Precision fermentation is a method of controlling the growth and metabolism of microorganisms in a fermentation process to optimize product yield and quality. This is typically done by controlling the pH, temperature, oxygen levels, and nutrient levels in the fermentation environment, and by manipulating the genetics of the microorganisms used. This isn’t a new technology; in fact, it was first used commercially about 40 years ago by Genentech to develop lab-grown human insulin. Today it is often used in the production of chemicals, biofuels, and other industrial products. It has also been used for decades in the production of food, including the rennet that is used in making almost all hard cheeses.
Precision fermentation is quickly expanding into mainstream food production, where it may soon unleash a tidal wave of change. Companies like Perfect Day, Inc., ReMilk, Eat Just, Inc., and even General Mills are developing and selling a wide range of foods that are chemically identical to animal products, but they are using precision fermentation to manufacture these new foods in modern factories. Not factory farms with their nightmarish hellscapes, but modern, clean, fermentation factories. And this isn’t only happening with food. Another startup is using precision fermentation to try to stem rainforest destruction by brewing palm oil in New York City. Nuts, I know.
To be clear, the change brought about by this new technology won’t lead us straight to utopia. New technology never does. For example, it will likely lead to a lot of lost jobs, and already-struggling rural economies will probably suffer even more during the coming transition. That being said, there aren’t a lot of farming jobs left, slaughterhouse jobs are literally among the world’s worst jobs, and this change could usher in a range of environmental and climate benefits, including:
1) Reduced land use: Precision fermentation can produce food products like animal-derived proteins on much less land than traditional methods. As we speak, an Israeli company called ReMilk is building a 700,000-square-foot factory in Denmark that will replace the need for 50,000 dairy cows and the cropland needed to feed them.
2) Reduced water consumption: Precision fermentation can be used to produce food in a far more water-efficient manner than traditional methods. For example, Believer Meats estimates that its lab-grown meat will require 96% less water than conventional meat.
3) Reduced use of fossil fuels: Precision fermentation is now being used to produce milk, chicken, pork, and beef. According to a research paper published by Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, using precision fermentation reduces associated fossil fuel inputs — also by about 96%.
4) Reduced waste: No shit! We may soon be able to eat beef without cattle, pork without pigs, and milk without cows.
5) Reduced chemical use: Precision fermentation can also be used to produce food products without a wide range of allergens, controversial chemicals, and other inputs. For example, ReMilk claims that its products require none of the hormones, pesticides, or antibiotics used by so many traditional dairies. It’s also lactose-free, which the spouses of the lactose-intolerant among us will surely appreciate.
Before you start insisting that it is “disgusting” or “unnatural” to grow food in microbes, think about how you might feel if we were about to move in the opposite direction: i.e. from lab-grown protein to our current system of protein production. Seriously, withhold your judgment for a moment, and listen to this. Or do a bit of research on how yogurt and cheese are made. Or where honey comes from. Fun fact: it’s bee vomit. We already eat a lot of weird stuff. And don’t even get my daughter started on how most of our meat is produced. But I digress…
Just this past November, in what Upside Foods’ CEO Uma Valeti called “a watershed moment in the history of food,” the U.S. Food and Drug Administration declared that a lab-grown meat product is safe for human consumption, taking no issue with the company’s claims that its lab-grown chicken meat is “as safe as comparable foods produced by other methods.”
At the end of the day, precision fermentation only has the potential to provide myriad environmental benefits, as there are never any guarantees that new technologies will result in all of their promised benefits. (Consider cars… yes, they got rid of tons of horseshit on our streets, but look what they’ve done to our cities…) The environmental, economic and social impacts of precision fermentation will depend on each specific process and how it is implemented. And how we regulate and govern this new technology. But as the climate crisis accelerates, the benefits of precision fermentation are becoming hard to ignore. Again:
Cultured meat could potentially be produced with up to 96% lower greenhouse gas emissions, 45% less energy, 99% lower land use, and 96% lower water use than conventional meat.
Let that sink in.
Anyway, we better all start paying attention to this, because even if we wanted to, it’s too late to turn our backs, because it is no longer a future technology. It’s here. My own daughter recently brought home a pint of ice cream with the tag line “real dairy, no cows.” Sitting around the dinner table, we and our guests braced ourselves and shared the pint. And it was tasty. Really tasty. But don’t take my word for it. Treat yourself to a free pint of “Real Dairy. No Cows” ice cream.
This revolution is happening, and it will very likely impact rural economies, world hunger, the biodiversity crisis, climate change, animal welfare, and Tucker Carlson’s future rants on Fox News. So stay tuned.
Lastly, enjoy that free pint. I look forward to reading your comments.
By Steve Gutmann
Next in this series: Precision Fermentation, Rural Economies, and the Promise of Rewilding
Related Story: Should The US Mandate Food Waste Composting?
Have a tip for CleanTechnica? Want to advertise? Want to suggest a guest for our CleanTech Talk podcast? Contact us here.
Latest CleanTechnica TV Video
CleanTechnica uses affiliate links. See our policy here.