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Precision Fermentation: The Future of Food
It’s no secret that animal agriculture is one of the leading causes of climate change and environmental degradation. We can’t raise and slaughter 86 billion land animals and wrest 2–3 trillion marine animals out of the seas every year without suffering some consequences. Yes, these operations are well hidden and yes, if you were committed enough you may just succeed in living in blissful ignorance of them. If you have any doubts please cast an eye over our other articles.
In the UK 50% of our land is used for animal agriculture, land which was previously public and belonged to the commons was grabbed and enclosed during the 16th century. Globally, a third of our total arable land is used for animal agriculture, a surface equivalent to the size of the United States, Russia, China and India combined. Yet, despite its gargantuan land spread, animal agriculture produces an incommensurate amount of calories, only 18%. Rearing animals for meat is a woefully inefficient process: for 100 calories fed to a cow we recover only 3 as meat. A 97% calorie loss. This worked fine 10,000 years ago when we first domesticated animals and had all the land we could possibly need for grazing but we no longer have this luxury. We are running out of arable land so we burn down our forests to grow crops to feed animals which we then feed to ourselves at a significant calorie loss. The meat industry operates on razor thin margins forcing it to cut corners ignoring environmental, human and animal welfare standards.
The way by which we feed ourselves really hasn’t changed all that much in the last few millennia. The cow is a pretty old “technology”: cow eats grass, we eat cow. Making even Luddites seem high tech. It’s time to make way for the new and adapt. We can either get on board or get left behind.
So who’s up for a quick history lesson?
In the 1970’s diabetics relied on insulin from the pancreatic glands of cows and pigs. 50,000 animals were required to produce 1 kilogram of insulin. An estimated 56 million animals would have been needed to address the growing American diabetes epidemic. There were, however, many issues with this method and specifically in regards to processing, purity, allergies and shortages. In 1982 an artificial human insulin, Humulin, was created. It was produced via a fermentation process which involved injecting a DNA sequence into a microorganism, Escherichia coli, encouraging it to produce a specific human insulin molecule. It provided many advantages. For one it was producing the genuine human form of insulin over the porcine or bovine variety which eliminated the risk of viral contamination or allergic reactions associated with the purification process. It also significantly reduced cost and stabilised supply. By the year 2000 99% of all insulin was produced in this way.
Cheesemaking went through a similar transformation with Rennet. The main component of Rennet is a protease named Chymosin B which cleaves the milk protein, essentially curdling it to form the curd and separate the whey. As you would expect, it is naturally found in newborn calves so that they can digest their mother’s milk. Historically we obtained the Rennet in the form of paste by scraping the stomach lining of slaughtered, unweaned, calves. In the 1990’s, by inserting the Rennet-producing gene into microorganisms, we were able to produce FDA approved Chymosin B identical to that of the calves. Now, 80% of Rennet worldwide is produced in this way.
This technology dramatically changed both the cheese and insulin industries by producing cheaper, safer, more efficient and more reliable products. It is called Precision Fermentation.
So how does it work?
Well firstly let’s look at how conventional fermentation works. It uses live microorganisms to break down sugars into useful components, flavours, textures or nutritional content. Beer uses a yeast called Saccharomyces, “sugar fungus” in Latin, to convert the glucose from the hops or barley into alcohol and carbon dioxide gas (CO2). Kimchi uses lactic acid bacteria, the genera Leuconostoc, Weissella, and Lactobacillus to convert the glucose from the cabbage into various healthy metabolites.¹-² Yoghurt uses Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus to turn the sugars into lactic acid and give yoghurt its tart flavour.
Precision Fermentation works similarly but uses the microorganisms, rather than their by-products, as cell factories to produce very specific functional ingredients such as enzymes, fats, proteins, pigments, essentially any organic molecule. In the context of Rennet and Humulin the microorganisms were producing the proteins Chymosin B and human insulin.³
The process is not as complicated, as it may seem, on paper at least. Genes which encode the required proteins or other organic molecules are selected. The genes are introduced into a fast-growing, highly efficient host organism such as a yeast or bacteria. These engineered microorganisms are placed into fermenters known as stirred-tank bioreactors, big steel tanks filled with a nutrient medium like the ones you see in a brewery. Here the organisms replicate fast and express the desired molecules, either by secreting them directly into the medium or into their own cells. The molecules are then separated from the cells, nutrient medium, host DNA and other proteins to give a highly purified form of the molecule we selected for originally. Modern analytical methods ensure the molecule is identical and sufficiently pure so as to be safely used in consumer products.
Okay, any contemporary examples?
Good question. The Dairy industry is an interesting example. It’s already in decline with sales dropping more than $1 billion dollars globally in 2019. In the UK, dairy farm profits fell by 50% due to increasing costs of diesel, animal feed and fertiliser. Since Brexit, EU subsidies which represented 40% of Dairy farmers incomes, have been slashed. As a result the number of dairy producers has dropped from 35,000 in 1995 to under 12,000 in 2020. The removal of subsidies has spurred the consolidation of agricultural land and driven the number of monopolies in the form of “mega farms” with herds of over 700 cows.
This picture is representative of the global situation. In the US, 3,000 farms closed in 2018. Dean Foods, the biggest American milk producer, filed for bankruptcy. In New Zealand, Fonterra reported losses for a second year running. Consumption in the US and European countries has dropped from 113 litres to under 68 litres per person per year. This decline in consumption is attributed partly to health concerns, specifically of breast and prostate cancer but also irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and Type 2 diabetes.
We are increasingly becoming aware of animal welfare issues too. A cow produces milk for her calf, so the preconditions for milk production are pregnancy, which happens forcibly, and the birth of the calf. For us to consume her milk we must prevent the calf from drinking it which usually means killing the calf immediately after birth, as it is cheaper than rearing it, causing enormous distress to both the mother and calf. She will typically go through this process 4–5 times before becoming “spent” and being sent to the slaughterhouse. Environmental concerns are also a main driver with Big Dairy’s use of water, land, food and manure being particularly egregious.
Off the back of this growing awareness, consumers, especially younger generations, are already opting for milk alternatives. The plant-based milk market is projected to grow from USD $35 billion in 2021 to $123 billion in 2030. In the UK 48% of adults prefer plant-based milks to cow milk.⁴-⁵
It is clear the industry is already in its death throes with last ditch efforts in the form of victimised campaigns the likes of “Februdairy” and the anti-woke “Don’t cancel the cow”.⁶ Much as with insulin, the industry finds itself operating precariously on tiny margins, effectively making losses if it weren’t for subsidies, colossal economies of scale and flagrant disregard for welfare standards. And so the final nail in the coffin comes in the guise of Precision Fermentation.
Plant-based alternatives are well underway in disrupting milk and yoghurt industries but the last nut to crack is cheese. Products are improving but progress is slow and this is where Precision Fermentation gets interesting. By inserting casein and whey-producing genes into a microorganism of choice, we can produce these proteins cheaply, indefinitely and identically. We can effectively recreate milk proteins without using animals and then turn them into molecularly identical analogues of traditionally fermented milk solids (cheese) whilst leaving out the lactose, antibiotics and the cruelty.⁷
Driven by the same concerns we have about milk and dairy, the $1.8 trillion meat industry is also transitioning to a fermentation-led form of production under our very noses. Whilst plant-based meats have already sparked this disruption they only hold 1% market share at $9.9 billion and are limited by the extensive ingredient list they depend on. They are typically high in salt and require increasingly expensive grains and pulses whilst meats contain nitrates, animal hormones, antibiotics and salt. In comparison Precision Fermentation is considered far “cleaner” and produces only the specific meat proteins we want and none of the above-mentioned nasties.
According to Larissa Zimberoff, a writer focused on the interplay between food, technology, and business, Precision Fermentation companies are considered the “top dogs” in food-tech. Prime Roots raised $18.5 million investment in 2021 and produces competitively priced and delicious deli meats using Koji fungi to produce salami proteins.⁸ All it takes is a basic sugar solution and a conventional baking kit. None of the land, none of emissions, none of the cruelty. Another Precision Fermentation top dog is The Every Company which is producing everything from egg proteins to burgers to cheeses.
Applying Precision Fermentation to our food production systems is an incredible breakthrough and an absolute game changer! And it’s already well underway!
Wow… That’s pretty cool… but so what?
Yes, It is pretty cool. And this movement is gaining serious momentum. We’re seeing scrappy innovators such as The Every Company partnering up with multinational behemoths such as INBev, the world’s largest brewing company, to make use of their resources and infrastructure to bring these new foods to market. Perfect Day is collaborating with ADM, a leader in global nutrition, to produce dairy products and tasty ice cream. In fact Perfect Day reports using 99% less water, emitting 97% less carbon and using 60% less energy in the production of their products compared to conventional competitors. One paper estimates Precision fermentation will use 1,700 less land than even the most efficient of conventional agriculture methods and substantially less water and energy.⁹
There are many others in this space such as New Culture, Better Dairy, Formo and All G Foods, The Urgent Company to name but a few and the industry is growing fast. The same way the cheeses we bought in the 1980s started being made with Rennet from Precision Fermentation without our knowledge, so will the dairy and meat products we consume in the coming decades.
RethinkX is an independent think-tank based in San Francisco and led by Tony Seba and James Arbib. The duo have a history of predicting emerging technologies. Using a framework they developed and the fundamental understanding that technological disruptions occur along an S-curve, they foretell emerging food technologies disrupting animal agriculture by the end of the decade.¹⁰
Their report claims that by 2035, demand for cow, chicken, pig, and fish products will have shrunk by 80% to 90%. By 2030 the US cattle industry will be long bankrupt and the market for ground beef, steak and dairy will have shrunk by 70%, 30% and 90% respectively. As Precision Fermentation uses a fraction of the resources, the implications are huge. 60% of the land condemned to livestock and feed production will be freed for other uses. In the US alone this means the entirety of the Louisiana Purchase ideally returned to nature and made accessible to all in the form of rewilding projects, carbon sinks and natural landscapes.
Since we can select down to the desired protein and leave out the nasties, modern foods will be superior to animal-derived foods. Precision Fermentation milk will be 10 times cheaper than conventional milk.¹⁰ These food products can be tastier, more nutritious and healthier with huge implications on our health and well-being.
Precision fermentation can replace animal agriculture for a fraction of the cost with a fraction of the resources and none of the cruelty. It can democratise and decentralise food production thus alleviating dependency, supply chain pressures, inequalities in distribution and shortages. Breweries can be set up anywhere, needing nothing more than plant material as nutrients, energy, ideally renewable, water and the suitable engineered microorganism.
Right, so what’s the gist?
The writing is on the wall. Animal agriculture is going through the same transformation as Dairy. Growing food to feed to animals in factory farms to then feed to ourselves damages the environment, our climate, is woefully inefficient and requires obscene amounts of resources. Factory farms supply the vast majority of our animal products and their conditions are abominable. This will be remembered as a dark period in our history. Whilst plenty of meat alternatives exist, our ever increasing appetite for “real” animal protein is a reality, and if it must be satisfied then it should be done sustainably and humanely.
Common objections to Precision Fermentation revolve around eating “bugs”, genetically modifying our food, using processed flours and the risk of monopolising this new technology. Firstly, microorganisms are everywhere, we already eat them. They’re in our bread, yoghurt, beer, cheese and kimchi. If you think that’s gross, have a look at where our meat comes from. Secondly, as we’ve seen, genetically modified (GM) foods have been on the menu since the 1970’s with no reported negative effects. Furthermore microorganisms naturally exchange genetic information in their environment through horizontal gene transfer. Precision Fermentation only takes advantage of a natural process. In fact animal agriculture is the main driver of antibiotic resistance gene exchange, spreading from livestock slurry tanks, into the soil and then into the food chain and the living world. Paradoxically using GM microorganisms in Precision Fermentation would actually reduce genetic contamination. Thirdly, by producing specific proteins such as wheat flour proteins rather than using germs that need milling, we can actually reduce the need to process foods. Finally, and this extends to our society more broadly, oversight, regulations and anti-competition laws are needed to ensure monopolies cannot succeed and are dismantled before a minority controls an entire market.
Whether we know it or not we’ve been consuming fermentation products for millennia and Precision Fermentation has been used safely in our food systems for decades. It is nothing more than an extension of a safe and common technology set to offer massive opportunities in a trillion dollar industry for those who have the foresight. We have technological solutions but we need the incumbent industries who are actively trying to slow down change and progress to get out of the way of the inevitable. They are on the wrong side of history and Change is coming. They can either hop aboard or get wiped out.
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