Brewing up the future: using the power of fermentation to transform farm waste into sustainable food
Dorian Leger and Milena Ivanisevic from Connectomix Bio are leading an international team creating a toolkit that will help startups, large companies and even governments understand the process of transforming waste products into food. They say there is huge potential to use existing infrastructure, which would otherwise turn food crops into fuel, to scale up this process.
The team will use a two-step process. First, they will turn discarded parts of crops – such as corn husks – into a gas, which can then be used to feed microbes in a fermentation process that produces lipids. These fatty acids can then be added to plant-based and cultivated meat to replicate the complex flavors of conventional meat.
“We’re building on a technology that’s existed for millennia – brewing – but the big differences are that instead of making beer we’re making lipids and instead of dedicating land to grow crops specifically for this process, we’re using renewable sources,” stated Leger, the Managing Director at Connectomix Bio.
“This can have important environmental advantages," noted Ivanisevic, Scientific Project Manager. "If you leave agricultural waste lying in the field it will create methane, which has a greater global warming potential than CO2. What we’re doing will capture this gas and turn it into an asset.”
Working with a large team of collaborators across Europe, the USA and Israel, the team will create a range of oils designed to add flavor to sustainable protein products, such as plant-based chicken, pork or beef.
The researchers will experiment with different waste products and different processes – such as using the raw biogas initially produced through anaerobic digestion to feed the microbes, or converting this into different types of gases and liquids – to work out which is the most economical.
These findings will then be shared with the food industry in the first publicly available techno-economic assessment analyzing how this technology can be used to create fats from waste.
“The study will also look into the potential to convert biogas into either hydrogen or methanol before fermentation," continued Ivanisevic. "There’s a big difference between liquid and gas fermentation. It will shed light on the pros and cons of different methods, identifying where investment and research will be most beneficial.
“We believe our research will provide motivation for new companies to enter this space, particularly biogas producers – an industry not historically engaged in sustainable food production.”
The Luxembourg-based team is collaborating with San Diego State University and Stanford in the USA, Imperial College London, University of Naples Federico II, Technical University of Denmark – DTU, Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science, Canada’s Verschuren Centre, and VNG, a group of companies active in the gas sector across Europe.
“There are a lot of different routes we can use to get to the finished product, so we’re analyzing this process carefully to work out which is best – all roads lead to Rome but some are longer and bumpier than others,” added Leger.
“There’s huge potential for biogas production, particularly in the USA, where California has incentivized it as a source of fuel production," explained Dr Sahar El Abbadi, Postdoctoral Researcher at Stanford. "If there is a policy shift away from that in the future, we will have a lot of existing infrastructure that could be used for this purpose.”
“This technology could provide ways of letting farmers keep doing what they’re good at, and what they’ve been doing for centuries, but in a way that improves efficiency and which could provide a host of new opportunities for them,” said Gerd Woelbling, Senior Origination Manager at the VNG group.
The one-year project was funded by the Good Food Institute (GFI), an international NGO working to advance new ways of making meat, as part of its 2022 Research Grants Programme.
It was one of eight European projects and 21 from around the world to receive funding from the program, which supports innovative open-access research to develop sustainable proteins.
With very little public funding dedicated to sustainable protein research and development, GFI set up the program with the support of philanthropic donors to help fill the gap and make key findings publicly accessible.
“This project will not only find new ways of developing sustainable alternatives to animal fat – crucial to delivering the flavour and mouth-feel of conventionally produced meat – it will put the information about how to do this in the public domain, which could help accelerate progress for the whole field," concluded Seren Kell, Science and Technology Manager at the Good Food Institute Europe. “We’ve only just scratched the surface of what’s possible with fermentation. To deliver on their climate targets and enhance food security, governments should be stepping up to fund more open-access research into this kind of sustainable protein production.”
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