The future of fermentation in food & ag

June 23, 2022

What comes to your mind when you hear the word fermentation?

For me, it’s mostly things like beer, wine, kimchi, yogurt, and cheese. An age-old process for making things that I happen to rather enjoy.

While fermentation is indeed a centuries-old method, there are some big changes brewing in terms of how it’s being used to make everything from food, to materials, medicines, and more.

I’ve been exploring the future of fermentation to understand how these new technologies and emerging applications can drive impact in food and ag, and what the world might look like when they scale. But first, I had to start with unpacking the basics of different fermentation techniques and what they mean.

Traditional fermentation

Traditional fermentation is what most of us are probably familiar with: the process that humans have been using for centuries to make various foods and drinks. Traditional fermentation relies on microbes, such as yeast, fungi, and bacteria, interacting with ingredients, such as grapes or grain, in an oxygen-free (anaerobic) environment to produce a final product, such as wine or beer. The microbes help convert the primary ingredients into a final product through biochemical changes which can influence taste, texture, nutritional properties, and more.

Biomass fermentation

Biomass fermentation is the process of rapidly growing desirable microbes that can then be used as an end ingredient or product themselves. For example, Quorn has been using biomass fermentation to grow a protein-rich fungus (Fusarium venenatum) as the key ingredient for its range of plant-based products since the 1980s. In this case, the fungi are placed in fermentation tanks alongside feedstock, such as sugar and other nutrients, to fuel growth. The fungi feed off these energy sources and multiply, and are eventually harvested to be used as a primary protein ingredient.

Precision fermentation

Precision fermentation is a process in which host microorganisms, such as bacteria and yeast, are programmed (via genetic engineering) to produce specific target compounds, and are then grown and multiplied under controlled conditions within a fermentation tank. You can think of the host microorganism as a biofactory: based on the set of instructions the host is given, it will synthesize or produce different outputs as it grows. The target compound can then be extracted from the microbe and used as a pure ingredient or an input into downstream manufacturing and formulation processes.

Precision fermentation as a technology has been around for at least 40 years, but until now, its use has been limited to niche applications, such as human insulin production, given high research and development and production costs. Thanks to advancements in gene editing and synthetic biology, however, we can increasingly deliver new and customized sets of instructions to these hosts and put them to work making almost any complex organic molecule of our choosing, including proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals and more. Today, companies such as The Every Company and Perfect Day, for example, are using precision fermentation to synthesize animal-free proteins for applications in food.

What does the future hold?

Innovation in fermentation technology hasn’t gone unnoticed in food and agriculture. In fact the Good Food Institute estimates that investments into fermentation companies working on alternative proteins alone exceeded $1.5 billion in 2021. And the lion’s share of this funding, nearly 60%, went to companies using precision fermentation.

It’s not hard to see why there’s so much excitement about precision fermentation: being able to manipulate yeast and bacteria to produce the exact ingredients we ask them to is a pretty jaw-dropping capability.

The ability to produce almost any complex organic compound (in theory) using precision fermentation also begs the question: if we can make anything, what *should* we make?

No doubt, the answer to this question will depend on many factors including:

  • Impact: what real problems or challenges can we solve by using precision fermentation as a manufacturing process?
  • Economics: how do the costs of production stack up against the value of products that can be made through precision fermentation–and how does that compare to alternatives already on the market?
  • Scarcity: how hard are the products to make or source through other methods?
  • Scale: how big is the market; what resources, including feedstock and fermentation infrastructure, will be required to adequately serve the market–and where will it come from?

Currently, there’s a lot of focus in the market on dairy: almost 60% of food-focused precision fermentation companies are working on providing alternatives to animal-derived dairy ingredients. Dairy is a huge market and there’s good potential for impact; but I was surprised to learn that SO much of the existing activity is focused on dairy alone–after all, it is a commodity category and economics can be tough.

With the world as our oyster, I’m excited to meet companies focusing time, energy, and resources on a whole range of new applications along the food and ag value chain. If that’s you, please get in touch!

If, like me, you’re new to the world of fermentation and would be keen to learn more, here are some useful links to get you started:

Also check out the Future Forces report to unpack what advancements in synbio and our ability to “domesticate the cell” might mean for the future of food and ag.