Precision fermentation is making authentic no-kill meat a reality. We examine why its the alternative protein sector to watch.
Precision fermentation companies have proliferated over the past decade, with investment accelerating over the last three years. In September 2021, Berlin-based Formo broke European records with a $50 million financing round to develop lab-grown dairy products. Two months later, California-based The Every Company received $175 million to scale their animal-free eggs. Perfect Day, founded in 2014, raised a stunning $300 million in July 2020 for making real vegan dairy ingredients.
Companies working on more niche product segments are also springing up. Melibio, which makes bee-free honey, was founded in 2020. By autumn 2021, their products had hit New York City restaurants and they are now working to close a $US5 million seed round. Qoa is one of the most innovative early start-ups. They have created chocolate that does not use any harvested cocoa. Backed by $6 million in seed funding, they are on the cusp of bringing their products to market. Two key companies helping to develop the sector are Pivot Food Investment and Solar Biotech.
What is it?
It’s easy to see why investors are flocking to precision fermentation. This is a biotechnology that seems almost too good to be true. Precision fermentation – also known as recombinant protein production – can ‘programme’ microorganisms to manufacture dairy and meat from biopsied animal cells or plant cells. The results are indistinguishable from farmed food, except they are not taken from slaughtered livestock. The marketing hook across the sector are those magic words, ‘we couldn’t taste the difference’.
Precision fermentation is a form of cellular agriculture, a wider family of lab-based food production techniques that circumvent the need for livestock. It is an outgrowth of traditional fermentation, a biotechnology as old as the hills. Beer and bread have been made through traditional fermentation as far back as ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt.
Traditional fermentation is a relatively untargeted process. Microorganisms like bacteria or yeast simply break down complex molecules in organic matter into simpler ones. A newer strand of fermentation is biomass fermentation. Here, microorganisms themselves are cultivated for their protein content. Established alternative protein companies like Quorn use this technique.
Precision fermentation is different from traditional fermentation and biomass fermentation because it makes targeted use of microorganisms. In this technique, protein is no longer harvested from the bodies of the microorganisms themselves. Instead, they are used as replicating machines. First, a fragment of DNA from plants or animals is selected for target properties. This DNA is then planted into a host microorganism – yeast, bacteria, or fungi. The host microorganism replicates the foreign DNA, producing large amounts of protein with desirable properties. The final step is purification, where the protein is extracted from the microorganism and processed into the final food product. Adjusting the properties, flavour profile, and growth rate of fermented foods involves altering microorganism characteristics or the kinds of foreign DNA planted into them. This can be achieved through careful strain selection or genetic modification.
Why precision fermentation?
The ethical, health, and environmental advantages of lab-based agriculture are drawing investors and entrepreneurs. First of all, it promises reduced carbon emissions and land use compared to conventional agriculture. A 2021 Nature Food article showed that the life-cycle of industrially scaled egg white protein from cell culture could have lower warming effects than eggs from reared chickens. Precision fermentation also promises to call time on the perennial arms race between veterinary antibiotics and bacterial resistance. Under controlled laboratory conditions, pathogens could be more easily monitored without synthetic interventions.
Another virtue of precision fermentation is that it removes the waste involved in meat farming. Animals are highly inefficient protein generators, with a large proportion of their metabolism devoted to life functions rather than growing delicious cutlets of meat. Indeed, the resource and energy wastage involved in traditional meat rearing is an argument often marshalled in favour of veganism. With one fell swoop, a cell-based protein industry would remove many ethical and environmental objections against dairy and meat consumption.
Precision fermentation can create large amounts of any complex organic molecule with precisely calibrated properties. With ‘real’ vegan cheese, steaks, and milk finally on the menu, some predict this versatile technique could do away with conventional farming as we know it. In 2019, market research company RethinkX forecasted that precision fermentation heralds a ‘second domestication’ of microorganisms, a milestone in human history that will equal the domestication of plants and animals. By 2035, they expect the cost of fermented proteins will be magnitudes cheaper than conventional proteins. ReThinkX’s optimism is matched by that of the US consulting firm Kearney which estimates that 35 percent of all meat consumed globally by 2060 will be cultured. The analysts also predict that fermented products will first conquer the ingredients segment (for example, butter and eggs in baked goods) before replacing directly consumed items like steak or yoghurts.
The pandemic’s cultural and economic ramifications have fired investor interest in precision fermentation. Firstly, consumers in economically advanced countries became more conscious of their eating habits, increasing interest in alternative proteins more generally. More importantly, the pandemic has trained scrutiny on the robustness of our existing food system. The FAO Food Price Index recently recorded the highest food price figures since 2011, a year marked by social unrest and political uprisings around the world. As we move into 2022, the prices of agricultural inputs like synthetic fertiliser and fuel are also increasing, raising serious questions about the sustainability of current farming practices. There is mounting pressure to decouple food production from inputs that are environmentally destructive and vulnerable to global market shocks.
What’s the catch?
Scaling currently remains the obstacle to wider rollout. Precision fermentation companies remain in their pre-market R&D or small-batch stage. In a 2021 paper for the New Zealand Science Review, biotechnology researchers Paul Wood and Mahya Tavan analysed potential production inputs for precision fermented milk and their sobering estimates are as follows:
“For milk with 3% protein content, we would need 30 million kilograms of protein. With yeast cultures producing around 10 grams of recombinant protein/litre that would require three billion litres of yeast culture media. Using 10,000 litre fermenters, we therefore require approximately 12,000 10-kilolitre bioreactors. If we assume that a production run takes two weeks, involving a setup phase, fermentation step, and clean-up and re-sterilisation process, that would allow for 26 production runs each year. This would require $600 million in the cost of the fermentation equipment alone, not including staff, facilities, or materials.”
The resulting precision fermented milk would cost at least four times that of the animal-derived version.
Improving production efficiency requires research into yield-maximising strains. Companies looking to scale must also work out how to squeeze as much target protein production as possible from a given volume of liquid nutrient medium, the stuff used to feed the host microbes. A further challenge lies in identifying the molecular compounds and their associated DNA that makes meat and dairy taste and feel like they do. Milk, for example, contains six key proteins that must be fermented separately.
Despite these problems, precision fermented protein is a sector to watch. For a long time, the technique remained confined to the labs. After being developed in the 1980s for pharmaceutical purposes, public and private funding for cell-culture foods was almost non-existent until recently. Now, public authorities are scrambling to scale the process for large-scale food production. In October 2021, the US Department of Agriculture became the first-ever government to fund research into scaling cellular food production with a $10 million award to Tuft’s University. Between 2018 and 2020 the Good Food Institute, a non-profit think tank in Washington DC, dispensed almost US$3 million in supporting fundamental research on scaling. The Good Food Institute recognises that competition and trade secrets within the private sector place a brake on the research sharing needed for scaling techniques. Continued public programmes of this kind promise to push the industry beyond small batch production within a matter of years.