Soy protein isolate is one of the most used proteins in plant-based formulations. The versatile ingredient is relatively inexpensive to produce, and widely available.
However, soy protein isolate is, as its name suggests, made from soybeans – a commodity associated with deforestation in producing countries.
Global production of soy stands at around 370 million tonnes, up from 270 million tonnes in 2012, and the FAO expects demand to reach 515 million tonnes by 2050. The vast majority of soy, 80%, is produced in just three countries: the US, Brazil and Argentina.
“Today, soy production is one of the major causes of global deforestation in South America and other places,” said Professor Alexander Golberg from the Tel Aviv University’s Department of Environmental Studies.
“More and more land conversion is occurring, meaning that [virgin forests and savannas] are being converted into agricultural fields. This is reason for concern, and why I decided to look into the seas.”
Together with three co-founders, Prof Golberg has established Genesea, a start-up that aims to move protein production offshore. “There is no reason to grow industrial ingredients on land,” he told FoodNavigator.
The Tel Aviv University spin-off is making protein isolates and other ingredients for plant-based food manufacture from offshore marine macroalgae.
Genesea’s protein production method boasts a number of sustainability benefits, compared to soy protein production.
Not only is seaweed cultivation unconnected to deforestation, but it requires no pesticides or fertilisers.
“There is a major issue connected to the use of fertilisers,” the co-founder explained. When chemical fertilisers are added to soil to increase its nutrient profile, it also, unintentionally, increases the number of nutrients in freshwater. When this water runs off into the oceans, it can encourage algae to grow – resulting in an algal bloom. “Algal blooms can be toxic,” explained Prof Golberg, and have been known to kill fish, mammals and birds.
Conventional soy production uses ‘a lot’ of fertiliser and equipment, which emits carbon, the co-founder continued. Seaweed, ‘as far as we know’, does the opposite: “it sequestrates carbon”.
From a land and water use perspective, seaweed cultivation is also considered more environmentally sustainable. The production of one kilogram of soy requires 25-square-metres of land and 4,000 litres of water, we were told. “For our case, you need none of this.”
As the seaweed doesn’t require ‘feed’, as such, production requires no internal inputs. However, seaweed farming equipment is required to fasten and connect the crops, he explained.
Genesea is currently experimenting with common seaweed varieties already approved for human consumption.
As the business grows, it plans to work with a wide range of seaweed farmers and seaweed varieties, depending on the region. “Today there is 30 million tonnes of seaweed produced globally, so this is a big industry,” he told this publication.
“It’s just that seaweed [is currently grown] for products such as carrageenan…they’re not making proteins out of it.”
The company has high hopes for the future of plant-based, and its own position within that market.
According to EU figures, Europe’s plant-based food industry reported a 49% growth in Europeans’ consumption of plant-based foods between 2018 and 2020, amounting to a total sales value of €3.6bn.
“The [plant-based] trend is everywhere. There are going to be more plant-based products,” said Prof Golberg.
“If you look at the future of plant protein, the projections are for huge growth, and we think that seaweed will have a significant segment.”
Production and commercialisation
To start with, Genesea is targeting seaweed isolates for a wide range of food and beverage applications. In its natural state, seaweed contains around 35% protein – made up of all nine essential amino acids required by the human body.
The start-up’s competitive advantage lies in its ingredients’ suitability to low pH products. Its technology is ‘indifferent’ to pH for extraction, the co-founder explained, meaning that unlike other plant proteins – which use high pH for solubilisation and low pH for precipitation – Genesea can target products where ‘pH is important’.
“We think this is going to be our major competitive advantage.”
Prof Golberg is not convinced Genesea will completely disrupt the soy market, which he suggested would be a big ask. “The soy market is huge,” he explained. “We just hope to add a new type of protein…that will not be based on terrestrial biomass.”
The biggest challenge in scaling production is in transferring the technology from small-scale to large-scale, due to the availability of equipment. The start-up is currently reshaping its process to fit industrial scale equipment already on the market.
To encourage uptake, Genesea plans to make its protein offerings affordable. When it first launches on the market in the next three to four years it may well be sold at a premium, however the start-up aspired to achieve at least price parity with soy isolate prices in the future.
“We’re not looking into fancy restaurants with different types of [plant-based burgers] etc. We think that innovation, [which is required for environmental reasons, should start at the bottom – meaning that we are working on the commodity product.
“We’re not talking about boutique products, we are talking about real industry with real scale, small margins but large volumes. This is what is needed to make the environmental change we are looking for.”
Genesea has been accepted into the eighth cohort of the ProVeg Incubator, which focuses on emerging food technologies and ingredients for the alternative protein space.
The start-up is looking forward to expanding its network with the aim of working with as many industry professionals as possible. “We also want to back this up with funds,” said Prof Golberg. “Our funding alone will not solve the problem…”