Meat from microbes: The fermentation opportunity for alternative proteins
It’s becoming increasingly clear that alternative proteins like plant-based and cell-cultured meats will play a critical part in making our meat-hungry food system more sustainable, but a new study published in Nature suggests it might be time to shift some attention to a less familiar player in the alternative protein landscape—microbial fermentation.
The current state of play
The suite of plant-based meat products that dominate the alternative protein market today are typically based around an isolated legume protein—like soy in the case of v2food and Impossible Foods, or pea in the case of Beyond Meat —which is then combined with additional elements like fibre and fats to produce a convincing replica of traditional meat, but with a vastly smaller environmental footprint.
While this is clearly a more environmentally friendly (and ethical) option to industrial livestock farming, these products still inherently rely on significant land and resources to grow the volume of plants that go into them. But take a step outside the plant kingdom and there’s another way to produce vast amounts of protein without the same necessary land constraints.
Enter, microbial fermentation
A new study published in Nature has put the spotlight on the potential environmental benefits of producing protein through microbial fermentation. The study looked at directly replacing current livestock-based meat production with protein produced by microbial fermentation. Researchers found that by displacing 20% of the world’s ruminant livestock meat production with fermentation-derived proteins, this could cut global annual deforestation and carbon emissions in half by 2050.
While this research relied on a series of assumptions and projections to come to this figure (including some fairly radical consumer acceptance), the sheer size of the opportunity presented by the study warrants exploring.
So, what is microbial fermentation?
Put simply, fermentation is using microbes (like yeast) to break down a compound (like sugar) which creates a by-product (like alcohol). This process has been deployed by alternative protein producers to create certain desired proteins as the by-products. The current fermentation opportunity for alternative proteins falls into two main categories—biomass fermentation and precision fermentation.
The Nature study looked at biomass fermentation which leverages the fast growth and high protein content of microbes (like certain fungi) to produce large quantities of protein really efficiently. This concept isn’t new in the world of alternative proteins, with industry veteran Quorn producing their well-known mycoprotein-based meat alternatives in this way since the 1980s.
The second category which has come to prominence in recent years is precision fermentation. This is a highly technical process whereby specific microbes are engineered to produce functional ingredients like milk proteins or fats that are genetically identical to their animal counterparts. There are a number of Australian companies that are really moving the needle in this space at the moment—like Change Foods, Eden Brew and All G Foods who are all using precision fermentation to recreate dairy proteins for milk and cheese, and Nourish Ingredients who are using a similar process to make fat cells that can be used in cell-cultured meat and plant-based meat applications.
More efficient production
There are some intrinsic advantages fermentation can provide over other protein production methods, including the ability to concentrate production to minimise land use, and the extraordinary speed in which the protein can be produced (microbes can double their biomass in a matter of hours).
Production through both biomass and precision fermentation can also rely on basic low-quality feedstocks like sugars to feed the process, rather than requiring large amounts of protein-rich legumes like plant-based meats do. This opens up the potential to turn otherwise unused feedstocks into a valuable new product. Proving this very point, Change Foods have been awarded a $1 million Australian Government grant to upcycle Queensland sugarcane waste fibre into a feedstock for their precision fermentation process creating animal-free dairy.
Perhaps the most exciting opportunity is in the vast untapped world of microbes. There are billions of microbial species estimated to be on the planet, of which the vast majority are yet to be discovered. Novel microbes like certain fungi can have unique properties that can make them extremely useful in fermentation applications.
The production potential of novel microbes is demonstrated by Nature’s Fynd, which uses a fungus that their researchers originally uncovered in geothermal springs in Yellowstone National Park. The company (now backed by Bill Gates among others) uses biomass fermentation to turn this microbe into a nutritious protein for burgers and other products.
Closer to home, researchers at Flinders University last month identified a group of marine microbes in South Australian waters—called thraustochytrids—as showing considerable potential for precision fermentation. In fact, the researchers have now partnered with Nourish Ingredients exploring the potential of thraustochytrids in fermenting fat cells, on a project assisted by an almost $3 million Australian Government grant.
There is clearly a lot of untapped potential for microbial fermentation in alternative proteins. Whether it is in finding novel uses for previously overlooked or unknown microbes, reusing waste material as feedstock, or concentrating production to reduce land use—there are plenty of options for innovation in the space.
As the urgency and need to create a more sustainable and climate resilient food system becomes more apparent, shifting some attention to this side of alternative proteins makes a lot of sense.
Guest Post written by Nick O’Sullivan