In a recent article with VMT Magazine in the Netherlands, NIRAS's experts Jolmer Nieuwkerk, Jeroen van den Boezem and Michael Maimann look into 2024 and the development within the area of alternative proteins. In this insight article which is based on the interview, they address the many aspects worth considering when talking about alternative proteins, such as scaling businesses, managing waste, benefits and drawbacks of "the protein revolution".
It is no secret that producing our food contributes significantly to the climate crisis we currently face. In fact, our food chain accounts for 26% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, of which 15% can be attributed to animal agriculture alone. With mounting pressure to meet the United Nation’s 2030 Sustainability Goals, manufacturers are increasingly turning to new methods and technologies to tackle food production challenges- and the spotlight is firmly fixed on alternative proteins.
NIRAS is assisting manufacturers in transitioning to alternative protein production; a novel solution to the looming resource constraints and environmental concerns that come with a growing population, particularly where climate disasters and disease outbreaks threaten our food security. As manufacturers try to adopt new technologies to make tasty, cost-effective protein alternatives, meeting production demands has proven challenging and calls for a complete rethink of the supply chain.
Alternative protein options
There are several ways to produce alternative proteins but in Europe, the following three are gaining more traction than others. These include extracting proteins from plants, producing them via precision fermentation in cell factories, and lab grown meat, where the meat is grown from animal cells. The latter is not yet approved in the EU and in fact, getting most ‘novel foods’ approved is not that straightforward. Each method comes with its own difficulties, but four hurdles they all have in common are the cost of production, the speed with which they make it to market, the quality of the product and, of course, tackling discrepancies in taste.
Despite these issues, the industry is forecasted to represent as much as 11% of all protein consumption by 2035. To achieve this, it is critical to start thinking about how to innovate processing methods that are sustainable, affordable, accessible, and meet all the necessary hygiene standards.
The benefits and drawbacks
Plant protein and protein derived from precision fermentation are two of the main methods used in northern Europe. While plant protein production comes from the agricultural sector, precision fermentation is a technology that is rooted in the biotechnology industry. Production costs, protein quality and maintaining hygiene standards are all important concerns for manufacturers transitioning to alternative protein production.
Plant protein sources such as peas, soy, and lentils offer lower greenhouse gas emissions and reduced land and water requirements. The challenge, however, lies in negating possible allergens and ensuring its nutritional value stays intact while optimising the taste and texture. Mild food processing, characterized by lower temperatures and shorter processing times is a solution that not only reduces energy consumption but also preserves the nutritional integrity of the final product. However, this also comes with challenges in hygiene, as mild treatments may not be sufficient in exterminating harmful bacteria.
Precision fermentation also presents a unique opportunity for the food industry as it creates the same high quality animal proteins that we are used to but produced as microorganisms instead. The challenge lies in production costs and Capital Expenditure (CAPEX). Alternative proteins do not warrant the same profits as pharmaceuticals or biotech products, making it difficult to close the deal. This is where rethinking the conceptual process design of the entire food chain becomes imperative, particularly when it comes to guaranteeing the integrity of the production process.
In other words, it is key to rethink our production philosophy around producing alternative proteins. If we design the process like a pharmaceutical, production costs will be too high. A key trend in the next few years will be to produce in simpler production facilities, while maintaining high yields.
Common to both alternative protein production pathways is that they are at least 100 years behind the conventional methods in terms of deriving value from their waste products. Dairy and animal production have long since managed to profit from their by-products which has meant that they are more cost competitive. Finding side streams from alternative protein production will also become a key trend in the next few years to remain competitive.
Companies entering the market must recognize that no industry comes without its own set of challenges, but one significant attraction of the alternative protein revolution is its focus on ethical business and sustainable investing. It is estimated that alternative proteins could save more than 1 gigaton (Gt) of CO2e by 2035; an amount equal to decarbonizing most of the aviation or shipping industries.
Scaling your business
As demand for alternative protein increases, scaling your business with new technologies becomes crucial. For most businesses, this is challenging, particularly as costs are expected to rise and are often nonlinear. Also, the process designs that work for small scale start-ups may not be fit for larger commercial purposes and changing designs during a scale-up comes with a significant risk. Manufacturers need to invest in scalable technologies and processes that can accommodate increased production volumes while ensuring limited waste as a result. Modular production units and flexible equipment are key components of a scalable infrastructure, allowing businesses to adapt seamlessly to evolving market demands. It is important to consider these measures on conceptual design early on to avoid risks or delays.
Efficient alternative protein production relies heavily on robust conceptual process design. This involves mapping out the entire production process from raw materials to the final product, identifying critical control points, and implementing measures to optimize efficiency. The goal is to create a streamlined and cost-effective production pipeline that adheres to sustainability goals without compromising on quality. This is not an easy endeavour, and the individual needs of each company will dictate the development of the process in order to get it to market as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Experts in the field
Navigating the complex landscape of alternative protein production can be daunting, but with the right expertise, manufacturers can thrive. NIRAS offers comprehensive support in conceptual process design, energy efficiency, and scaling strategies. Their technical and market experts, Jolmer Nieuwkerk, Jeroen van den Boezem and Michael Maimann, all have a proven track record in sustainable solutions, and are well-equipped in guiding manufacturers through the intricacies of the protein revolution.
As we stand on the precipice of the protein revolution in 2024, manufacturers must be proactive in embracing alternative protein production. Whether opting for plant proteins or precision fermentation, implementing mild food processing, maintaining impeccable hygiene standards, and adopting scalable solutions are key to success. With the guidance of industry experts like NIRAS, manufacturers can not only meet the challenges of the protein revolution head-on but also contribute to a more sustainable and resilient future.
This article is written by K. Scully for VMT Magazine and originally published in Dutch.