Will Bread Save Our Planet? Fermentation's Role in Sustainable Protein Production

Fermented grains could provide the climate-friendly proteins that the world craves.

Will Bread Save Our Planet? Fermentation's Role in Sustainable Protein Production
Photo by Annie Spratt / Unsplash

Guest post by Dr. Monica Bhatia, PhD, co-founder and co-CEO of EQUII, a food technology startup

The global food system accounts for roughly one-third of the world's total greenhouse gas emissions, according to research published in Nature. Within this sector, the meat and dairy industries stand out as the largest polluters, with livestock systems approximately accounting for a whopping 12% of all global emissions, based on UN data. 

While there are some ways to make these industries less damaging, such as with better manure management, the problem is unlikely to go away through changed farm practices alone, considering the demand for meat is expected to surge by over 50% by 2050 under a business as usual scenario, according to the UN. As such, it is imperative, now more than ever, to establish a more sustainable approach to food production, beginning with alternatives to animal proteins.

One technology that seeks to solve this problem is fermentation, a scalable solution that meets nutritional requirements without depleting as many essential planetary resources like water, land, and soil.

Fermentation is a process through which microorganisms grow under controlled or natural conditions to produce a specific product. The most famous example of this application is beer, which is created through yeast fermentation. Fermentation has historically been used to manufacture antibiotics, enzymes and specialty ingredients, but the deployment of fermentation to produce protein has gained popularity only in the last decade.

Many companies have demonstrated fermentation to be a technologically viable path to create mimics of animal-derived proteins. Perfect Day’s whey, Impossible Foods’ heme, New Culture’s casein, Geltor’s collagen, and Upside Foods’ chicken cells are some examples of replacement proteins that have gained significant attention and recognition in recent years. 

Why Fermentation? 

The primary advantage of producing protein through fermentation lies in its significantly lower greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint.

Numerous studies, such as the GFI’s 2023 report on “Environmental benefits of alternative proteins,” have demonstrated that, per kilogram of protein, fermented protein can exhibit 70-90% lower GHG emissions and environmental footprint, particularly in terms of water and land usage. Also, because fermenters can be set up virtually anywhere, the technology is region-agnostic and highly versatile.

With advances in synthetic biology, the mimicry potential of fermentation-derived products is also improving, making it more feasible to introduce mass-market meat and dairy replacements. 

However, recent data from SPINS and Good Food Institute’s 2023 report on consumer behavior indicates that consumer acceptance of fermented proteins is progressing slower than anticipated. Year-over-year sales across various segments of the plant-based category are down, notably plant-based meats and seafood, plant-based meals, eggs, cheese, and ice cream, among others. The primary concerns for consumers are taste, texture, and cost. 

While taste and texture challenges have to be addressed in a bespoke way for each protein and its final application, growing consumer awareness, acceptability, and further technological evolution can help. In one study published in Food Research International, for example, Impossible burgers outperformed beef burgers, showing hope that the category will continue to improve its offerings to meet consumer standards.

Meanwhile, the cost of fermented proteins can be considered a generic issue. Cost targets for food proteins, based on widely used incumbents like whey protein and egg protein, are between $5-$20 per kg of protein. Plant proteins like soy, chickpea, fava, and pea have been able to demonstrate viability at this price range.

However, most fermented proteins are still considered expensive compared to the expected range in the food industry.

On average, fermented proteins at scale cost five to ten times more than other types of proteins. Why? From a process perspective, this cost discrepancy is mainly attributed to how much product can be recovered through fermentation and how much the substrates and feedstocks that are used for fermentation cost. In fact, both factors go hand in hand. 

Currently, most fermentation processes can convert less than 33% of the feedstock into the final product. For precision fermented proteins, this conversion factor may be substantially lower. 

Cost of final products, therefore, depends significantly on the cost of feedstock, among other things. Semi- or ultra-refined sugars like dextrose, dextrose syrups, or table sugar are some of the most commonly used feedstocks and can cost between $0.50-$1/kg. When multiplied by the yield factor and accounted for other costs like opex, capex, costs to purify the protein, etc., final costs of fermented proteins can be >$30/kg.

Switching the fermentation substrates to lower-cost inputs like raw grains or agricultural stocks,  as well as increasing the protein yield significantly, are non-trivial issues and require technological breakthroughs. Today, companies like Gingko have been working on better-yielding strains and processes to help increase protein yield and lower the final product costs from a biological perspective.

There is also the need to expand the library of fermentable feedstocks from corn, soy, and sugarcane to more sustainable alternatives that can be grown globally, are easily scalable, and ultimately cost less.

One such option could be grains.

The Advantage of Grains

Grains like wheat, cassava, and sorghum emerge as prime candidates for cultivating climate-friendly, plant-based proteins through fermentation. Their versatility lies in their ability to thrive across diverse water, land, and climate conditions, setting them apart from crops like soy and corn. 

In particular, wheat already holds a significant place in most people's diets. Research published in Food and Energy Security, for example, points to a UK study on wheat accounting for over 20% of the protein in UK diets, for example. However, wheat protein is not considered nutritionally significant due to its poor quality in terms of providing all of the essential amino acids.

Yet utilizing wheat flour as a fermentation input can enrich its protein quality. In other words, using grains like wheat for fermentation can add sustainable, high-quality protein to diets at an affordable cost.

However, typically used industrial microbes like bacteria and yeast cannot ferment starches on their own and require an additional step to convert these starches into simpler sugars. If you know how beer is made, you know what I am talking about. 

That’s where science comes into play to change it all. Overcoming the technical hurdles for low-cost feedstock adoption lies in the ability to match the fermenting agent or microbe with its metabolic abilities to digest native starches while also being able to generate the desired protein. 

Companies like EQUII have spearheaded this effort by demonstrating strains of common microbes like yeasts that can metabolize starch and create food proteins. EQUII has also showcased examples of proteins that can be blended with regular flour to create a high-protein flour that can provide a high degree of taste, texture, and mouthfeel, similar to regular flour-based products, while enhancing protein content and quality significantly.

What's Next?

As technology advances to bring fermented food proteins closer to reality, the application space for proteins also widens. As a society, we have come a long way and evolved from the concept of relying solely on meat, eggs, and dairy for our protein intake. Today, consumers are demanding more protein than ever before, and they seek it in a wider array of forms than in the past. Protein shakes, bars, and snacks are great examples. 

Re-imagining the access and source of dietary protein will be critical to the goal of incorporating sustainable protein on the plate and preventing further ecological damage from animal farming. By harnessing the potential of grains to generate proteins, we can establish a scalable and sustainable method of protein production, offering broader applications that facilitate consumers in embracing superior protein sources conveniently and effortlessly.

Sustainability is not a choice anymore. It's a necessity. Forging the path forward to sustainable proteins, whether through fermentation of wheat, synthetic biology, or plant proteins, will dictate the future of protein, our plates, and our planet. Now, it's a race against the clock to scale more sustainable proteins before the damage to our planet reaches a tipping point.

About the Author:
Monica Bhatia, PhD, has a rich background in biotech manufacturing, ingredient and fermentation expertise, and a passion for sustainable and nutritious food. As the co-founder and co-CEO of
EQUII, a food technology startup, she has been instrumental in the development of high-protein, plant-based food products that focus on sustainability and health.

Dr. Bhatia's entrepreneurial journey is driven by her understanding of the sustainable protein industry and her personal commitment to health and nutrition. As a mother and a health enthusiast, she saw the need for sustainable proteins that also deliver on taste and texture, which led to the inception of EQUII. Her vision is to shift the paradigm in protein consumption from meat to plant-based staples, making them a more natural and tasty option. A California resident, Dr. Bhatia is an alumna of the University of South Carolina, where she received a PhD in biochemistry. 

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