The future of precision fermentation in our food
Advances in technology for food production, and precision fermentation itself was unexpectedly predicted by Winston Churchill in 1932:
“We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.”
Winston Churchill, “Fifty Years Hence”, The Strand Magazine”, 1932
Churchill’s timing might have been a bit a little ambitious but the process of precision fermentation (PF) for the production of food has been highlighted by think tanks as a coming megatrend.
1. What is fermentation?
I’m sure you understand what fermentation is – it gives you a beer, yoghurt and bread, the difference being the type of microorganism that completes the process of converting sugars into various metabolites including alcohol, lactic acid and carbon dioxide.
The introduction of fermented food products to our diet dates back thousands of years: in 10,000 BCE milk underwent spontaneous fermentation into yoghurt in the searing temperatures of North Africa; the first breweries have been dated to 7,000 BCE. But only when Pasteur discovered the critical role of live yeast in fermentation did humans start to understand and be able to control the fermentation process, with the use of specific organisms, environmental conditions and ingredients to create novel and unique foods.
Precision fermentation is a modern take on this ancient practice, but it significantly ups the ante by using microbiological and cellular engineering to produce specific proteins of interest.
2. Precision fermentation is already in the works
This advancement is set to disrupt our food chain, with start-up companies already focussed on developing precision fermentation processes and creating palatable foodstuffs from them.
|“Eden Brew has found a way to produce the same proteins found in cow’s milk using precision fermentation, essentially enabling us to ‘brew’ our milk.”|
|“… nature-equivalent animal protein, made without using a single animal” including egg white and pepsin|
|“… recreating animal fats using precision fermentation”|
|“ … cell-cultured* seafood, providing consumers with great tasting, healthy, safe and trusted products that support the sustainability and diversity of our ocean.”|
*Note that this process, along with Vow’s meat products, uses cell culture of whole animal cells to grow edible tissue, rather than fermentation for the extraction of specific by-products.
Processed products, such as icecream and burgers, containing precision fermentation ingredients are already coming to the mainstream market.
We are also well on our way to having 3D printed “beef steaks” – the precursors to which already have been developed using soy and pea protein.
3. Why do we need precision fermentation now?
The Western world has witnessed a massive uptake in animal-free vegetarian and vegan food in recent years as our population has started to better comprehend the impact that our animal-heavy diets are having on the health of us and our planet. We all know that the demand has an impact on greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, habitat destruction, water usage, pollution, and animal waste – and all that before we even touch on animal welfare issues!
Nonetheless, there is no denying that animal products remain an extremely valuable source of nutrition for us as omnivorous beings.
Some analyses put Australia’s consumption of meat per capita ahead of that in the US!
For developing countries, the need for change in the food chain has a more humanitarian impulse – precision fermentation will be a means by which we can improve the diet and therefore health of those populations by increasing the amount of protein available to them.
Looking forward, our needs will become more pressing. Whilst the growth of our global population is slowing, the demand for food will still start to outstrip supply and we need to be smarter about the way we feed our people. Precision fermentation is just one of these ways since its demand for input, power, land and water will be lower than that of farmed animal products.
4. The complexity of the precision fermentation – the need for control
Fermentation is simple:
But precision fermentation has changed it forever.
Additional steps might now include centrifugation, liquid extraction, chromatography, filtration and lyophilisation. And that’s AFTER you’ve engineered your cells.
This increasing complexity, making it a highly technical and specialised process, means that:
- risks such as contamination or yield failure are higher and more costly,
- the need for qualified and experienced personnel is stronger.
You might be wondering what part a pharmaceutical consultancy such as PharmOut has to play in the novel food fermentation industry? Whilst the use of precision fermentation in food manufacture is in its early development, the process itself is well understood and has been widely used by the pharmaceutical industry where such products have been made for many years, for example in Pfizer’s production of non-animal insulin.
The regulatory control of food production has traditionally (and rightly) been less rigorous than that of pharmaceuticals, but with this cross over of technology, it is apparent that tighter control is needed to ensure that these food products maintain their required specification for identity, quality and safety.
This is currently managed in part by the need to register novel food products with Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ). In Australia, these registrations have so far been extremely limited. A similar process is required through comparable agencies in the EU and US, but they are considerably ahead in this game.
FSANZ registrations for food produced using gene technology – microbial origin
5. The future of precision fermentation
Precision Fermentation in food is here to stay. If you think it isn’t, realise that you’ve been party to this technology for 30 years already:
“Probably the best-known enzyme enabled by PF is fermentation-produced chymosin (FPC), which has replaced the animal-derived enzyme in rennet that was extracted from young calves and used to produce most cheeses. FPC was so successful that by 2012, just 20 odd years after gaining approval, it was used to make 90% of all cheese produced in the U.S. That’s right – nearly all of the cheese currently consumed in the US today is made using PF.”
Taylor Hinds, Rethink Disruption, 2020
Rethink takes a significant step further to say that the cattle industry will be all but obsolete in just 8 years. EIGHT YEARS. Their report, Rethinking Food and Agriculture, is a thought-provoking read.
There’s no denying that there are some major obstacles to overcome in this massive overhaul of our food source and its means of production. Not least is the cost, for which process improvements and efficiency have massively reduced the cost per kilo of protein such that precision fermentation is now on the cusp of economic competition with traditionally animal-sourced products.
A greater battle will be fought in the industry’s efforts to gain social acceptance of precision fermentation food that’s been made in a lab. For us to collectively leap this understandable psychological hurdle, the benefits of lab-grown food must be demonstrably and significantly greater than the drawbacks of animal-sourced products, whilst of course being proven completely safe.
To understand (and overcome?) our attitudes, PharmOut will be conducting company-wide taste tests on the Impossible burger, a plant-based patty that includes leg haemoglobin made from soy to give the burger a characteristically meaty taste and texture (it bleeds!), against a traditional beef burger.
If you also want to take part in this social experiment, the Impossible burger is currently available at Grill’d outlets in Australia – let us know what you think!
If you liked this content and want to find out more about precision fermentation in pharma, contact us here to schedule a chat with one of our consultants.
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