In an era dominated by concerns about the sustainability of our food systems, an age-old technology is making a comeback, offering a potential solution to the environmental and health challenges our food chain faces. Fermentation, a process deeply rooted in our history, is gaining recognition as a game-changer with the potential to lead us towards a more sustainable and healthier future. Environmentalist George Monbiot has gone so far as to label fermentation “potentially the most important green technology ever,”[1] a sentiment echoed by the World Economic Forum, which sees fermentation as an opportunity to revolutionise the way the world eats while improving global human and environmental health and the economy.[2]

The enthusiasm for fermentation is fuelled by the profound issues our food chain grapples with, particularly those stemming from meat and livestock production, which have adverse effects on climate, land use, water reservoirs, and public health. According to a United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) report, animal agriculture contributes significantly to global greenhouse gas emissions, making up 14% of all human-caused greenhouse gas releases, 40% of global methane emissions, and 65% of nitrous oxide emissions.[3]

Amid these challenges, fermentation, enriched by modern innovation, is experiencing a renaissance. It is emerging as a catalyst for establishing novel, stable food sources that are independent of conventional agricultural feedstocks. At its core, fermentation is a process driven by microorganisms—tiny living entities like bacteria and yeast that primarily use sugars for energy production. What sets fermentation apart is its efficiency, boasting a food-to-feed conversion ratio of 1 to 1, in stark contrast to the 10 to 1 ratio for cows and 3 to 1 for chickens. In just a matter of hours, fermentation can yield the same quantity of protein that would take weeks, months, or even years using traditional animal or plant farming methods.

Biomass fermentation

Biomass fermentation, a refined technique in this domain, converts organic matter, such as plant sugars, into protein-rich food. Through intricate biochemical reactions, microorganisms like bacteria and fungi break down sugars and reconstruct them into amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. This metabolic engineering marvel allows for the production of substantial quantities of protein without relying on animal agriculture and its associated environmental footprint.

Regulatory oversight of biomass fermentation is comprehensive globally. In the United States, products resulting from biomass fermentation typically fall under the purview of the FDA, regulated as food additives or processing aids. The FDA is currently formulating a new regulatory framework for alternative proteins, which may include biomass fermentation products. The European Union classifies and regulates biomass fermentation products as novel foods, requiring a rigorous approval procedure before market entry. This food categorization also applies in the United Kingdom, where approval for such products is within the jurisdiction of the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA).

Some companies have fully embraced biomass fermentation and are operating at scale, with Quorn being a standout example. Quorn utilises biomass to create various Mycoprotein-based products, asserting that its products boast a carbon footprint 40 times lower than beef and six times lower than chicken, accompanied by a significantly reduced water footprint.

German biotechnology company Mushlabs uses fungi to cultivate a new generation of plant-based protein alternatives from Fungi. Unlike traditional mushroom farming, which focuses on growing the fruiting body, Mushlabs’ unique process centres on cultivating mycelium, the root-like network of fungi. The resulting mycelium-based ingredient, boasting an impressive range of culinary properties, serves as a versatile staple food that can be transformed into a wide array of products.[4]

Another notable player is Enough, a Scottish start-up that recently secured a significant €40 million in August of this year.[5] Backed by venture capital firms and partnerships with major food industry giants like M&S and Unilever, Enough is now poised to increase its production capacity and expand its plant-based chicken, mince, and dairy alternatives range.

Precision fermentation

Precision fermentation entails the manipulation of microorganisms, such as yeast or fungi, to produce targeted proteins or other desired compounds. This manipulation involves the integration of genetically modified DNA into the microorganism’s genome, empowering it to synthesise the desired product. The resulting engineered microbes function as miniature factories, converting simple sugars or other substrates into the desired protein or compound.

Precision fermentation has already found applications in creating plant-based products indistinguishable from their animal-based counterparts. Dairy proteins, in particular, have become a focal point of precision fermentation research, with egg proteins also gaining increasing attention. This surge of interest stems from the technology’s remarkable ability to mimic animal-derived proteins’ molecular structure and functional properties, resulting in plant-based alternatives that deliver on taste, texture, and sustainability. Studies have shown that precision fermentation using methanol requires an astounding 1,700 times less land than conventional soy-based protein production. This efficiency extends to meat alternatives, with precision fermentation demanding 138,000 and 157,000 times less land for producing plant-based beef and lamb substitutes, respectively.[6]

Unlike biomass fermentation, regulatory frameworks for precision fermentation are still in development. As of March 2023, a consortium of influential figures in the precision fermentation sector established Food Fermentation Europe (FFE) to champion the technology and foster its expansion. FFE advocates for adopting a risk-based regulatory approach in the EU, supporting a departure from the current novel food regulation framework. The EU Commission is now scrutinising this regulation framework, although the timeline for a decision on FFE’s proposals remains uncertain.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved several precision fermentation products in the United States, including Perfect Day’s whey protein. However, the FDA is still formulating its regulatory framework for precision fermentation products. Precision fermentation is gaining traction in regions with limited capacity for conventional food production. The UAE has supported the establishment of a precision fermentation facility in Abu Dhabi, operated by Change Foods, a U.S.-based company. This facility aims to produce casein, a primary protein in cheese, utilising only 1/10th of the water and 1/5th of the energy compared to conventional dairy production methods.

Several companies at the forefront of precision fermentation offer a wide range of sustainable precision fermentation-based food products. UK-based Better Dairy is leading the charge in producing animal-free hard cheeses as a substitute for animal-based dairy farming, which involves an unsustainable production process. The company’s proprietary precision fermentation process mimics the natural mechanisms cows use to produce milk, resulting in products that are molecularly identical to traditional dairy.[7]

Onego Bio, a spin-off from VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, is a leader in developing precision fermentation-based egg products. Leveraging a proprietary Trichoderma technology, Onego Bio produces ovalbumin, the most abundant protein in egg whites. This innovative approach offers a sustainable and cost-effective alternative to conventional egg production.

US-based venture-backed startup C16 Biosciences is disrupting the $70 billion palm oil industry with its precision fermentation-based alternatives. While palm oil is an inexpensive and versatile ingredient in various food products, its production is a significant driver of deforestation and habitat loss, posing a considerable threat to biodiversity. C16 Biosciences addresses these environmental concerns by leveraging precision fermentation technology to create sustainable, cost-effective alternatives to palm oil.

Fermentation infrastructure

The burgeoning field of alternative protein production hinges on one critical element: fermentation infrastructure. This specialised infrastructure plays a pivotal role in creating the ideal environment for nurturing microorganisms, the driving force behind the synthesis of alternative proteins. Several companies are investing in cutting-edge production facilities to meet the escalating demand for alternative proteins derived from fermentation. These facilities are designed to provide the optimal conditions for microbial growth, ensuring efficient and large-scale production of alternative protein ingredients.

Planetary, a Swiss food tech company based in Geneva, is a prime example. Having secured $8 million in funding, the company is constructing a groundbreaking microbial fermentation facility, the first of its kind.[8] This facility will be able to manufacture a diverse range of precision-fermented compounds, including proteins and lipids and biomass derived from mycelium, all on a commercial scale. It’s anticipated that the facility will yield its inaugural products by the fourth quarter of 2023 or early 2024, with the company planning to operate a global network of automated production plants in the future.

Liberation Labs, a pioneer in industrial biotechnology systems, is another critical player in fermentation infrastructure. The company recently secured $30 million to construct a bio-manufacturing plant to accelerate the production of cell-cultivated proteins at scale. With ambitions to raise an additional $75 million soon, Liberation Labs aims to build a facility in Richmond, Virginia, capable of producing between 600 and 1,200 tonnes of protein per year.[9]

Companies are also developing innovative financing platforms for infrastructure. Synonym Biotechnologies, a frontrunner in this area, is developing a financing and development platform for bio-manufacturing infrastructure. The platform helps companies build their production capacity and provides ESG investment opportunities to investors enabled by an innovative underwriting model. The company is also developing its first standardised microbial fermentation facility.[10] This US facility, coupled with the network of facilities Synonym intends to establish, will address the 1,000-fold increase in production capacity required to meet the anticipated demand for bio-manufactured products.

Cultivating change

The resurgence of fermentation technology stands at the forefront of a transformative wave in our food chain, offering a promising solution to the challenges posed by the escalating demand for animal protein. With the global meat market projected to surge from 360 million metric tons in 2022 to a staggering 455 million metric tons by 2050, the imperative for sustainable and efficient alternatives has never been more pressing.[11]

Cultivated, plant-based, and fermentation-derived proteins are emerging as a solution, alleviating the risks of conventional meat production while offering consumers a familiar and satisfying eating experience. Yet, despite this potential, the fermentation sector grapples with a significant hurdle—achieving scale. Many pioneering companies navigating the fermentation landscape are still in the experimental phase, fine-tuning their products and methodologies.

Given the limited availability of suitable manufacturing sites globally and the time and investment required to construct new facilities, the critical need for intermediate and commercial-scale facilities poses a considerable challenge.[12] Along with scaling up production, collaborations between industry players, government bodies, and research institutions will also become imperative to speed up the integration of fermentation technology into mainstream food systems.

The good news is that even reasonably modest improvements can have a considerable impact. Researchers assert that replacing 20% of per-capita beef consumption with microbial protein derived from sugar-fed fermentation by 2050 could yield a 50% reduction in expected deforestation and associated emissions.[13] Anticipated to achieve a value of $422 million by 2026, the global fermented alternatives market is capturing the attention of investors who recognise its burgeoning potential and its role as a significant green innovation in the industry.[14]

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