Why you should care
Because you eat, and you’d like to keep doing so.
For millennia, we’ve known where to find our protein: beef, chicken, fish, even soybeans and lentils. For some reason, though, we’ve always overlooked pond scum, houseflies and the bacteria that live off cow farts.
What could we have been thinking? In a Silicon Valley lab run by the biotech company Calysta, bacteria are multiplying in pinkish liquid sloshed around in flasks by robotic trays. Formally known as Methylococcus capsulatus, these bugs eat methane, the gas that shoots out of both cattle and natural-gas wells, and use it to build internal protein. Scoop up the bacteria and dry them out, and soon they’re ready to be pressed into pellets for fish feed. While Calysta says people won’t ever eat them, who knows — these pellets or something like them might one day turn up in your shamburger. Yum!
Appetizing? Maybe not. But you’re likely to see a lot more of such foods soon, because the world is facing a protein crisis — a looming shortage of one of the basic building blocks of life. Right now, roughly 800 million people are chronically undernourished, according to the World Food Program. That’s down from about a billion people in 1992, but meanwhile, demand for steak, fish and other high-quality protein is rising in Asia along with living standards. The U.N. estimates that protein production will have to increase 70 percent by 2050 to keep up with demand.
Don’t look to traditional meat animals to fill the gap. Raising cows, chickens and pigs for slaughter requires vastly more water than similar quantities for raising beans or other food plants; a hamburger, for instance, takes something like 70 times the water a tomato does. Livestock and the machinery used to tend them also emit tons of carbon into the atmosphere. Wild seafood, meanwhile, is threatened by overfishing and climate change, and demand is still growing 11 percent a year. Farmed fish might seem better — half of all fish sold now is farmed — but those fish need to eat protein too. Right now that’s mostly … fishmeal from wild ocean fish. See the problem?
Weird protein alternatives, from algae and bacteria to insects and processed plant protein, could sub in for meat and fish, taking a lot of pressure off the environment in the process. Not all of it would become food for people; some might replace fishmeal, alfalfa or soy now fed to livestock and farmed fish. “We want to create massive unemployment in the cow and chicken population,” Michael Kirwan, head of corporate development at Burcon NutraScience, told me by email. The company produces “protein isolates” from soy and peas for human consumption and wants to do the same with plant scraps from canola-oil production.
It’s just not going to be easy to get there. Those bacteria pellets, for instance, have been tried before by Norferm, a subsidiary of Norwegian oil and gas giant Statoil, which built a Methylococcus plant but shut it down in 2006. The problem: High methane prices meant the bacterial protein couldn’t compete with cheap fishmeal. These days, methane is dirt cheap thanks to the fracking boom, so Calysta figured it could build a new plant that will produce 80,000 tons of bacteria cake annually by 2018. Of course, energy prices fluctuate — a lot — and history could always repeat itself.
Insects are another possibility. On the plus side, they grow quickly and don’t need a lot of food or water in the process. Housefly larvae can quadruple their mass in four days. Researchers and entrepreneurs worldwide have even been raising them on waste products from other industrial processes. On the downside … well, people still think they’re gross, despite efforts by a few high-end chefs and other enthusiasts to make them more palatable. AgriProtein, based in South Africa, grows housefly and blue bottle fly larvae on organic food waste otherwise destined for the landfill, and sells them as feed protein for chicken, fish and pets. AgriProtein produces more than 20 tons of protein per day in its factory and has another six under construction. U.S.-based EnviroFlight is growing black soldier flies on various food wastes like the leftovers from beer brewing and ethanol production.
Meanwhile, researchers are currently trying to purify food protein from more than 40 different species of microalgae and other plants that no one currently eats. In one 2014 study published in the Journal of Animal Science, New Mexico State University researchers took algae used to produce biofuel and fed it to cows as a protein supplement in place of soybean meal. (They lived.) Cornell scientists have fed pigs the recycled algae as well. One drawback, though, is that growing algae at industrial scale could get expensive. Another problem is that plants don’t have as many “micronutrients” commonly found in meat. These include selenium, iodine, iron, zinc and magnesium, which are necessary for health. “Plants do have them,” says Ermias Kebreab, deputy director of the Agricultural Sustainability Institute at the University of California, Davis. “But you have to consume a hell of a lot more” to stay healthy.
There are also regulatory barriers that are almost as bizarre as these alternate proteins themselves. For instance, even though chickens naturally eat insects, “if you want to use insects to feed to chickens, you can’t do it yet,” says Sonny Ramaswamy, the director of USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. In other words, insects are fine for people — just not for U.S. livestock. The holdup is the Food and Drug Administration, which hasn’t determined whether insects can accumulate toxins like heavy metals and pass them into the food supply.