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The New Frontier of Sustainable Eating: Introducing Precision Fermentation

Last week, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved for the first time the use of lab-grown meat for human consumption. Although for now the authorisation was only given to one company (UPSIDE Foods), the FDA and the US Department of Agriculture are confident that the sale of cultured meat will hit the market soon. The move comes after an ever-growing demand for meat alternatives that animal lovers and environmental activists endorse.

In 2020, a survey conducted by The Vegan Society found that “almost half of Brits who eat meat felt hypocritical for loving animals while eating others." And while it is still true that the majority of the time, cutting meat and dairy consumption stems from a passion for animals and a desire to safeguard their well-being, this is not the only reason anymore. 

As of last year, it was estimated that 79 million people worldwide were vegan. What is the driving factor that makes more and more people every year decide to adopt a vegan lifestyle?


Environment-related causes, such as the climate crisis, play an essential part in dietary choices. In fact, following a vegan diet can contribute significantly to rejuvenating the planet. This is because livestock farming is not only detrimental to the animals, but it also carries serious consequences for water consumption and land use, as well as worsening the carbon footprint. 


Many studies in this field have concluded that to produce just one pound of beef, 1,800 gallons of water (more than 6,800 kg) are needed26% of the planet is used for livestock farming, and 14.5% of GHG emissions are caused by it.


So, is going vegan a substantial contributing factor to helping animals and the planet? Yes, but it is doubtful that eight billion people will agree to such a drastic change in their diet. This is when precision fermentation might come in handy. 



What is it?


Precision fermentation is a type of cellular agriculture made possible using cell-culturing techniques, such as CRISPR, to brew animal products in vitro. Usually, the laboratory-fermented microorganisms are bacteria, yeast, or fungi, which can then be processed into cellular products, such as meat and leather, and acellular products, such as casein and gelatine. The result? Products that have the same features as animal-derived ones without the slaughtering process.


Yet, the use of precision fermentation is not entirely new; insulin for diabetic patients as well as an enzyme necessary for making cheese are both produced using this technology. And it is currently being used even for the small-scale production of food: in 2013, the first lab-grown burger was created in the Netherlands.


Quorn, a UK company producing meat-free alternatives fermented in labs from protein-rich fungi since 1985, uses a similar technology.



It's here to stay


Now the use of precision fermentation is expanding once again. In 2020 Singapore became the first country to start selling cultured meat and more recently the United States have caught on in what seems to be an inevitable growing trend in food manufacturing. In fact, according to a report published by RethinkX, by 2030 dairy and meat industries in the US will decline by more than 50% leaving space for other animal-agriculture systems, such as precision fermentation. 


This technological move seems to be gaining more and more consensus; the citizen-led green group RePlanet is one of its latest advocates. With their recent campaign, "Reboot Food," they propose the phase-out of livestock farming to favour precision fermentation. One of their major points, as laid out in their manifesto, is that "protein from precision fermentation is up to 40,900 times more land efficient than beef, making it technically feasible to produce the entire world’s protein on an area of land smaller than Greater London."


Despite the apparent public success, international legislation does not appear to be on board with the new technology and continues to subsidise farming with public funds. MEP and Polish politician Sylwia Spurek was present at the virtual launch of the Reboot Food campaign to talk about how the European Union does not seem to engage in any debate regarding the advancement of cellular agriculture technologies. She was one of the politicians who proposed a tax on meat and a draft resolution on industrial farms, but both proposals were widely rejected.


Nonetheless, Spurek said she would continue to push for better legislation that ensures that the well-being of animals will be considered. "Future generations will be ashamed of us for saying there was a time when animals were eaten," she reinstated before leaving the Reboot Food virtual launch. 


Good or bad? 


Although precision fermentation is gaining more and more consensus, it is not exempt from criticism. 

Some people are concerned about the classification of lab-grown food, considering there are currently no regulations. According to the FDA's National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard, food obtained through precision fermentation should not be labelled as GMO because it does not contain genetically modified microorganisms  it is just grown through new technology. Therefore, the most plausible labelling would be considering these lab-grown foods vegan.


Other concerns revolve around the ownership of this type of technology, with fears that precision fermentation will only become the latest trend in the hands of food industry oligarchs. A possibility that is becoming true considering that only during the first quarter of 2022, 20 investments in precision fermentation companies worldwide totalled almost $600 million.

Therefore, RePlanet’s Reboot Food campaign is asking governments to ensure that this technology will be open-source and available to any company, as well as limiting patents and discouraging corporate control.


Lastly, it could also be argued that precision fermentation is unnecessary because protein can be easily obtained through a plant-based diet. But for those who will not spontaneously give up animal food? Precision fermentation might be the answer because it will allow them to keep the same diet but with massively lower environmental costs. 



Phot credit: Annie Spratt on Unsplash



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