VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland and the University of Helsinki in January reported that cellular agriculture, also known as precision fermentation, can reduce land use and greenhouse gas emissions dramatically in the production of ovalbumin, one of the most important proteins for the food industry.
The two organisations produced the protein with the help of a filamentous fungus called Trichoderma reesei.
Emilia Nordlund, research manager at VTT, told that the researchers inserted the gene carrying the blueprint of ovalbumin into the fungus, prompting it so produce and secrete the protein found naturally in egg white.
“The ovalbumin protein is then separated from the cells, concentrated and dried to create a final functional product,” she added.
Parts of the traditional production chain of ovalbumin, such as layer poultry farming, generate considerable amounts of greenhouse gas emissions and exacerbate biodiversity loss, deforestation and water shortages. Intensive poultry farming has also caused outbreaks of zoonotic diseases by serving as a reservoir for human pathogens.
About 1.6 million tonnes of egg proteins was consumed globally in 2020. With the demand expected to increase due population growth and evolving dietary habits, questions about the ethics and sustainability of poultry farming are unlikely to go away.
While precision fermentation offers a means to decouple the production of the protein, along with other animal proteins, from livestock farming, its environmental impact hinges to a great extent on the source of energy, given the electricity-intensive nature of cell-cultured products. The agricultural inputs required for the microbial production of ovalbumin microbially, however, are significantly lower per kilo of protein, according to VTT.
“According to our research, this means that the fungus-produced ovalbumin reduced land-use requirements by almost 90 per cent and greenhouse gases by 31–55 per cent compared to the production of its chicken-based counterpart,” reported Natasha Järviö, doctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki.
“In the future, when production is based on low-carbon energy, precision fermentation has the potential to reduce the impact even by up to 72 per cent.”
Cellular agriculture is regarded as a means to attenuate the threat food systems face from climate change and soil degradation.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in 2015 estimated that around 24 billion tonnes, or 12 million hectares, of fertile topsoil is lost every year. Humanity, it added, has only 60 years of fertile topsoil left unless the current farming practices are reconfigured to improve efficiency and sustainability.
The global population, meanwhile, is forecast to grow to 9.8 billion by 2050, doubling the demand for food as the world works toward net-zero emissions in order to contain global warming to 1.5°C. The share of the planet’s surface that has already degraded – 25 per cent – would suffice to feed roughly 1.5 billion people.
“Alongside traditional food production, cellular agriculture is one of the possible solutions to feeding the growing population. We are currently studying what kinds of food industry raw materials could be produced with microbes,” he said, pointing to a research enterprise undertaken by Valio and VTT.
Despite advances with the aforementioned ovalbumin, for example, developing methods to instruct producer organisms, such as fungi, to produce and secrete the desired protein is hardly a straightforward task.
“Animal-based products like milk or meat are complex. They are made up of many different compounds and structures that are very difficult to replicate in their entirety,” explained Kallioinen. “Cellular agriculture is best suited for the production of individual raw material components. That’s why we see that both have a place in future food production.”
The energy-intensive nature of cellular agriculture, he added, poses another challenge: how to produce the high amounts of low-cost and low-carbon energy required for the large-scale production of proteins in fermentation tanks.
“This is what we are working on with Hanna Tuomisto, associate professor of sustainable food systems at the University of Helsinki.”
Funding for shared food infrastructure, plant-based products
FOODNUTRI, a three-year research project led by the University of Helsinki, in December received 3.5 million euros in funding from the Academy of Finland.
The funding decision aligns with both the Sustainable Growth Programme for Finland and the Recovery and Resilience Facility of the European Union, an instrument set up to mitigate the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, promote digitalisation and accelerate the green transition in the EU.
Marina Heinonen, the professor of food safety in charge of the project at the University of Helsinki, said the project will strive to serve the entire national food system – including researchers, businesses, authorities, healthcare professionals and food producers – by facilitating the sharing of research data and tools.
“A shared infrastructure in terms of research equipment and tools, as well as the research data, including databases, is not only resource-efficient but productive with regard to our shared goals of sustainable development,” she told.
The project will diversely utilise local raw materials and packaging and processing solutions while generating information on topics ranging from the composition and safety of food products to consumer attitudes, nutrient intake, psychological responses to food and the sustainability of food choices.
“FOODNUTRI will create a service concept that provides the wider community, under certain conditions, with access to equipment. This access may mean use by individual visiting scholars or fee-based activities,” said Heinonen.
“Another aim is to combine data pertaining to nutrition with models used in the assessment of environmental strain.”
Also taking part are the University of Eastern Finland, South-Eastern Finland University of Applied Sciences, Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke), Finnish Food Authority, Finnish Environment Institute (Syke), VTT, Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) and University of Turku.
Oddlygood Global, a spin-off from Valio, in December announced it has received a 25 million-euro investment from Mandatum Asset Management.
The investment will enable the producer of oat-based dairy alternatives to develop its production facilities, expand its marketing efforts, supplement its team and widen its presence in Finland, Russia, Sweden, the Baltics, the UK and the US.
“Together with Mandatum, we will take the next step in our growth plan across our current markets, as well as in new ones. We can use the financing to accelerate the implementation of our growth strategy and to deepen our business development expertise,” outlined Niko Vuorenmaa, CEO of Oddlygood Global.
The sales of its oat-based products have doubled each year. In Sweden, the company has grown by over 130 per cent while the market share of oat-based dairy alternatives has only expanded by 12 per cent.
“Interest in plant-based products is growing exponentially worldwide, which we can also see in a significant increase in our sales,” observed Vuorenmaa. “However, consumers will only change their day-to-day consumption habits if they find dairy alternatives that both taste good and fit their lifestyle.”
Oddlygood Global remains in the majority ownership of Valio.
Fazer Group in December revealed it has entered into an agreement to acquire Trensums Food, a Swedish producer of plant-based drinks that reported net sales of over 75 million euros in the fiscal year ending in April 2021.
The Finnish food industry icon viewed that the acquisition will provide access to new markets, augment its production capacity and set up a platform for future growth, thus supporting its growth strategy and ambition to become a regional leader in plant-based and non-dairy food. The acquisition, the price of which was not disclosed, is subject to approval from the Swedish Competition Authority.
“Consumer demand for nutritious plant-based foods is growing fast and our ambition is to become one of the leading players in oats and plant-based food in Northern Europe,” stated Christoph Vitzthum, CEO of Fazer Group.
Among the factors driving up global demand for plant-based and, especially, oats-based drinks are good taste profile and low environmental impact, according to Fazer.
The company highlighted that it has invested more than 200 million euros in its home markets in the last three years – mostly to develop its oats business.