That was one of the questions raised by experts during a panel discussion at the Future of Nutrition Summit, part of Food Ingredients Europe 2023.
Panel moderator Ruben Smouter, senior consultant at Bright Green Partners, described precision fermentation – a technology that uses microbes, microalgae, or yeast to produce molecules analogous to those found in animal products – as “a real game-changer” for the alternative protein industry.
But questions remain around sustainability and price parity, others argued.
Precision fermentation: The question of sustainability and ensuring ‘true circularity’
Dr Heike Steiling, vice-president of R&D and head of Nestlé Product Technology Centers Dairy, drew attention to the question of ensuring circularity.
“What is the true circularity of the model?” she asked. “Because we have the growth medium and you need to as well feed those cells with sugar or sugar compounds – how is then circularity of that growth medium? Because… if you have to cultivate maize or other crops in order to feed the cells, you are nothing better than a plant-based beverage.”
She added: “We should not overlook the circularity, that we truly can say yes, this is a more sustainable version that not only the traditional dairy business but also a stepping stone vis-a-vis plant, which is today I think not so straightforward.”
Dr Anastasia Krivoruchko, co-founder and CEO of Melt&Marble, a B2B startup that uses precision fermentation to produce designer fats, sounded a more positive note, pointing to the opportunities presented by upcycling.
“You can use all sorts of side-streams from the food industry or other types of industries to create those ingredients,” she said, describing this as “the next generation” of veganism.
And she emphasised the importance of making a comparison with the means of production currently in use.
“We’re producing fat and we’re trying to replace coconut oil, which is right now grown in tropical regions where it is associated with a lot of deforestation and loss of biodiversity,” she said. “In our case, even [if], say, we're using traditional sugar sources that come from somewhere in Iowa – growing your sugars in Iowa is still probably more sustainable than cutting down all of these rainforests in Malaysia or Indonesia.”
Price parity and partnerships ‘crucial’ for precision fermentation to be truly sustainable
Stephan van Sint Fiet, CEO of Vivici, a Dutch precision fermentation dairy startup that was borne out of a collaboration between DSM and Fonterra, said partnerships were key.
He added: “I really see a good partnership between the precision fermentation companies who enabled the ingredient and the actual brand owners who know how to tell the story.”
Steiling agreed, saying: “It would be stupid to think we can solve all the problems ourselves… Nobody has a crystal ball but currently it's very clear – partnership is where we are going forward. We work with a lot of different partners to figure out and also to get the knowledge.”
Asked about the costs associated with the technology, van Sint Fiet said: “Depending on who you talk to, price parity is already here or right around the corner. I don't believe the here part to be honest...
“I think that there are credible technologies that are out there that if they were implemented systematically in our industry, price parity would be within reach in three to four years.”
He added: “Once we hit that social cost level, plus the flexibility and the ability to tailor properties, I think that will really make these proteins very, very exciting ingredients of the future.”
Steiling agreed that it was a way off but highlighted the opportunities that would be available once precision fermentation-produced ingredients reach price parity.
She added: “Just imagine, in areas and countries where there is no dairy farming possible, where the climate is too hot – you can still run a reactor and you have good protein, which [is] then also sustainable and affordable... Then I think we have cracked the whole story. But this is not something which is around the corner.”