Food farmers of the future

Just as we often hear that the jobs of the future are yet to be imagined, the same...
October 20, 2023 Commentary
Food farmers of the future

Just as we often hear that the jobs of the future are yet to be imagined, the same applies to the future of food. Food scientists are researching innovative ways to ensure sustainable and cost-effective nutrition for the future due to the growing necessity for such solutions. Before cultivated meat has even hit Australian shelves, other alternative protein innovations are being developed—fast and furiously. Here are some of the up and comers.  

Harnessing seed power 

Food manufacturers are creating ingredients that mimic animal meat and fats, and dairy products. They want to do this for several reasons including improved sustainability and taste. There are four in Australia and New Zealand that are investigating the use of precision fermentation to produce dairy proteins. However, in the quest to find economic, efficient and environmentally friendly alternatives to dairy products, scientists have studied whether seeds from plants can offer more than just oil to the food industry, and it appears they can.  

A Dutch company, Time-travelling Milkman, is extracting fat from sunflower seeds to improve the mouthfeel and nutritional profile of plant-based milks. Sunflower seeds have special structures called oleosomes which compose of fats and oils and it’s these oleosomes that are being used to provide creaminess in plant-based milks.  

Taking the abilities of seeds a step further is a New Zealand company which is programming safflower seeds to make a range of dairy molecules. Miruku has developed technology that makes the seeds produce casein and whey proteins that are bio-equivalent to dairy, as well as dairy-like fats. The ingredients needed for a dairy product are then extracted from the seed by crushing it, milking the seeds! Amos Palfreyman, CEO and Co-founder of Miruku, said it can be used where dairy powders are used, such as snack bars, fortified breads, and chips. And he says due to their efficient technology they can supply product at prices competitive with conventional dairy ingredients. The company is collaborating with CSIRO which is developing products using precision fermentation technology.  

Making identical animal fats 

Fat is an important ingredient for animal meat alternatives because it makes a significant difference to the taste, smell, mouthfeel and quality of foods. Some plant-based meat manufacturers use plant fats such as coconut oils but in future they will have the option to replace it with fats that mimic animal fats made with precision fermentation—they’re expected to revolutionise the flavour and performance of plant-based meats. 

There is just one precision fermentation company in Australia and New Zealand making animal-like fats. Nourish Ingredients has partnered with numerous Australian universities, plant-based meat manufacturers and is also working with cultivated meat company Vow to blend the products to replicate the taste and mouthfeel of animal meat. Nourish Ingredients recently promoted a fat ingredient for plant-based meats at Sydney’s SXSW. 

Protein from CO2 

Most alternative protein foods and ingredients rely on some form of agricultural input such as seeds and pulses (plant-based meats), sugar (precision fermentation) or animal cells (cultivated meat) but in response to global warming, we can expect to see more research into protein production that isn’t dependent on these inputs.  

An example of this is Air Protein which is skipping plants and animals, and land for that matter, altogether. Its food scientists are using a process they call ‘air fermentation’, producing protein directly from carbon dioxide (CO2) using microorganisms. These proteins can then be used to create various food products, such as meat substitutes. The unique aspect of this process is that, unlike traditional fermentation where microorganisms are typically fed with specific nutrients or ingredients (for example milk for yoghurt), here they are being fed the elemental building blocks that make up the desired food product. 

The end product is a flour which Air Protein is then turning into foods that mimics animal meat; however they say the protein powder can be used to make a wide range of foods. They’ve established an ‘air farm’ in California and believe such farms can be constructed anywhere. Founder and CEO of Air Protein Lisa Dyson says being independent of any agricultural inputs, the Air Protein food factories are less susceptible to interruptions from farming such as storms, droughts, floods, etc. The flour can also be carbon negative.  

How soon will these foods be on our shelves? 

Producing new ingredients and foods is one thing, getting them in front of consumers is another. Food regulators and standard setters face the challenge of staying up-to-date with evolving food technology, all while ensuring timely adaptation without burdening start-ups financially or compromising food safety. 

Internationally it can take up to two years from when a company lodges an application for a new or novel food product or ingredient, to when a decision about whether to permit it is made, while Food Standards Australia New Zealand, FSANZ, says it can take between nine-12 months. Air Protein is in discussions with the US Food and Drug Administration and anticipates that the approval process will take some time and Miruku isn’t in the position to estimate a time frame for their approval but it’s unlikely it will be approved in under two years. Nourish expects to launch in market in about 2025.   

In Australia FSANZ is assessing an application from Vow for cultivated meat which fits under the novel food standard (it applies to foods that are non-traditional and foods that require a pre-market safety assessment). They expect it to take an additional six months of assessment time above regular applications.  

This is likely to be the first new or novel innovative alternative protein available in the Australian and New Zealand markets (not forgetting Impossible Foods’ soyleghemaglobin ingredient which is produced through precision fermentation and used in their plant-based meat products). It’s important to note that approval for cultivated meat is granted on a product-by-product basis. Other manufacturers in this sector will need to apply for approval separately.  

Following cultivated meat, consumers can look forward to the introduction of dairy products produced through precision fermentation, followed by fats derived from the same process. It remains to be seen where the likes of Air Protein and Miruku’s ‘dairy seed’ fit along this timeline.  

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