ROME (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – It may sound like science fiction, but in a few short years the family dinner table may be laden with steak from a printer and other proteins produced from air, methane or volcanic microbes.
With the explosive success of vegan beef and burger substitutes developed by Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, the alternative protein sector just keeps growing.
According to investment bank Barclays, alternative meat sales could reach $140 billion – or 10% of the global meat industry – within a decade, or a 10-fold increase from current levels.
A new generation of products in the works melds cutting-edge technology with age-old fermentation processes to turn otherwise harmful or everyday elements into essential food ingredients, with the aim of reducing agriculture’s massive carbon footprint.
According to the United Nations, agriculture, forestry and other land use activities accounted for 23% of total net manmade greenhouse gas emissions from 2007 to 2016, soaring to 37% when pre- and post-production activity were factored in.
Livestock meanwhile are responsible for about 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.
Enter Solar Foods, a Finnish company working on an edible protein powder called Solein which uses water, air and renewable electricity as a way to separate food production from agriculture.
“You avoid land use impacts like clearing forests for agriculture, use of pesticides and use of fertilisers that release greenhouse gases and so on,” co-founder and CEO Pasi Vainikka told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Solein is made by putting microbes into a liquid and feeding them small bubbles of hydrogen and carbon dioxide, a process similar to making beer or wine, apart from the lack of grapes or grains, Vainikka explained.
As the liquid thickens, it is dried into a very fine powder which is about 65% protein and tastes much like wheat flour.
In September, Solar Foods struck an agreement with Nordic food company Fazer to develop products using Solein, which can be used in existing plant-based products or future offerings such as lab-grown meat.
Solein will cost about €5 per kilo ($2.50 a pound) to produce and will hit the market by 2021, Vainikka said.
“There’s a lot of climate anxiety,” he said. “And people are looking for hope and solutions and they’re happy to see companies like ours, so that’s encouraging.”
Fermentation, Fermentation, Fermentation
Another company tackling agriculture’s emissions through fermentation, Bangalore-based String Bio, is working to convert methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide as it traps 28 times more heat, from waste and natural sources into protein powder – initially for animals.
“We said this is probably the best impact we humans can have in this world, where we take something that we don’t need for the environment and convert it into something we do need,” said Vinod Kumar, who with his wife Ezhil Subbian set up the company.
Such environmental considerations, along with concerns over animal welfare and human health, have driven both demand and supply of alternative proteins, said Dan Altschuler Malek, Managing Partner at investment firm Unovis Partners.
Just 10 years ago he said retailers saw alternative proteins as a risky bet, but “today they realise there is a huge demand for all these products.”
Unovis manages New Crop Capital, a fund that invests exclusively in start-ups developing meat, seafood and dairy replacements, including Beyond Meat.
New Crop has also invested in Nova Meats, a Spanish company that uses a special 3D printer to produce steak that can mimic the taste and texture of meat.
The printers produce three-dimensional vegan steaks using cartridge-style syringes which extrude plant-based proteins.
Volcanoes and Tiny Organisms
Some have criticized plant-based alternatives flooding store shelves as highly processed and high in sodium, and Harvard scientists recently questioned their role in a healthy diet.