Introducing Precision Fermentation: Accelerating the Plant-Based Revolution
An introduction to how startups are utilizing precision fermentation as a tool to build a more sustainable and ethical food system
Startups are increasingly recognizing the urgent need to address the environmental impact of food production and consumption. The ecological price of the food industry is immense, with meat consumption alone accounting for ~15% of global GHG emissions and being the biggest single contributor to biodiversity loss. As a result, the appetite for alternative protein sources has never been stronger.
So how large is the impact potential? Let’s crunch some numbers: With agriculture accounting for 24% to 37% of total anthropogenic GHG emissions, of which up to 57% can be attributed to livestock, a shift away from animal-based protein consumption bears an enormous potential for reducing GHG emissions and increasing animal welfare.
It doesn’t stop there. Aside from direct GHG emissions from animal farming, land use change substantially contributes to climate change. With livestock occupying 77% of agricultural land while only supplying 37% of the global protein supply, restoring this land would lead to an estimated 809 Gt of CO2 being removed from the atmosphere over the next 100 years. To put this in perspective, this equates to all anthropogenic GHG emissions emitted between 1996 and 2021.
While research predicts that given the current state of technology and market conditions, plant-based products could replace 11% of all meat, seafood, eggs, and dairy consumption around the globe by 2035, in reality most consumers are still reluctant to change their eating habits as substitutes do not match animal proteins in taste, texture, and price. Assuming that we can effectively improve on these three key areas, plant-based alternatives have the potential to capture up to 22% of the market by 2035. This is where precision fermentation comes into play.
💡 What is precision fermentation?
Fermentation is an ancient technique used to create popular widely known foods and beverages like beer, wine, bread, yogurt, and cheese. It has been around for a long time! Precision fermentation, on the other hand, could be considered an advanced type of fermentation, where microorganisms are engineered to produce very specific organic molecules.
Precision fermentation (see Figure 1) is a process that involves the use of microorganisms such as bacteria or yeast, to produce complex organic molecules, such as proteins and fats. This process has also already been used in various applications in the past, for example, for the production of rennet, which is used for cheesemaking, or different kinds of drugs, such as insulin.
Figure 1: In precision fermentation, an engineered microbial host is grown in a nutrient-rich broth in large fermentors. As this host grows it also produces the desired protein target, which is subsequently isolated during processing and then incorporated into a food product.
The exciting part? Precision fermentation can produce molecules that are almost identical to those found in meat, fish, dairy, and eggs. These molecules include heme, whey, casein, and ovalbumin. These molecules possess similar functionalities, including solubility, gelation, foaming, and emulsification, and can even enhance the flavour and visual profile of products. Incorporating these ingredients into existing alternative protein products has the potential to elevate them and make them more appealing to consumers.
🔎 What we need for widespread adoption
Before precision fermentation can revolutionize the way we consume on a global scale, some key challenges must be addressed:
Regulatory: It’s a no for GMO
Throughout history, humans have engaged in the selective breeding of plants and animals for food, choosing those with desirable traits such as increased yield or resistance to diseases and environmental pressures. Today, we can harness the power of gene editing and synthetic biology to create genetically modified organisms (GMOs) with much improved strains. Food and feed that comprise or include GMOs or are derived from such organisms are commonly referred to as genetically modified (GM) food and feed.
The safety of genetically modified (GM) food and feed is a complex and sensitive topic that has prompted governments worldwide to establish regulatory frameworks to ensure consumer safety. However, these regulations differ considerably across regions, ranging from the more lax policies in the US to the more stringent measures in the EU. As a result, GM food approval rates are notably higher in the US than in Europe, presenting a significant obstacle for startups operating in the EU. Successfully navigating these divergent regulatory landscapes will require careful consideration and adaptation to the specific regulations of each jurisdiction.
Engineering: Finding the perfect fit
As the saying goes, “Rome wasn’t built in a day”, and the same holds true for precision fermentation. This technology is a complex and multi-step process that requires careful optimization to produce a high-value protein efficiently. The first step in the process involves identifying and engineering a suitable microbial strain to make sure that they are producing the desired protein at an optimal level. The second step is to grow the organism in a carefully controlled environment. This involves providing the organism with the right mix of nutrients and temperature in a large steel vessel called a fermentor. The final step is downstream processing, where the protein is isolated and purified. Each step of the process requires time and expertise to ensure that the end product is of the highest quality and can be produced at a reasonable cost.
Similarly, finding the right carbon-rich feedstock that is abundantly available, cost-effective, and environmentally sustainable — all at the same time — is also crucial for success. While the most common energy source is refined sugars, a push for alternative feedstocks has driven some startups to look into leveraging existing agricultural and industrial waste streams. This development could become one of the key economic and sustainability advantages of precision fermentation.
Production: Shortage of bioreactors
The fermentation process itself is carried out in bioreactors. New innovations in bioprocess designs are essential to ensure process scalability. It is forecasted that demand for bioreactors will significantly increase in the next few years and outgrow current bioreactor capacity, presenting a potential bottleneck for precision fermentation startups. Long story short, we need significant investments flowing into developing large-scale fermentation processes that suit the specific needs of startups making use of precision fermentation.
“By overcoming these challenges, precision fermentation could become a mainstream technology in the plant-based food industry. It will be exciting to see how leading companies in the space manage to create breakthroughs in sensory and textural characteristics, reduce costs, scale up production, and improve overall sustainability. Those who can convert waste most effectively into high-value ingredients will offer the most promising prospect in terms of environmental impact but also cost and scalability.” - Christoph, Partner at Planet A
👀Startups to keep on your radar
Now onto what you’ve been waiting for: the map. To provide a better overview of the emerging European ecosystem in the precision fermentation space, we mapped out some of the startups leading the way in precision fermentation:
🧐 Our take
We believe that precision fermentation holds immense potential to revolutionize the food industry. In light of the urgent need to reach net-zero targets, there is a pressing need to shift from a meat-based diet to a more sustainable, plant-based one. Cracking the taste, texture, and cost barriers is key to driving the uptake of alternative protein products.
If we can develop plant-based meat alternatives that are indistinguishable from traditional meat, we can substantially reduce GHG emissions, curb deforestation, and make agricultural systems more sustainable. As the precision fermentation space continues to evolve, we are excited to witness how this technology will shape the future of sustainable food products.
At Planet A we recently announced our very own food investment into the precision fermentation startup Paleo. The team is developing cutting-edge substitute meat proteins, bringing the experience to that of ‘real’ meat. You can smell it, you can taste it, and you can see it (trust us, we’ve tried it 🥩). Check out the startup here and find out why we invested.
Hungry for more? If you want to dig deeper, here’s a list of recommended literature on the topic of precision fermentation and plant-based diet:
If you are active in the fermentation space and feel like Planet A could be a good partner — feel free to reach out. If you have a different opinion on the above — let us know. If you feel like your company is missing in our overview — please contact us.