Food production from farm to factory

Is it time to disconnect food and agriculture?
07 February 2023

Interview with 

Pasi Vainikka, Solar Foods


A cow grooms a calf by licking it on the neck.


So far, we’ve been discussing how traditional, arable farmers can adapt to help the environment, whether that be through maintaining their farm with sustainable methods, or growing crops which are better adapted to produce yields without harmful and expensive fertilisers. But that still leaves the problem of the emissions from meat and dairy farming which many scientists argue must be reduced if we are to achieve our climate targets. Finnish company Solar Foods think they have the solution.Their approach is something more radical: moving food production from the farm to the factory. They do this by growing protein and fat rich food using bacteria that are themselves fed on a diet of carbon dioxide and hydrogen produced sustainably from water using solar-generated electricity. I spoke to CEO Pasi Vainikka to find out how…

Pasi - The main feed stock are the organism that is a single cell, hydrogen gas that we make from water (electricity used to make hydrogen from water and carbon dioxide.) And basically the bio fermenters are like a big soda stream. The whole cell biomass that we grow is our product. It's a dried powder.

James - Traditional agriculture has the problem of land use. Moving food production from farm to factory removes that problem. And the process, as you've described, doesn't take up lots of water, it doesn't harm the soil. So are there any real barriers to scaling this up to essentially solve food security?

Pasi - Not really. So for a food tech company, there are three things that you need to prove. You need to show that it's safe. The second is, are there nutritional benefits? How does it work technically? Does it form a structure? Structure forming is about how a glass of water differs from a jar of yogurt - that's texture. It's thick. So that is what you need. And the third one is does it scale? And that's where we are now. That's why we are investing in our first factory to prove that it really scales. We think of how quickly this food tech transition can happen. The unfortunate fact is that it's a huge industrial operation to get these factories built, and it takes time: two years per factory. So it's a scaling problem for the industry after we have proven the initials which we think we've already done.

James - I can appreciate that. Let's take that issue of the nutritional value of the product for a second. What can someone consuming this expect to extract?

Pasi - The simple answer is to think of it as a meat in powder form. So it is a complete protein. It does have all the essential amino acids, plus it contains three things typically an extreme vegan diet is lacking, which is iron, b12, and carotinoids turning into vitamin A. So it could serve as a main bulk of protein, but also what they call fortifier. So adding these vitamins and iron to a mostly plant-based diet.

James - It's obviously not consumed in the powder form, is it? How does it integrate with and how do you fuse it into the food or the texture that people are expecting when they consume food?

Pasi - Using some simple examples, everybody understands the concept of wheat flour. You buy that from a supermarket, but you hardly ever consume it as such, right? So you make it to different kinds of textures like bread. So whether it's meat alternatives, it can have different kinds of drink applications to shakes, to yogurts, ice creams, dairy alternatives, vegan mayo, and also replacing egg in some pastry, noodles, pasta. Not to forget the standard protein bars. So it's actually quite versatile in use and application, this ingredient.

James - So once you satisfy the criteria of making sure the nutritional values there, as you have, or the scaling will work, is the sky the limit here? What possibilities do you hope for once you get the all clear and you're able to start selling this product?

Pasi - On top of, from a scientific perspective, disconnecting food production from agriculture, we could also think about, on a food production system level, like it or not, if you look at planet Earth, what we need to achieve as humankind is to more or less remove animal keeping from this equation. Because 80% of the environmental impact due to what we eat is due to industrial, animal keeping. So we need to significantly reduce that. Maybe not get rid of completely, maybe rather not, but limit and maybe set in decline the volumes that we are practicing there. So that is something we and companies like us are to do here.

James - Food evokes strong emotions, let's say. Have you encountered ever perhaps a psychological barrier with people hearing about your work and hearing that you are producing food in a factory from essentially bacteria?

Pasi - There are a couple of approaches actually that you can take here. So the first is consumer acceptance. We've actually done some studies around the acceptance and once people understand that there are benefits for the environment and there are nutritional benefits, actually people are quite open to new opportunities because there haven't been completely new kinds of foods around, right? So it's actually intriguing to think that one could be part of the solution rather than the problem. So eating environmentally friendly food is an act for good.

James - It makes a lot of sense as to why the product you've got has got a lot of protein in it and a lot of fat because I think it's something like a third of the world's protein supply currently comes from meat and dairy which, as we know, and as you've mentioned, is one of the most resource intensive types of agriculture. So I can see why your aim has been to reduce the dependency on meat and dairy, but could different bacteria or different inputs be fermented in order to produce food products with other nutritional makeups? Are there other possibilities in this process?

Pasi - In answering that we open a kind of Pandora's box in the sense that there are so many opportunities through technology that almost anything is possible with time. What I mean is that cultivated meat is one specific application. What we are doing is that we are cultivating a microorganism. We don't modify it. So basically the composition of that organism is what it is. It's the same as the composition of you and me. Roughly speaking, you can't influence that too much unless you go into genetic engineering. And then new windows open for opportunities basically to tailor the organism to produce any protein that you want. We are a non GMO product today, but of course there are the GMO opportunities in the future basically to produce proteins, fats or flavours, colours, whatever. There are a lot of companies working on that.


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