Is microbial protein the answer to the quest for ‘meatless meat’?

Can you imagine producing agri-products without having to use land? Finnish scientists and researchers have produced protein, manufactured by microbes, using electricity, water, nutrients and air.

With an increasing global population, and transition towards a more ‘western’ diet in many parts of the world, the demand for meat is rising – but the pressure for increased production and consumption of protein from animal origin is not sustainable. This has given rise to popular movements such as veganism, with increased focus on plant based protein. “Very interesting changes are taking place. More and more people start thinking that killing animals for food for example is not right”, comments Professor Jero Ahola, head of the Neo Carbon Food Project at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd and LUT University. Another possible alternative is microbial produced protein – e.g. proteins produced by H2-oxidising bacteria from essentially electricity, water, nutrients and air.

Microbial protein production is deemed environmentally sustainable, climate-independent, and does not require pesticides or herbicides.  A recent review article published in the journal ‘Global Food Security’, reported that microbial protein production, using renewable energy and direct CO2 capture from air, uses much less land and water than soybean protein production. Thus, this technology is an efficient way to achieve a high protein yield without the use of seed and soil, and can also be successful in areas where, due to climatic or soil conditions, conventional farming methods cannot be applied.

Shakes and yogurts

The purpose of the joint Neo Carbon Food Project of the Lappeenranta-Lahti University of Technology (LUT) and the Technical Research Centre of Finland (VTT) is to increase the production scale of microbial protein powder and employing direct air capture of CO2. The process requires electricity — renewable sources such as solar or wind energy — water, CO2 captured from the air, nutrients and microbes. A bioreactor splits water into hydrogen and oxygen with electric current. The microbes use CO2 as the carbon source and hydrogen (H2) as the energy source. A biomass substance is then extracted and dried, i.e. the microbial protein. The protein powder is a white and floury substance composed of 50% protein, 20-25% carbohydrate and 5-10% fat.

Vesa Ruuskanen ESMH ScientistDr Vesa Ruuskanen, post-doctoral researcher at LUT involved in the Neo Carbon Food project : “The main advantage of the system is that it is completely scalable. We are separating the scaling up and the numbering up. To some extent we scale up, and then we can just repeat and make as many units as possible. It is very similar to solar cell production. In our pilot system, the targeted aim is 4 grams [of protein] per hour. There are no limits foreseen at the moment. The main requirement is energy. Solar and wind production has huge capacity. The source of carbon is available, there is air everywhere, you just need sunlight and this is also available in most places in the planet”

Experts predict that we’ll first use this powder in protein shakes and yogurts, and then also in ‘meat-free meat’ which is becoming increasingly popular and demanded. Finnish scientists who developed the technique to produce this new food ingredient are convinced that this is the future, even if it is not a new concept.

Since the sixties

Jero Ahola ESMH scientistProfessor Jero Ahola : “The possibility of producing microbial protein using H2-oxidizing bacteria has been known since the 1960s. Back then, researchers thought that humans will go to space and will have to produce food during the space travel. Conditions have changed since the sixties because now we have the problem of climate change and we are in a situation when we can have very low cost renewable electricity.”

Dr Vesa Ruuskanen : “The difference is that back in the sixties this kind of technology was not that topical, because fertilisers just arrived in the market and renewable electricity was not available.”

Microbial proteins could indeed be part of the solution towards food security and sustainability. However, we are still a long way off from buying a microbial protein burger in the supermarket, as progress continues in examining safety, nutritional value, and public acceptance.

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