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Precision Fermentation: The Future of Food

Agriculture | May, 2023

The world is facing a protracted food security crisis, driven by geopolitical conflicts, extreme weather, and supply chain disruptions. According to the United Nations report, to sustain a global population of 9.7 billion by 2050, the food production needs to be increased by as much as 60%. Some of the poorest countries in the world are more vulnerable to food shortages due to fluctuating prices of commodities. Besides, as the global population is expanding, the demand for animal proteins is also increasing. The meat and dairy sector account for approx. 14.5% of the greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, livestock industry causes habitat destruction, wildlife loss, extinction, soil degradation, and contributes significantly to climate change. Hence, the enhanced focus on sustainability has led to a searching for solutions that can make protein-rich foods accessible without putting much harm to the environment. The food tech companies are resorting to precision farming technologies to replicate the nutrients, tastes, and textures of animal produce without the need for intensive farming.

How does Precision Fermentation Work?

Precision fermentation is turning out to be one of the most powerful tools in today’s food industry. The technique utilizes genetic engineering and modified yeast, fungi, or bacteria to transform minerals or plant matter into proteins, fats, or flavour molecules in large quantities. Generally, these microorganisms are first cultivated into brewery-style fermentation tanks and programmed through a range of in-vitro nucleic acid techniques such as CRISPR, gene editing or cloning. Genetic engineers first choose the genes that produce proteins or enzymes, then they duplicate the information from those genes into a new strand of DNA. After being inserted into microorganisms like yeast, bacteria, or moulds, this new DNA strand is then used to produce or excrete a particular sellable material, usually edible fats, or proteins, and further used for processing into ingredients or finished CPG goods. This way, precision fermentation opens a whole new universe of possibilities for food by making useful compounds that might not be abundant in nature easily obtainable in commercial quantities, thus reducing environmental footprint.  

Many companies are moving beyond experimentation phase and scaling products for the masses. California-based food tech startup Perfect day leverages precision farming technologies to make animal-free, milk-identical whey protein, which uses between 96% and 99% less water to produce than traditional whey and uses 29% to 60% less non-renewable enegry. The world’s largest food brand Nestlé has partnered with Perfect Day to launch its new Cowabunga Animal-Free Dairy Beverages with creamy and milky taste. In 2021, biotechnology firm, The Every Co. landed USD175 million to continue its research into animal-free protein using precision fermentation technology. Recently, the company has collaborated with Alpha Foods, a leading plant-based food brand to create more sustainable and nature-equivalent version of proteins. In February 2023, nine leaders in the space created the Precision Fermentation Alliance to promote and improve the transparency of the technology and enhance consumer education about the new kind of sustainable food production. These nine companies include Perfect Day, Change Foods, The Every Co., Helaina, Imagindairy, Motif FoodWorks, New Culture, Onego Bio, and Remilk.

Hence, it is safe to say that the future of dairy lies in the precision fermentation sector, and not just because it will spare millions of gentle cows. Contrary to milk taken from mother cows, dairy can be made lactose- and cholesterol-free through precise fermentation to enhance its nutritional profile. It also lacks the growth hormone and antibiotic residues that many dairy farms give their cows.

Upcycling Food Wastage with Precision Fermentation

Every year, nearly one billion tons of food is wasted. If the food waste is represented as a country, it would be the third largest global emitter of greenhouse gases. Rather than seeing food waste as trash destined for landfills, innovative companies are using it as a key ingredient for creating new foods. Liven Proteins is one of the first companies in Canada that makes animal-free ingredients with the same nutritional value using lost, or waste foods. Feeding microorganisms with food waste, the company reduces food waste and make it usable. Kroger, the second-biggest grocery chain in US invested USD2.5 million to make food from the waste. Hawaiian based business, Cajú Love creates vegetarian burgers using the leftovers from the cashew nut and juice sector. Meanwhile, Luya Foods, a Swiss company, turns waste from the tofu industry into plant-based meat. Take Two Foods creates barley-based milk from leftovers from the beer-brewing process. Additionally, there are products like upcycled vodka, tortilla chips, and pasta that are created from materials that would have otherwise been thrown away.

Swiss company Yeastup AG produces alternative proteins and fibers from spent yeast. Around 10,000 metric tons of spent yeast is produced worldwide every day during beer production. The yeast has high nutritional value of an animal protein and an amino acid composition comparable to whey protein and egg white. The Yeastup boasts a technology that can extract multiple nutrients such as proteins and fibres from propagated yeast.

How could Precision Farming Reduce the Environmental Impact of Sugarcane Farming?

Most of the sugar we consume is made from stalky green plant, yet little is known about the impact it has on the environment. A kilogram of refined cane sugar requires around 210 litres of water. Each teaspoon requires roughly nine litres. The cultivation of sugarcane frequently contaminates freshwater environments with farm-washed silt and fertilisers, together with mill-washed plant waste and chemical sludge. Sugarcane is grown in about 120 countries worldwide, and about a dozen of these countries have dedicated 25% of their land for growing this crop. Precision fermentation technologies can help to make sugar that is not only sweeter but also rich in proteins, which would offer brands new ways to reduce the sugar content in foods & beverages.

The UK-based supplier Magellan Life Sciences created the XSeed patented manufacturing technology to make high-value protein sweeteners by protein expression using prokaryotic cells and fermentation. Brazzein, the smallest sweet-tasting protein extracted from the West African climbing plant, Oubli (Pentadiplandra brazzeana) is heat stable and 1,200 times sweeter than sugar. The best part about the product is that it has zero calories and free from bitter and metallic after taste, often associated with artificial sweeteners available in the market today. According to Magellan Life Sciences, it is also devoid of a metallic or unpleasant aftertaste, therefore no tastes or masking chemicals are necessary.

Joywell Foods, a California-based company that uses precise fermentation to manufacture the sweet proteins found in exotic fruits at scale has created Miraculin. The product has been created from a glycoprotein found in the miracle berry (Synsepalum dulcificum), native to Western Africa. Miraculin is about 5,500 times sweeter than sugar when consumed as a pure ingredient or in a food product. The protein miraculin does not actually taste sweet, rather it binds the sweetness receptors in the taste buds and its effects last for up to an hour.

Precision fermentation may help create a better and more sustainable future at a time when the rising incidence of diabetes is becoming major worldwide health concern and the manufacturing of sugar is putting a detrimental effect on the environment.

Challenges for Precision Fermentation Market

Cost of goods will be the main technological challenge because precision fermentation is substantially more expensive. Recombinant proteins, or proteins made from genetic material from two separate sources, can be produced from 10 to 30 grammes per litre of milk by a variety of yeast strains. The downstream processing required to remove these proteins from the yeast cells and cell waste can cost up to 60% of the total manufacturing cost. Companies that specialise in precision fermentation are considering employing fermenters with capacities more than 100,000 L, which could necessitate complicated engineering and energy-intensive procedures. Although technology improvements are occurring, numerous technical, regulatory, and consumer barriers must be overcome to realize the full potential of precision fermentation technologies.

Moreover, the inclusion of genetically modified organisms (GMO) in the manufacturing process makes precision fermentation goods difficult to register, which is another regulatory problem faced by those in Europe. The labelling of precision fermentation goods will also fluctuate significantly depending on the locale, which may confuse customers who are wary about GMO products.

Way Ahead

Replacing only 20% of the global beef consumption and other grazing livestock with microbial proteins could help to cut down deforestation in half by 2050, according to a report published in a British scientific journal, Nature. Besides, replacing the milk, meat, and even eggs could take off the pressure from the planet. Investments from the private sector has largely facilitated the growth of precision fermentation industry. Advancements in machine learning and artificial intelligence are resulting in new flavours and engineering of ingredients with novel properties, which could help fuel the growth of precision fermentation market.

According to TechSci Research report on “Precision Fermentation Market - Global Industry Size, Share, Trends, Opportunity, and Forecast, 2017-2027 Segmented By Ingredient Produced (Whey & Casein Protein, Egg White, Collagen Protein, Heme Protein, Others), By Microbes (Yeast, Algae, Bacteria, Others), By End User Industry (Food & Beverage, Pharmaceutical, Cosmetic, Others), and By Region”, the global precision fermentation market is anticipated to grow at a formidable rate during the forecast period. The market growth can be attributed to the rising inclination of population towards plant-based foods and decreasing dependency on animal-based foods. Besides, increasing investments towards companies in the precision farming space is fuelling the market growth. 

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