02/12/20 – Science & Technology / Cellular Agriculture / Eggs / EARTO / VTT / Finland
Cellular agriculture: Upending the ‘chicken or egg’ debate
Which came first? The chicken or the egg? If VTT’s cellular agriculture technology is anything to go by, the chicken could soon be taken out of the egg-production equation entirely. Food & Beverage Networker explores this recent winner of the European Association of Research & Technology Organisations (EARTO) Innovation Awards 2020 and finds that the Finnish research institute’s technology could hold the key to a secure and sustainable food future.
Food production accounts for up to 25 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions and around 75 per cent of clean water consumption. In the decades ahead, the world’s population will continue to burgeon, and in tandem with the planet’s mounting climate change dilemma, this presents a considerable challenge in terms of both food security and sustainability. In response, researchers across the world are focusing their efforts on alternative means of food production, and one of the most promising could be so-called ‘cellular agriculture’ – that is, food production based on microbial and cellular systems.
Indeed, VTT scientists who have just developed a safe, environmentally sustainable and cost-effective method for mass production of high-value proteins – such as egg white – without using animals, forecast that cellular agriculture could lead to disruptive change on a scale comparable to the agricultural revolution from the 1700 to 1900s.
Microbes and bioreactors Vs. fields and livestock
Cellular agriculture uses microbes and bioreactors instead of fields and farmed animals. Meanwhile, the ingredients used are simply water, glucose, various minerals, and Trichoderma reesei fungus – the latter producing proteins from the former components. This biotechnical method can be compared to beer production, in which microbes produce alcohol with the help of sugar. In addition, the rennet used in cheese-making is currently produced by a corresponding biotechnology method.
The novel bioprocess developed by VTT is based on harnessing the Trichoderma reesei fungus, and offers a safe way to produce food proteins without the farming of livestock. The technology would eliminate the risk of salmonella and exposure to antibiotics (which are linked to livestock rearing), alongside contributing to food chain sustainability by reducing dependency on the farming of animals.
75% less GHGs emitted, 90% less land used
“The first calculations done by the University of Helsinki showed that producing egg-white protein in a cell factory generates around 75 per cent less greenhouse gases and uses 90 per cent less land than rearing chickens. The big change in land use is based on vertical rather than horizontal expansion. This frees up land for returning it to a natural state or a use other than agricultural,” advised Emilia Nordlund, Research Team Leader at VTT.
So far, the production method has been tested by VTT in a 300-litre bioreactor, from which it can easily be scaled up for larger production units, according to Christopher Landowski, leader of VTT’s protein production team.
Cost-competitive with egg prices
The production cost of the egg white protein produced by this method is estimated to be less than e10 per kilo and is suitable for large-scale (more than 300,000 litres) industrial production. The cost to produce egg white protein by cellular agriculture is competitive, when compared to the production costs of egg proteins from chickens. On the other hand, egg protein prices have been forecasted to increase, while fluctuation in egg prices has also raised concern in the food industry.
As a key partner in the cellular agriculture domain, VTT is currently developing the microbial production technology along with several leading start-up companies, and with long-term research and licensing agreements. So far, the expected financial and commercial demand for cellular agriculture globally is extremely high. “This is not only about chickens or about eggs; it is about creating completely new businesses to disrupt the food industry,” says Emilia Nordlund.
A new era of novel functional proteins
VTT has comprehensive expertise in the production of various proteins by microbes – and led by Christopher Landowski, the team is also developing novel enzymes and biomaterials. For the food protein production, VTT has studied not only the egg proteins, but also other animal-based food proteins. In VTT’s trials, manufacturing of milk proteins in the microbe-based bioprocesses has also been evaluated, for example.
In the future, by applying biotechnical methods the properties of the egg white proteins can be further modified to improve their baking and foaming properties. The new technologies provide an opportunity to create novel functional proteins that can provide new eating experiences and sensations to the consumers – and an entirely new landscape of possibilities for the food industry.