The resurgence of fermentation offers a viable solution to growing demand for animal protein, says Ali Al Suhail, Associate at DAI Magister.
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”, 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.
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.
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 one to one, in stark contrast to the ten to one 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, 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 US, products resulting from biomass fermentation typically fall under the purview of the US Federal Food and Drug Administration (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 categorisation also applies in the UK, where approval for such products is within the jurisdiction of the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA).
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.
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 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.
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. 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. Anticipated to achieve a value of US$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.