Fermentation Grows Sustainable Alternative for Protein

/ / Science

The new wave of protein is not plant-based — it’s fermented.

“Fermentation is really cultivating microbes,” says Thomas Jonas, CEO and co-founder of Sustainable Bioproducts. “And it’s incredibly efficient. Microbes duplicate very fast. So when you think about the double time for a cow or a pig, you’re talking about years. When you talk about microbes, you’re talking about hours. … This is nature’s technology. Nature is really the No. 1 biotech engineer in the world.”

The current agriculture system is incredibly inefficient. Livestock continues to be the world’s largest user of land resources. Pasture land consumes 80% of total agricultural land. Fermented organisms are emerging as new sources of proteins and ingredients. 

Leaders in the biotech industry shared how science is looking beyond plants to create food at a panel sponsored by The Good Food Institute.

Is Microbe Fermentation the New Era of Farming?

Sustainable Bioproducts creates a 50% protein based food ingredient from a microbe cultivated in the volcanic springs at Yellowstone National Park. Jonas explains that these fungal strains, called extremophiles, naturally produce a complete protein when grown in a controlled environment. Sustainable Bioproducts will soon move to a 36,000-square foot facility in Chicago’s former meatpacking district for production. The facility will take up just 0.7 acres. Compare the amount of food Sustainable Bioproducts produces to the equivalent of cow meat and 7,000 acres of grazing land would be needed for the cows.

“It’s the next generation of very efficient farming. I think what we want to get through farming are the nutrients that we need for our food. And microbes can do this tremendously efficiently,” Jonas said. 

By fermenting proteins in bioreactors versus deriving the protein from plants or raising it and slaughtering it on a feedlot, food scientists can do a lot with the health profiles.

Michele Fite, chief commercial officer for Motif FoodWorks, said they work with microbes to adjust sensory attributes, like taste, smell, flavor and texture. “We can help so we don’t have to compromise taste or nutrition when consumers are looking to access plant based foods,” she said.

Adds Anja Schwenzfeier, business development manager for Novozymes: “You want to produce specific proteins that might already exist, but you want to do that more efficiently and more sustainably. You deal with molecules you’re already familiar with.” 

“It’s not so much about creating a completely new protein. Right now we’re looking into how we can improve ingredients we already work with through fermentation.”

Fermentation as a Marketing Advantage

Panel moderator Jeff Bercovici, a writer for the Los Angeles Times, asked how biotech companies are meeting consumers in the development of fermented meat alternatives.

“(There is an) evolution of consumer attitude towards their food, which in some ways are really driving them very quickly to embrace meat alternatives, but in some ways there are some counter currents in terms of people wanting to eat whole foods, natural foods, foods with shorter ingredient lists,” Bercovici said.

The panel noted fermentation has long been a stable in the history of food, from beer to yogurt to cheese. As fermentation is making a comeback, it’s a “marketing advantage,” Bercovici notes, “now it’s a net positive, it generates consumer excitement.”

Fite at Motif FoodWorks said they’ve conducted research on meat alternative users. These consumers are currently buying meat alternatives because they believe it’s healthier than red meat and even chicken. “They want to be in this space,” she said. Consumers voice that meat alternatives are more sustainable, better for the environment, better for animal welfare and equally nutritious.

“They’re open to technology helping to solve that issue for them,” she said. “These consumers are more open to technical solutions than consumers that are a lot older have been in the past…there’s a gateway for these consumers to technical advancements, because they believe it aligns with their values.”

Adds Mark Matlock, senior vice president of food research at Archer Daniels Midland Company: “To me, it’s really refreshing to have some consumers who are embracing technology to this degree, to the extent that they may lead the mainstream their direction.”

Battling Land Use Challenges

As the global population grows, the great challenge to the environment over the next decade will be making more food with less space.

The average American consumes 215 pounds of meat a year. Raising that meat uses 32 million acres of land, and produces 82 million metric tons of greenhouse emissions.

“The real challenge for the planet is not going to be ‘Are we going to have enough oil or carbohydrates?’ it’s ‘Are we going to have enough protein?’” Matlock said. “We create protein the way a cow creates protein. … we have to think: where are our rare resources going to be put?”

A third of the corn crop grown in America feeds livestock.