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Cellular agriculture: farmers of the future create an edible protein from air and electricity

In a finnish factory “Farmers of the future,” hunched over their computers, make an edible protein by feeding a microbe with air and electricity.

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Cellular agriculture, which consists of producing food or nutrients from cell cultures, is increasingly considered an ecological alternative to livestock farming, one of the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions.

Meat, eggs or milk produced in the laboratory aroused the interest of scientists, who are embarking on the cultivation of animal cells.

But for its detractors the process is considered “unnatural”, consumes energy and is expensive.

The Solar Foods group goes further and in its newly opened plant near Helsinki, scientists deploy a new technology to grow proteins from cells using air and electricity.

A microbe is fed carbon dioxide, hydrogen and minerals in a process that uses electricity from renewable sources.

Solar Foods managed to create a protein-rich powder that can be used as an egg or milk substitute.

“We can extract our main raw material for the microbe from the air,” Pasi Vainikka, the general director, explains to AFP during a visit to the company’s new facilities.

“We launched the production of the most sustainable protein in the world,” he details.

Founded by Vainikka and Juha Pekka Pitkanen in 2017, Solar Foods opened its “world’s first factory growing food from air” in April.

A dish prepared with “Solein”, a protein created in a laboratory using strictly renewable sources. (ALESSANDRO RAMPAZZO/)

“Much of today’s animal proteins can be produced by cellular agriculture and we can free up agricultural land and thus replenish a carbon reserve,” says Vainikka, referring to the process by which forests and soils absorb and store carbon. .

One kilo of this new protein, called “Solein”, emits 130 times less greenhouse gases than the same amount of protein from beef in the European Union, according to a study by sustainable food specialists at the University of Helsinki. cited by Solar Foods.

In the factory laboratory and control center, a dozen people control production on their screen.

“They are our future farmers,” comments the leader.

A field in expansion phase

The transformation of food production and consumption is at the center of the fight against global warming and the loss of biodiversity, says Emilia Nordlund, head of food research at the Finnish public body VTT.

Meat consumption is expected to continue increasing in the coming years.

“Industrial food production, especially livestock, is one of the main causes of greenhouse gas emissions and the loss of biodiversity,” he adds.

New food production technologies can help reduce emissions from intensive agriculture and “diversify food production,” he insists.

Fermentation technologies used to produce nutrients have existed for decades, but their development accelerated with the emergence of new research projects in the world.

“The field is in an expansion phase, with the first demonstration plants built, such as the Solar Foods plant in Finland,” explains the expert. “We are in a crucial phase. We will see which new companies will survive.”

Vainikka, dressed in a protective suit to prevent bacterial contamination in the factory, shows off a giant steel tank.

“It is a fermenter with a capacity of 20,000 liters,” he says, and the microbe multiplies inside the tank when fed with greenhouse gases.

The liquid containing the microbes is extracted from the container and transformed into a yellowish powder rich in protein, with a “hazelnut and creamy” flavor, he says.

“The fermenter produces as much protein every day as 300 dairy cows or 50,000 laying hens,” says Vainikka, the equivalent of five million meals per year for protein intake.

In the short term, the main objective of the small Finnish factory, which employs about 40 people, is to “demonstrate that the technology is viable”, in order to attract the necessary investments pending European regulatory approval.

The protein was authorized for sale in Singapore, where some restaurants incorporate it into ice cream, but it has not yet been classified as a food product in the EU or the United States.

To have a real impact, the goal is “to build a factory 100 times bigger than this one,” he summarizes.

Source: Elcomercio

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