Microbe Scientists Are Preparing Us to Eat in a Post-Plant World

‘We are bringing a completely new harvest to the humankind’

Courtesy of Solar Foods

ByBy 2050, food production is expected to fall short of the needs of a growing global population, both in terms of output and sustainability. The race to find the next alternative protein source is intense. Plant-based alternative meats, such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, are becoming ubiquitous in fast-food restaurants. Lab-grown, cultured meat is steadily getting closer to becoming commercially available, though it needs to come down drastically in cost. But edible microbes — food derived from microorganisms like bacteria, yeasts, fungi, or microalgae — are a uniquely promising contender, owing to their resilience, minimal production costs, and attractive nutritional properties.

One of microbial food’s biggest proponents is Tomas Linder, an associate professor of microbiology at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. In a review for the journal Food Science this April, he didn’t merely argue that we should eat more mushrooms. Instead, he made a compelling case for moving toward an entirely new, primarily microbe-based food production system.

“It has the potential to prevent climate change,” Linder tells OneZero, “but it also has the potential to feed humanity.”

Linder argues that we have relied on photosynthesis, the process by which plants make food using sunlight, as the foundation of our food system for too long. Our dependence on it hinders food production, for both humans and livestock, in regions with limited daylight, and is also highly contingent on climate, which will become increasingly unpredictable as global warming advances.

But microorganisms do not require sunlight to grow. They are not at the mercy of shifting climates and can be grown virtually anywhere, eliminating the need for arable land and irrigation. They are remarkably self-sufficient, incredibly resilient, and grow extremely quickly. And they’re not picky eaters, consuming common organic compounds like hydrocarbons, alcohols, and organic acids.

“There’s only so much space on the planet where you can actually grow crops. And we basically, more or less, have run out.”

The biggest attraction of adopting a microbial-centered style of agriculture would be the “enormous potential for shrinking the geographical footprint of food production,” Linder says. “That’s the holy grail.”

“There’s only so much space on the planet where you can actually grow crops,” he continues. “And we basically, more or less, have run out.”

Microbe-derived proteins, like the protein from soy and peas used to make plant-based meats, can be employed as credible meat substitutes. They’re nutritious, too — rich in vitamins and even healthy fats — making them a comparably green alternative to plant-based meats and a superior one to lab-grown cultured meat.

“Cultured meat for me addresses the ethical issues of eating animal protein, but it does not address the issues of food production capacity, of food security, and the resilience of the food production system,” Linder says. Animal cells still require carbohydrates, protein, and fats to grow, which need to be provided by other living organisms, so cultivating meat in a lab can never be a self-sufficient process.

Already, Finnish startup Solar Foods is developing a product using just three ingredients: water, electricity, and carbon dioxide captured from the atmosphere, which are used to feed a strain of bacteria found in Finland that produces a complete protein product called Solein. The bacteria’s identity is a company secret. “We do not give the name; I am sorry for that,” Solar Foods’ CEO, Pasi Vainikka, told OneZero.

The bacteria grows in a fermenter, similar to the process of brewing beer. The resulting protein is then dried into a powder, resulting in an end product that is 65% to 75% proteins, 10% to 20% carbohydrates, 4% to 10% fats, and 4% to 10% minerals, according to slides provided by Vainikka. Solar Foods envisions that Solein will be used as a protein ingredient in existing food such as bread, pasta, and plant-based dairy, as well as in alternative meat products.

Vainikka says the company is about “10 times more climate-friendly than most plant-based proteins and about 100 times more climate-friendly than meat.” The company plans for its product to hit the market by 2021 and is also working with the European Space Agency Business Incubator (ESABIC), which provides technical and business support to space-connected startups, to potentially supply astronauts with Solein on a future mission to Mars.

“The food is novel food, meaning it is food never made available for commercial use before,” Vainikka tells OneZero. “We are bringing a completely new harvest to the humankind.”

Solar Foods is not the only company with high hopes for microbes: California-based startup NovoNutrients feeds bacteria with industrial carbon dioxide emissions to make a high-protein fish feed for use in fish farming. The company aims to “turn billions of tons of CO2 into protein.”

But among the startups jumping on the microbial bandwagon, one company has quietly led the way for decades. Quorn, a U.K.-based company, first began marketing its fungus-based protein products in 1985 as a meat alternative. Branded as “mycoprotein,” the protein that forms the basis of its meat substitutes is extracted from an edible strain of the high-protein, soil-based fungus Fusarium venenatum, which is grown in bioreactors on a diet of glucose syrup.

The “ick” factor one may expect to accompany a fungus-based chicken nugget hasn’t hindered business: The company reported sales reaching nearly $300 million in 2018 and anticipates becoming a billion-dollar business by 2027.

For now, microbes remain a novelty nutrition source for most people, but as we move toward a future that cannot support traditional agriculture, perhaps it’s time to redefine what we consider food. Linder is hopeful that a microbe-based approach could help humanity weather a hot and crowded future. “We now can transition to a post-photosynthetic food production system, and we can completely revolutionize human society.”

I'm a science journalist. Words in New Scientist, Hakai magazine, BBC Future, Undark, Inverse, and more. www.gracefbrowne.com

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