“I’ve tasted it, and it’s great. If I needed to put a flavour on it, I ‘d say it’s slightly umami,” says Peter Rowe, chief executive of biotech firm Deep Branch.
Mr Rowe plainly takes his work seriously, as he is not discussing food for human beings. Rather, he has sampled a synthetic protein that has been produced to feed to animals.
Mr Rowe and his partners are trying to reduce the carbon footprint of animal feed which is typically shipped around the world.
” If you take soy production, which is the primary protein source for feeding things like chickens, or if you take fishmeal production, which is the primary protein source for salmon, both of these tend to be carried out in South America,” says Mr Rowe.
In the case of fishmeal, anchovies are captured off the Pacific coast of Peru and Chile, processed and shipped all over the world. Likewise, soy plantations in Brazil or Argentina may involve clearing forest and require big amounts of fertiliser, heavy usage of farming equipment and, once again, long-distance shipping.
” So a lot of the carbon intensity originates from the processes themselves, and a big part is the carbon strength of shipping it over,” states Mr Rowe.
One answer is to base animal feeds on single-cell proteins (SCPs), produced through a fermentation process including yeast, bacteria or algae. Plants can be situated anywhere that there’s an available feedstock for the micro-organisms: methane, ethanol, sugar, biogas or perhaps wood.
Through a task called React-First, which has received ₤ 3m in funding from Innovate UK, scientists are working to reduce the carbon footprint of animal feeds.
Along with Deep Branch, the project includes academics and business including Drax, the UK’s largest renewable resource manufacturer, and grocery store Sainsbury’s.
It’s now producing a high-protein feed called Proton – basically from thin air.
The procedure is based on a proprietary gas fermentation procedure, by which microorganisms are fed carbon dioxide, along with hydrogen – produced using an electrolyser – and water. They then produce the Proton protein as waste material.
The greatest difficulty for any SCP maker is accomplishing commercial scale, says Laura Krishfield, a research study associate at analyst company Lux Research.
” Single-cell proteins featured a substantial investment cost,” she says. “We’ve seen claims that business centers are going to cost over the $100m (₤ 72m) mark, so these facilities are not going to be inexpensive. And a lot of these facilities likewise include other crucial difficulties, such as access to the gas feedstock.”
In the case of Deep Branch, industrial emissions supply the CO2 feedstock, both for the UK pilot and for a “scale-up centre” at the Brightlands Chemelot School in the Netherlands that has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 EIC Accelerator program.
” We see excellent worth in partnering with people like Drax, and the factor for this is that they are working towards having a procedure whereby all the CO2 they produce is saved and caught beneath the North Sea,” states Mr Rowe.
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” They’re going to a great deal of effort to put in the infrastructure, so essentially we have access to our CO2 in the same way as on a residential basis you have access to natural gas and electrical energy: it becomes an energy for us generally. And the same is true for hydrogen, which is the other main input we require.”
By producing the feed near to where it’s needed and using waste items as the fermentation feedstock, the carbon footprint of the protein is cut by 90%, compared with conventional feeds. And that, says Mr Rowe, cuts the carbon footprint of the salmon itself – including transportation and product packaging – by a quarter.
” So you can make a truly huge sustainability distinction by just swapping out one ingredient in the feed,” he states.
Rory Conn, sales and business manager for Scottish Sea Farms in Stirling, states that over the last few years there has actually been a move towards more plant-based salmon feeds.
” However I believe in basic we have actually reached the point where we have actually reached we can,” he states.
” SCPs are intriguing, and I think we see that as the future direction of travel – further enhancing the sustainability of salmon feeds.”
Also increasing interest in SCPs is the concern of nationwide food security, states Joshua Haslun, a senior expert with Lux Research study.
” It’s nations like Singapore where they’re speaking about vertical farming and aquaculture, and how you can begin to decrease your threat around food security.”
Today, SCP production of all kinds is comparatively small scale, with Lux Research study predicting that it will only become cost-efficient at volumes of around 10,000 tonnes annually.
” This isn’t a silver bullet for all the world’s protein requirements, far from it,” states Deep Branch’s Peter Rowe. “However it is a really great method to support additional protein sources that are out there.”
So could SCPs become a source of protein for people?
” The designers of single-cell proteins are seeing that as a long-term method for now. I do think there’s going to be regulatory obstacles to leap through,” says Lux Research’s Laura Krishfield.
” And then you have to think about the solution and is it going to taste excellent. There’s also the whole problem of acceptance.”
Mr Rowe, however, is more optimistic.
“It’s relatively neutral in terms of flavour and colour, which indicates it’ll be really flexible for usage in an entire range of different products.”