Finland’s Solar Foods is pioneering the production of what could turn out to be one of the world’s most carbon-friendly proteins – out of thin air. Taking a single-celled microbe, the company grows the protein, which it calls Solein, by fermenting it, and instead of watering and fertilising it as part of the process uses ‘mere air and electricity’.
“Unlike conventional protein production, it takes just a fraction of water, from the air, to produce 1kg of Solein. By using fermentation to grow protein, the bioprocess of Solein may not be traditional. But it is natural. And the best part? It won’t run out,” Solar Foods said.
“We want to disconnect food production from the accelerating consumption of natural resources.”
The race for protein is eating up continent-sized chunks of rainforest at a rate that will finish them off by the middle of the century. Ditching protein obviously isn’t a solution, it is a critical ingredient for the development and health of the human body and is used to produce the rising number of plant-based meat and dairy alternatives filling supermarket shelves worldwide. What is needed is a move away from the resource-intense pursuit of proteins: responsible for tearing down natural forests, desertification and soil erosion, something Solar Food’s innovation could help in doing, by bolstering agriculture efficiency and protecting, rather than depleting, natural resources.
“If today’s levels of production efficiency were to remain constant through 2050, then feeding the planet would entail clearing most of the world’s remaining forests, wiping out thousands more species, and releasing enough GHG emissions to exceed the 1.5°C and 2°C warming targets enshrined in the Paris Agreement—even if emissions from all other human activities were entirely eliminated,” the World Resources Institute revealed in 2019.
Plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy products, regularly championed for their health and environmental benefits, are marketed, rightly in many instances, as being a big solution to reducing the emissions cause by animal-agriculture. But these products are made using protein, which are not all made equally and need land. Soya, which provides high protein levels and calories per hectare, is used as the base for many meat alternatives, but it also results in deforestation, especially in Brazil, and although swapping beef for soya would actually reduce demand for soya beans, as its by-products are used to feed cattle, demand for animal-based foods is heading upwards, and is predicted to rise by around 70% within the next 30 years. Pea is another popular source of protein used by many of the new plant-based producers on the market, and has a lot of pluses environmentally, as a nitrogen-fixing crop that performs well per hectare, but there are demand issues. Even the mycroprotein ubiquitous in Quorn products rely on plants for glucose to feed the fermentation process. These protein options are not the only ones favoured in these products but what breakthroughs like Solein offer over all of them, is they better safeguard land resources and could drastically improve production efficiency.
Solar Foods, which has grown out of research carried out at the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland and LUT University in Finland, was backed to the tune of €10 million by the Finnish Climate Fund earlier this year. The money will be used to begin commercial-scale production of Solein, and brings the total financing the company has received to €35 million. A demonstrator facility being designed now is due to be operational by early 2023.
“We are happy that we can soon put the Solein protein on the plates of consumers. Our first production facility will be located in Finland, and it will be the world’s first commercial facility to produce food by using carbon dioxide and electricity as it’s raw materials,” explained Pasi Vainikka, CEO and co-founder of Solar Foods. “We want to disconnect food production from the accelerating consumption of natural resources. It is fascinating to be part of making this happen. We already have detailed plans for the production facility, but we will disclose more about them towards the end of the year when construction begins.”
More sustainable protein sources like Solein are welcome news in the fight against climate change, as rising population numbers, and increased affluence, are estimated to result in food demand rising by 50% by 2050, and demand for animal-based foods by nearly 70%. At the same time hundreds of millions of people are undernourished today, as broken food systems are failing to provide people with proper access to food and water, which is creating a human rights crisis.
Food Systems Summit
Solar Foods is just one example of a promising innovation – and innovation will be key to transforming food systems. But solutions like these won’t be nearly enough on their own though, without strong leadership and radical changes in eating habits, food systems will continue to fail.
One month today the UN Food Systems Summit will kick off in New York. The summit will be the culmination of 18 months of coordinated work between a wide range of stakeholders, including UN Member States, youth groups, food producers, Indigenous Peoples, civil society, and the private sector. Tasked with formulating strategies that can accelerate ‘positive changes to the world’s food systems’ the New York summit will provide the setting for the announcement of what everyone hopes will be ambitious plans that can radically reshape food systems. Policy-makers and decision-makers will be at the heart of efforts to drive the meaningful changes the public is increasingly demanding. The challenge to provide sustainable food for all is a monumental one, laid bare by some of the facts above, but it is possible, and public engagement will need to be a big part of the jigsaw. Anyone can, and if they have the time should, sign up to join the virtual UN Food Systems Summit, as it is an opportunity to learn more about the key issues and be part of what could be an important moment for the future of food.