A rainbow of opportunity: How fermentation biotech is creating ‘Agricultural 2.0’

By Natasha Spencer

- Last updated on GMT

Fermentation is reinventing how food ingredients are produced / Pic: GettyImages-StephM2506
Fermentation is reinventing how food ingredients are produced / Pic: GettyImages-StephM2506

Related tags: biotech, Fermentation

Biotechnology applications garner increasing attention in 2021, with fermentation processing expected to accelerate and expand commercialisation.

In today’s market, consumers are actively seeking more sustainable and healthier products. Enter food biotechnology. Fermentation​ is a type of biotechnology that uses microorganisms to create a chemical change that can produce food additives and animal feed.

Fermentation can offer a number of benefits for food producers—including sustainability, health and product performance. 

Talking about how fermentation delivers on these, Lindsay McCorkle, who is part of Rabobank’s FoodBytes! food and agriculture innovation network as a VP for sector banking, shared: “Most of these processes require even less resource use than plant-based options—they don’t require extensive use of farmland or water, and energy use is relatively low.”

“The fermentation space is thriving and there is a lot of progress around this technology,” ​Ricky Cassini, Co-Founder and CEO, natural food colourant start-up, Michroma, confirmed.

“Bacteria and yeast-based technologies are becoming obsolete, and new technologies are emerging based on ‘new microorganisms’ like algae or filamentous fungi,” ​Cassini explained. 

Health, functionality and nutrition drive opportunities

Creative concepts and consumer-backed ideas grow as the comfortability and acceptance around biotechnology increases. The alternative protein and dairy sectors are attracting the attention of fermentation players. Plant-based options have opened up new scalability opportunities for food production.

Production_ Michroma
Michroma's production process / Pic: Michroma

From the perspective of consumer health, McCorkle explained the main hope for fermentation in the alternatives sphere: “We can grow proteins that have increased functionality and allow for cleaner label products.”​ 

Product functionality may also significantly improve thanks to fermentation. Alternative milk, for example, is tipped as having an identical mouthfeel to a dairy product without added emulsifiers. Fermented cheese is also garnering appeal, as it can melt and move in the same way as a dairy version does.

As fermentation is already present in several food production processes, its familiarity helps to grow support in the alternatives space. However, “the reality is there are limits on arable land, and we will likely still have food production shortages”​, McCorkle highlighted. 

Simulating texture and processing

Many consumers are increasingly eager for brands in the segment to find fermentation processing innovation that improves protein and dairy alternatives’ processing and texture.

Fermentation technology has the potential to create a variety of components. McCorkle detailed that the long list includes whole products like chicken breast imitation by air-based meat innovator AirProtein and alternative cheese producer Superbrewed Food, “but also important ingredients like fats, flavours and food colourings”​.

Describing how Impossible Foods is “the perfect example which utilises a fermented ingredient (heme) to create a higher-performing product”​, McCorkle predicts “we will see more of this in different parts of the nutrition label for enhanced functionality or better nutrition metrics”.

Clean colourants

In 2020, agrifood innovation and discovery platform, Foodbytes! by Rabobank identified Michroma as one of its standout food tech startups​ for its ingenuity in the clean food colourant space.

“An increasing awareness about the environmental and health problems associated with petroleum-based ingredients, the industry needs high-performance and inexpensive natural alternatives,” ​Cassini explained. 

However, agriculture-derived ingredients are “not the best solution”,​ Cassini continued, as their production is unsustainable through the high use of resources like water, land, and pesticides, and they deliver a poor performance. And so, the idea for a biotechnology platform that centred on fungi was born.

Discussing the impact that fermentation processing has on the end product, Cassini shared:

Fermentation allows us to disrupt the way we produce ingredients, a more sustainable, scalable, and cost-effective way of producing the inputs we need for our products.”

1 - Michroma Warm Colors (1)
Michroma's warm colours / Pic: Michroma

Fermentation processing innovation

“Michroma is going to revolutionise the food industry by developing the first fungal platform to produce natural food ingredients in a sustainable, affordable, and scalable way,” ​enthused Cassini.

Launching in 2019, the food colourant start-up developed the biotechnology platform and is now showcasing its first ingredient, a high-performing, pH, and thermal stable red food-grade colourant. Michroma is currently prototyping the ingredient with global food companies.

“But red is just the start,” ​Cassini highlighted. “We have proof of concepts for yellow and orange colours, and we are also going to produce other natural ingredients like proteins, flavours, and fragrances using our biofactories.”

Drawing on the fact that only 5% of all species in the world are known, Cassini highlights “more is to come in the fungal world”​.

Advancements in synthetic biology (synbio) technology like CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeat) ​are contributing to the world’s findings into new fungal species and helping them to develop novel industrial strains.

“We foresee that filamentous fungi will play a major role in industrial biotechnology,”​ Cassini emphasised.

Fermentation process: How does it work?

Michroma, for example, utilises a unique fermentation process to produce natural colourants. The brand uses genome editing technology to access the potential of filamentous fungi.

The food tech company then develops proprietary biofactories capable of upcycling agroindustrial residues. These produce high-performance natural ingredients in bioreactors, a similar production process to that of beer, at high yield and low cost.

Production process_ Michroma (002)
The biofermentation production process / Pic: Michroma

The era of 'Agriculture 2.0'

Michroma’s fermentation process allows it to upcycle agroindustrial residues to feed its fungi, conduct waste management, and simultaneously reduce the cost of the culture media.

“It’s agriculture 2.0,” ​Cassini hailed. Fermentation processing in the age of increased interest in biotechnology is tipped to present increasing opportunities to tackle the world’s health and sustainability needs.

Proving its potential

“While fermentation has received a lot of headlines (and funding) over the last 18 months, there are still a number of challenges in terms of proving out scalability,” ​warns McCorkle.  

Fermentation players are grappling with how they can build out of capital expenditure (CAPEX)-intensive facilities and how they make it cost-effective. Proving the functionality of the outputs and making it a cost-effective solution are at the top of the manufacturers’ agendas. “These are not easy to answer and each has their own approach and IP, but it’s not a simple fix,” ​says McCorkle.

3 ways fermentation processing will develop in 2021

Rabobank’s Lindsay McCorkle shares her insights and  hopes for fermentation advancement in 2021:

  1. Alternative cheese players are expected to move closer to testing the market with new products. However, the need to overcome regulatory issues will remain.
  2. At least, several players will truly reach scale and bring down price points, indicating further product (and market) penetration. However, challenges exist, with some fermentation players remaining reliant on food stocks that lead to continued dependence on agriculture systems such as glycerol. We can, therefore, expect to see broader discussions around supply chains.
  3. The industry does not expect to see meat imitation products that are fully fermentation-based for a couple of years. However, it does envisage an emphasis on fermented ingredients and how companies can market these products since they cannot be called completely plant-based. Industry eyes are now on how products and ingredients in this space will add maximum value from a functionality and nutritional perspective. 

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