This episode of Science to Save the World discusses how carbon dioxide, water, and electricity can be used to produce foodstuffs through fermentation.
Can humanity create food from greenhouse gasses, reducing food production’s negative impact on the planet? As we currently know it, food production relies heavily on land, soil and weather conditions. Protein production in particular consumes vast resources. And it’s not always clean.
Food production accounts for 30% of the emissions that cause climate change. Livestock uses 40% of all habitable land. Water consumption for food production increased nearly twice as fast as global population during the last century. Agriculture currently accounts for 70% of worldwide fresh water usage, on average. According to UN estimates, by the middle of the century, we will need to produce nearly 50% more calories to feed the world’s population. With our current lifestyle and the amount of land available, this appears to be impossible.
The bioprocess to revolutionize food production in a sustainable manner has long existed, but only now do we have the knowledge to adopt it. Could we really generate endless food from air and electricity? Solar Foods, a Finnish startup, plans to launch a new protein powder called Solein – derived from just carbon dioxide, water, and electricity. Solein production reduces the planetary burden by consuming only a fraction of the water required for agricultural food production.
The method begins with a single microbe, one of billions found in nature, which grows by fermentation, a bioprocess. The microorganism is fed in much the same way as a plant, but using no fertilizer and much less water, plus air and energy. The process is 20 times more efficient than photosynthesis and 200 times more efficient than current meat production. Unlike traditional protein production, producing 1kg of Solein requires only a fraction of the water in the air. Solein’s bioprocess is natural but unconventional, using fermentation to manufacture protein. And the best thing is it will not run out.
For thousands of years, humans have employed fermentation to brew beer or make wine or pickle vegetables, using single-celled organisms such as yeast. It’s one of our oldest bioreactive processes. Solein uses the same process but instead of using sugar and yeast, it pulls water from the air for the microorganisms to live in. They are then fed tiny CO2 bubbles as well as nutrients such as nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, and potassium, all of which plants normally acquire from the soil via their roots. The microorganisms develop and grow in water collected from the air. When ready, they are dried, yielding a nutrient-dense powder. This is an entirely new method of harvesting food for humans. Solein is 65-70 % protein!
The macronutrient profile of the cells resembles that of dried soy or algae. Solein is tasteless and unobtrusive, blending seamlessly into everyday meals while providing high nutritional content. It resembles and tastes like wheat flour, and contains 5–10 % fat, and 20–25 % carbohydrates.
Solein is produced indoors, and does not require arable land, rain, or favorable weather. And Fortum, a partner, provides 100 % renewable solar energy for the process. Solar Foods is already collaborating with the European Space Agency to develop foods for production and consumption on other planets – the concept for Solein actually originated from NASA. They also see promise in introducing protein production in locations where climate or soil conditions make conventional agriculture difficult.
Animal protein production, including beef, poultry, swine and fish, is a primary driver of climate change, pollution, habitat loss and antibiotic resistance, not to mention a potential disease vector. From the clearing of rainforests for grazing land to runoff from factory-farmed livestock and plants, to the disruption of the marine food chain, to the abuse of antibiotics in food animals, it’s been quite terrible for our environment. But not for much longer! Solar Foods has started building their first factory and plans to start producing Solein in 2023.