What is Synthesized Food

Our food will (have to) be so synthetic

Conventional agriculture and animal breeding can sometimes no longer guarantee food security. An international conference discussed and presented alternatives

What will people eat in 20 years? If you look at current reports on the food trends of tomorrow, topics such as insects, new types of preparation or all sorts of exotic ingredients called "superfoods" often dominate from afar. The Global Food Summit at the end of April 2021 provided a glimpse of the future of a different kind. Under the motto "Giving the future of food a voice", there were speeches by innovative food startups who answered the initial question in a much more revolutionary way.

Instead of simply combining what is already known, work is already underway here to produce meat without animals and plants without photosynthesis. That may sound a bit crazy at first glance, but the background is also a bit more serious than trying to land on the Instagram profile of Berlin food bloggers with new creations. Lim Chuan Poh from the Singapore Food Agency agreed on the situation:

Singapore is home to 5.7 million people in an area of ​​728 square kilometers. For comparison: In Berlin 3.7 million live in almost 900 square kilometers, so Singapore is roughly twice as densely populated. Accordingly, 90 percent of food is imported from abroad, which is not a particularly comfortable situation in times of climate crisis and pandemics.

According to Lim Chuan Poh, pig populations have declined by a quarter worldwide due to the Covid-19 pandemic and African swine fever. According to him, the climate crisis will have an impact on the crop yield per hectare and Singapore is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world.

All of these factors have a bad influence on the security of supply, which is why local politicians have set themselves an ambitious goal: by 2030, the island nation wants to produce 30 percent of the nutrients it needs for its population on just one percent of its area. It doesn't take long to come to the conclusion that conventional agriculture will not be able to achieve this goal.

Accordingly, Singapore is investing 60 million US dollars in companies with innovative approaches to food production and is planning the establishment of the Agri-Food Innovation Park, where business and research will work closely together to develop new solutions. The speaker slots at the Global Food Summit, which deal with molecular food production, in particular Solar Foods and Aleph Farms, provided a premonition of the direction in which this could go

Cultivated meat

Cultured meat is no longer an insider tip in 2021, but the topic remains exciting. Conventional meat production has several factors that make it difficult to scale. The German Farmers' Association has set out to prove the opposite, but the finiteness of planetary resources alone sets us limits in relation to the ten billion inhabitants of the earth to be expected in 2050.

According to Didier Toubia, CEO of Aleph Farms, meat production is currently consuming 46 percent of the world's arable produce and is driving the deforestation of the rainforest. Already 70 percent of the meat produced globally comes from industrial animal husbandry. Apart from the effects on our resources and climate change, this system is also uncomfortably prone to crises. In fact: The global goods system is dependent on a few trade routes, as a result of which the pandemic and the seven-day blockade of the Suez Canal cause freight prices to rise sharply until the summer and tenfold for certain routes

Companies such as Eat Just, Memphis Meats, Mosa Meat or Aleph Farms all want to master these problems in the same way: By growing the meat outside of animals. Aleph Farms has opted for the slogan "a second domestication", which sounds a bit very self-confident at first glance, but doesn't really exaggerate on closer inspection.

Because even with the first domestication of animals 12,000 years ago, humans brought wild creatures under controlled conditions and thus drastically increased their security of supply. The idea of ​​growing a steak out of a cell simply goes one step further.

Aleph Farms' goal is to use pluripotent stem cells and 3-D bioprinting technology to cultivate any type of steak. Hard data on production processes are traditionally hard to come by in this industry, too many companies are competing here for access to a potential multibillion dollar market and are accordingly cautious about passing on their methods. Even in non-fiction books on the subject, there is hardly any concrete information with which the progress of the individual companies can be reliably compared.

Aleph Farms has now presented the first cultivated ribeye steak in February 2021 and announced the plan to bring the first cultivated beef steak to the market by the beginning of 2022. No information was given about the costs, which is why one can cautiously doubt whether the production costs for real meat have already been undercut.

When asked, Didier Toubia is confident and points out that production costs are subject to a dynamic similar to that of solar cells or LEDs. The hint is clear: If there is sufficient demand and correspondingly high quantities, the costs will fall again and it could be very exciting on the food market.

Toubia explains: We don't have to recreate a functioning part of an animal organism for a piece of cultivated steak. The goal is good taste and an optimal nutrient composition, which means that not all body cell types that are in a real steak have to be reproduced in the laboratory. By reducing to the few types that are really needed, the effort could be reduced again. The result was seen in February in the form of a deceptively real ribeye steak.

Aleph Farms Chief Advisor Shulamit Levenberg commented: "With this milestone we have overcome the barriers to introducing a new variety of cultured meat cuts. The future possibilities of 3-D bioprinting are endless." These possibilities are not tied to the use of several hectares of pasture area per cow, they can take place in a much smaller space and primarily require energy and nutrient solution.

Synthetic proteins

The idea of ​​imitating nature is being pursued even more consistently by another company: Solar Foods from Finland produces proteins, but bypassing the photosynthesis process.

The motivation is similar to Aleph Farms: According to Pasi Vainikka, CEO of Solar Foods, conventional agriculture has a lot of disadvantages. Food production and related land use accounted for 25 percent of global human greenhouse gas emissions. Arable farming is carried out with the use of large amounts of pesticides and artificial fertilizers, and biodiversity is falling sharply in areas of intensive agricultural use.

Fishing is destroying maritime ecosystems and the problems with factory farming are well known. Solar Foods' approach is now to produce a synthetic protein that could eliminate the need for keeping land animals, catching fish and growing gigantic amounts of vegetable protein.

From a purely technical point of view, this is done according to the same principle as the production of climate-neutral e-fuels: There, hydrocarbons are synthesized with the help of energy from climate-neutral energy sources and the carbon contained in the air in the form of CO2. If these are burned again in a gasoline engine, the process is overall climate-neutral because only CO2 escapes into the atmosphere that was previously removed for the process.

Unfortunately, this process is quite inefficient for engines, but proteins can also be produced according to the same scheme. Certain microorganisms are used for the process, which produce proteins with the help of energy and ambient air. According to the manufacturer, the efficiency of this process is 20 times as high as that of natural photosynthesis.

The end product is Solein, a powder that consists of up to 70 percent proteins and has a high-quality amino acid profile. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. While the human body can produce most of them itself, nine of them are so-called essential amino acids, which the body has to take in through food. For most of them, the Solar Foods product has higher values ​​than beef or soy.

The process is so efficient that, according to the manufacturer, it uses a fraction of the resources of conventional food production. For example, it takes 1,000 liters of water to produce one kilogram of protein from brine, while plants require 100 times the amount and beef 700 times the amount. Similar large savings are in prospect with regard to land use: With one square meter of area, one kilo of protein can be produced from solein, while plant cultivation requires 20 square meters and beef production 200 square meters.

If this concept proves itself in large numbers, humanity could not only be completely fed, but also renaturalize or reforest large areas. The powder could be used as a basic ingredient, as a supplement to conventionally produced foods or as an alternative to meat.

The next hurdle, however, is not technically solvable: the product must be approved for use in food in the EU. If that doesn't happen quickly enough, Solar Foods is already toying with conquering markets in other countries, says Dr. Pasi Vainikka. The prerequisites have been created, the Solein powder is already cheaper to produce than meat at 4 euros / kilo - and that in the demonstration phase.

The first Solar Foods factory with four to 40 million meals produced per year is planned for 2022. In the case of production on this scale, it is assumed that prices will continue to fall sharply - molecularly produced foods would then already be competitive.

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