In the early days of the industrial production of animal proteins, Pat Brown and his team at Impossible Foods pioneered a new approach to precision fermentation. Using microbial organisms like yeast and fungi, they were able to create high-quality proteins that could be used in food products. Today’s precision fermentation industry is based on their work, and Impossible Foods remains a leading innovator in this field.
In the late 2010s, startups began using a technique known as cellular agriculture to produce food ingredients. Cellular agriculture uses cells taken from natural ecosystems to generate foods like eggs, dairy products, and collagen. These first movers raised hundreds of millions of dollars and dozens of other startups followed in their footsteps.
Over-reliance on the capacity narrative
Environmentalists have long heralded the benefits of precision fermentation, claiming that it may be the most important green technology ever. With conventional animal farming becoming increasingly difficult to sustain, precision fermentation is seen as a promising solution to the constrained supply of conventional animal products.
To answer that question, we will first need to understand why demand for plastics is growing so quickly. According to a report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, global demand for plastic products will increase by 50% between 2014 and 2030. The main reason for this growth is increasing adoption of plastic in packaging, manufacturing and other applications. Additionally, new technologies like 3D printing are making it easier and cheaper to create new types of plastics. So while there are many factors at play driving demand for plastics, one thing is sure: the industry needs to build more capacity if it wants to meet that future demand.
The precision fermentation industry would do well to focus in on a few areas when it comes to creating economic models for large-volume commodity food products. One important focus would be on understanding the costs and benefits of various fermentation processes. This information can help producers make informed decisions about which method is best suited to their product and their production goals. Additionally, accurate forecasting of consumer demand is essential for ensuring that companies receive the correct price for their products. By accurately predicting market needs, the precision fermentation industry can ensure long-term sustainability and profitability throughout its supply chain.
One of the strangest aspects of the race to build ever-larger factories for precision fermentation is that it has a seemingly ravenous appetite for energy. The scale at which these companies are operating demands an extraordinary amount of electricity – enough, in some cases, to power entire towns. This reliance on electric power raises concerns about the sustainability of our rapidly expanding industry.
In order to create an all-out biomanufacturing revolution that can outcompete animal agriculture, we must be honest about the science and admit that the crucial work to be done in precision fermentation for cheap animal-free alternatives is not simply building or enabling capacity, but rather designing new or radically improved production systems. The challenge is that traditional fermentative production methods are labor-intensive and slow, making them very costly relative to industrial animal farming. However, there are exciting advances being made in engineering new fermentation organisms and producing bioproducts more cheaply and efficiently using modern techniques. If we can find ways to combine these two approaches – by developing enhanced fermentation abilities within existing organisms as well as creating completely new ones – then we could significantly reduce the cost of producing cheap animal-free alternatives for both consumers and producers alike.
This open secret suggests that food-grade precision fermentation may not have the same economic competitiveness as commodity dairy or eggs. This could be due to the high costs associated with this process, such as the need for excellent fermentation conditions and engineered yeast strains. Additionally, food-grade precision fermentation often requires specialized equipment and inputs, which could drive up costs even more.
Thus, the vast majority of fish farmers will inevitability need to some form of vertical reuse or recycling if they are to have a viable future. Their current practice of simply breeding more fish and growing them in larger tanks will not be enough for the industry to keep up with ever growing demand.