- Emma Woollacott
- Business and Technology Reporter
“I have tried it and it is very good. If I had to add a flavor to it, I would say it is slightly umami“says Peter Rowe, CEO of Biotech firm Deep Branch.
Rowe takes his job very seriously, and he’s not talking about human food. What he has eaten are samples of an artificial protein created especially to feed animals.
Umami is known as the fifth type of taste that humans perceive in addition to sweet, salty, sour and bitter.
Rowe’s team works to reduce the contaminating footprint of pet food, which is so frequently distributed in shipments around the world.
“The production of soy, which is the source of protein to feed animals such as chickens, or fishmeal, the main source of protein for salmon, is usually done in South America,” says Rowe.
In the case of fishmeal, anchovies are caught off the coast of Peru and Chile.
They are then processed and shipped around the world. Similarly, soy plantations in Brazil or Argentina may involve deforestation in some areas and the use of large amounts of fertilizers or agricultural machinery and, again, long-distance transportation.
“So much of the intensity of the carbon footprint is due to the processes themselves and a large part to the shipments,” explains Rowe.
One possible answer could be to base animal feed on single-celled proteins produced through a fermentation process using yeast, bacteria or algae. Plants can be found anywhere there is the raw material that microorganisms typically use: methane, ethanol, sugar, biogas, or even wood.
Through a project called “React First”, which has received £ 3 million in funding from Innovate UK, a British public agency dedicated to promoting Innovation, its scientists are working to reduce the polluting footprint of pet food.
In addition to Deep Branch, the project involves academics and companies such as Drax, the largest producer of renewable energy in the United Kingdom, or the supermarket chain Sainsbury’s.
Now it is producing almost from scratch a protein-rich food that has been dubbed the Proton.
It is based on a gas fermentation process whereby microbes feed on carbon dioxide, hydrogen produced by electrolysis, and water. This generates the Proton protein as excess material.
The biggest challenge for single-cell protein producers is getting them manufactured on a commercial scale, he says Laura krishfield, a research associate at the analysis firm Lux Research.
“Single-celled proteins carry a huge investment cost,” he says. “We have seen that the facilities to do it are going to cost more than US $ 100 million, so they are not going to be cheap. And many of them bring with them other key challenges, such as access to the gases that are used as raw materials.”
In the case of Deep Branch, industrial emissions provide the source of carbon dioxide (CO2), both for the research project in the United Kingdom, and for the more developed center they have at the Brightlands Chemelot Campus, in the Netherlands.
“We find great value in partnering with people like Drax, and the reason is that they are working on having a process whereby all the CO2 they create is stored and retained under the North Sea,” Rowe says.
“They are putting a lot of effort into placing the infrastructure, so that we have access to our CO2 in the same way that at the residential level you have access to natural gas and electricity. Basically, it becomes a service for us. And the same thing. it happens with hydrogen, which is the other ingredient we need. ”
By producing the supply close to where it is needed and using leftover products as the fermentation raw material, the carbon footprint of the protein is reduced by 90% compared to traditional methods.
And that, Rowe says, reduces the footprint of the salmon itself, including shipping and packaging, by as much as a quarter.
The proteins of the future?
Rory Conn, business manager for Scottish Sea Farms, a Scottish salmon farming company, says that in recent years the use of plant-based feeds in salmon farming has become widespread.
“But I think that in general we have gone as far as it could go,” he says.
“Unicellular proteins are interesting and I think we see it as the way of the future, which will improve the sustainability of salmon feeding,” he adds.
Joshua Haslun, an analyst at Lux Research, points out that there is another issue that is fueling interest in single-cell proteins: national food security.
“In countries like Singapore, where you are talking about vertical farming and aquaculture and how you can start reducing risks around food safety.”
For now, the production of single-cell proteins of all kinds is comparatively small. Lux Research predicts that it will only be financially profitable when it reaches a volume close to 10,000 tons per year.
“This is not a silver bullet that is going to meet all the world’s demand for protein, but it is a good way to support additional sources of protein out there,” says Peter Rowe.
Could single-cell proteins then become a source for humans as well?
“For now, those who are developing single-cell proteins see it more as a long-term strategy. I think there are going to be regulatory hurdles to overcome,” says Laura Krishfield.
“You also have to think about whether it’s going to taste good. There’s always the question of acceptance,” says Krishfield.
Rowe, however, is more optimistic. “It has a relatively neutral taste and color, which means that it will be very versatile for use in a wide range of different products.”
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