentation can be so powerful for global health, climate and biodiversity,” he says.
Friedrich spoke at FERMENTATION 2022 on alternative protein innovation. GFI, a nonprofit, aims to accelerate the innovation of fermented, plant- and cell-based alternative meat. But the young, rapidly-growing alt protein industry faces major obstacles in scaling, regulation, pricing and consumer acceptance. Friedrich told a room of professional fermenters at the conference to consider shifting to a career in alternative proteins.
“Anyone involved in fermentation, you have the expertise in knowledge. It’s cross-applying the skills and interest in your professional life into this new field,” he says. “One of the significant barriers for all the companies doing this is talent, which is to say – you.”
Global Agriculture Crisis
Friedrich does not mince his words: we’re on the precipice of a major environmental and health crisis if we don’t reduce meat consumption.
Mass producing meat is “extraordinarily inefficient.” Huge amounts of crops are grown to feed livestock so humans can then eat the animals.. “We have been using an antiquated method to produce meat for 12,000 years,” Friedrich adds.
Internationally, 4 billion hectares of land are used for agriculture – 3 billion are for grazing livestock or to grow their food. It takes 9 calories of feed to produce 1 calorie of chicken; 40 calories to produce 1 calorie of beef.
“This is an incredibly inefficient way to try and feed the world,” Friedrich says.
And it’s getting worse. By 2050, global meat consumption is projected to increase – conservative estimates say 50%, while others go as high as 260%.
Animal agriculture also is thought to be a major contributor to global climate change and a major factor in deforestation. Livestock are pumped with antibiotics, creating resistance in humans that consume that meat.
Future of “Meat”
The answer isn’t necessarily a world of vegetarians – it’s to change traditional meat.
Friedrich compares the situation to renewable energy and electric vehicles. For decades, government leaders have preached reducing fossil fuel consumption. But, as populations have risen, so has energy consumption.
“You are not going to convince people to consume less energy,” he says. “What you need to do is replace fossil fuels with renewable energy.”
Similarly with meat, there cannot be a meatless world. “This is innovation focused, it is not about behavior change,” he says.
“GFI when we started, we were talking about disrupting animal agriculture. We very quickly realized our hope is to transform industrial animal agriculture,” he says. “Things will happen a lot more quickly if we have the major corporations on board.”
GFI is “enthusiastically working with the biggest companies in the world:” JBS, Tyson, Smithfield, Cargill and BRF, the five largest global meat producers.
The aim is not to regulate big agriculture or stop subsidies. GFI hopes to open access into the science behind alternative proteins, incentivize the private sector to continue R&D and encourage government funding.
“The same sort of cash breaks that allowed Tesla to be successful should apply to Nature’s Fynd and Impossible Foods and others if they want that money,” Friedrich says, listing two major companies in the alternative protein industry. “Our global battle cry is that governments should be funding alternative proteins.”
By not gatekeeping alt protein technology, Friedrich says GFI is helping perfect the process of giving consumers the exact same meat experience, but using plant- or cell-based meats. People want the food trifecta, Friedrich says: Is it delicious? Does it fill me up? Is it reasonably priced?
Fermentation is a booming sector in the alternative protein industry. It is split into three categories: traditional fermentation using lactic acid bacteria, yeasts or fungi; biomass fermentation which involves naturally occurring, protein-dense, fast-growing microorganisms; and precision fermentation, which uses microbial hosts as “cell factories” to produce specific ingredients.
Data from GFI found, of the alt protein startups utilizing fermentation, 45% use precision fermentation, 41% use biomass fermentation and the remaining 14% use traditional fermentation.
GFI recently hired two fermentation scientists, and their studies are already suggesting biomass and traditional fermentation will have better environmental numbers than plant-based meats. Fermentation is also a more powerful process than plant-based meat applications because fermentation can replicate precise fermentation proteins. And although traditional fermentation is the smallest part of the fermented alternative protein category, GFI sees it growing because of its ability to produce appealing flavors..
“Traditional fermentation can be an absolutely essential element to get meat to taste the same or better or cost the same or less,” he says.
“The plant based and fermentation products, they’re just getting started. The idea of competing with industrial animal meat has been around for (snaps his fingers) that long. The products are just going to improve and improve and improve.”