While feeding our planet’s growing population of 8 billion people, the current food system generates 34% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This equates to 18GT of CO2eq annually, of which animal products create 10GT. Naturally, a growing population and middle-class demand for more food – and under conventional agriculture, will produce more CO2eq.
There is also a physical challenge to growing more food. Not only does increased agriculture potentially result in increased emissions, but where do we find the physical resources to grow them? Where will an additional 20% or even up to 50% of farmed land projected to be needed by 2050 come from, if not deforestation? Where is the fresh water and fertiliser to be sourced?
Now, imagine a food system decoupled from agriculture and fishery. A system that produces protein at net zero, without deforestation or overfishing of the world’s oceans, nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) effluent run-off, loss of biodiversity, or long-distance transportation. Remarkably, such a food system is not a fantasy. Large-scale investments take place for generating renewable energy to produce green ammonia and low-carbon feedstocks from biogenic CO2, and there is an opportunity to turn them into single-cell proteins.
A food system is evolving that couples the energy transition, from fossil to renewables, with the protein transition, from food crops and animal-derived protein to microbial proteins. The potential of industrial-scale fermentation technology is vast and could legitimately produce regionally assured food composed of net zero carbon nutrients: proteins, vitamins, and fats; food made affordable by the value chain and preferentially selected by end consumers.
Two global mega trends dominate the news: climate change, related to the emissions of greenhouse gases, and food security challenges, associated with deforestation and overfishing, which releases carbon from the soil and oceans into the atmosphere. Combined with the increase in the overall global population and growing middle class, these impending megatrends will challenge us to be able to provide food for all within the planetary boundaries.
Consequently, we will likely witness a growing protein gap of up to 100 million tonnes in 2050 (Figure 1) and face the challenge of complying with net zero pledges (Figure 2).
There is a solution to both challenges from unexpected allies: the chemical and energy industry. The need for cleaner energy, fuels and materials is already increasing the terawatts of renewable electricity produced by sun and wind, giving rise to biofuels and biochemicals. Green energy carriers such as hydrogen and carbon monoxide from water and CO2 powered by renewable electricity can be used to produce low-carbon-intensive platform molecules.
By using precision biotechnology, we can convert the fruits of the energy transition into building blocks for the production of single-cell proteins, at scale, for use in the food and animal feed industries. Not only does this start to address the protein gap, but this localised model also removes the essentials of conventional agriculture, which is the inherent need for land and water.
Single-cell proteins can provide readily available, protein-rich microbial biomass in the form of algae, yeast, bacteria or fungi (Figure 3). Naturally occurring microorganisms can convert platform molecules into proteins, perfectly suited to replace fish meal, wheat gluten, soy or pea protein concentrates, and other plant proteins. This can be achieved by combining biotechnology with new Bioscience to train and evolve microorganisms to become super protein producers and maximise the nutritional value of the non-protein part of the cell structures.
Renewable energy costs have dropped dramatically in the last decade thanks to massive upscaling. At a current cost of USD 0.03-0.06/kWh, renewable energy is already comparable to fossil (Figure 4). Governmental mandates have accelerated the transition and will continue to do so as the higher deployment of renewable energy generation projects is undertaken – potentially putting downward pressure on prices. Further affordability is recognised in the value chain in the form of CO2eq emission reduction when a net zero protein source investment becomes competitive at a financial cost of €100/tonne CO2eq.
The creation of mega +100 kilo tonnes (kt) plants producing microbial protein would not only partly solve a protein production problem but also reduce carbon emissions equivalent to substitute 400kt equivalents (a value of €40 million) emitted by non-GM (genetically modified) soybean meal and absorb 200kt biogenic carbon, at an approximate value of €20 million.
The field of ‘single-cell’ protein biotechnology has advanced and, with new tools, is allowing us to develop novel value chains. Companies such as Calysta have developed and commercialised special bioreactor systems with methane-consuming bacteria capable of producing protein from natural gas, which releases fossil CO2. Others, like Deep Branch, Air Protein and Solar Foods, capture CO2 and hydrogen and, with oxygen, produce protein bacteria. Protein Brewery uses sugars from arable land as feedstocks for their microbial protein. Alternative protein sources such as insects or microalgae are also being explored and commercialised but suffer from scaling issues.
Lastly, some companies, like dsm-firmenich use low-carbon-intensive platform molecules as intermediates from the energy and chemical sectors, which are becoming abundantly available at lower cost, and are relatively easy to handle.
dsm-firmenich possesses the microbial workhorses best suited to produce protein using state-of-the-art fermentation technology. The microbes are versatile, agile and omnivorous consumers of carbon molecules. Initial trials with fish found no adverse effects on growth and survival when replacing 100% fishmeal and 50% soy protein concentrate, with high inclusion levels at above 15% (Figure 5). dsm-firmenich has over 150 years of biotechnology experience in strain and process technology and industrial-scale fermentation. More than twenty industrial fermentation sites produce over a hundred products, such as natural algal omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, sweeteners, enzymes, savoury compounds, aroma ingredients, probiotic bacteria and hydrocolloids for food texturing.
Interestingly, the synergistic coupling of the energy, chemical and food industries could become the key enabler at an industrial scale for resolving the seemingly opposed challenges of GHG emissions and the need to feed a growing population with protein sustainably. The growing need for proteins to close the impending gap of 100 million tonnes by 2050, and the need to reduce 18G tonnes of carbon from our food system, can be achieved with industrial-scale microbial proteins as one of the key solutions. dsm-firmenich’s strain library and industrial-scale fermentation technology could make a significant contribution - allowing us to meet these challenges head-on.
Food systems are responsible for a third of global anthropogenic GHG emissions | Nature Food
Further insights into this topic can be found in the research article 'Food systems are responsible for a third of global anthropogenic GHG emissions' published in Nature magazine.
11 October 2023
With his 30 years of experience in commercializing biotech innovations, he also is an honorary professor at the Delft University of Technology (NL), teaching via Biotech Delft and at the East China University of Science and Technology in Shanghai, China, and is scientific chairman of the EU Biochemical Engineering Course at Braç, Croatia. In his career, Henk covers different roles such as scientific director of the AI4b.io partnership between dsm-firmenich and the TU Delft, and representation of dsm-firmenich in the Low Carbon Emitting Technologies Initiative under the World Economic Forum. Henk holds a Ph.D. in Applied Sciences from the Delft University of Technology.
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