As global population numbers surpass a staggering eight billion, the urgency for sustainable food sources, particularly protein, intensifies. At the same time, traditional intensive farming practices are increasingly scrutinised: they’re resource intensive, not environmentally friendly and associated with the overuse of antibiotics.
“It’s often quoted that the world needs to produce 50 percent more food by 2050 to feed nearly 10 billion people,” said Melanie Weingarten, Head of Biotransformation Department at A*STAR’s Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation (SIFBI).
In a recent article, Weingarten and team explored a variety of alternative protein sources ranging from plant-based and lab-grown meats to insects and proteins produced through microbial fermentation. The researchers found that these alternative sources offer several benefits for meeting rising global food demands.
Firstly, they’re greener than traditional livestock farming, which consumes substantial land and water resources and can negatively impact biodiversity. Alternative proteins also address concerns about antibiotic resistance, the risk of zoonotic diseases, and connections between consumption of red meat and certain cancers. Moreover, diversifying protein sources may prove crucial in densely populated regions where traditional meat consumption becomes less tenable.
Weingarten emphasised that the advent of emerging food technologies could mark the start of a new era in the alternative protein sector. For example, the recent regulatory approval of a Singapore-based technology for manufacturing lab-grown chicken meat marked a milestone in the future of cultured meat.
Despite these advancements, Weingarten acknowledged that alternative proteins still have a way to go before they can become a staple on restaurant menus and supermarket shelves.
“We believe that one impactful innovation that can really change customers’ acceptance and adoption of alternative protein products is alternative lipids,” explained Weingarten, whose team is delving into the production of fermentation-based alternative lipids that replicate the taste and texture of animal proteins.
Together with a Japanese food manufacturing industry partner, Weingarten’s team also developed a fungal fermentation process to transform okara (a by-product of soy production) into highly nutritious fungal biomass that can be used as a very valuable main ingredient in gyoza. Likewise, the team is also engaged with Australian and Dutch collaborators to create fermented protein from bread waste and fermented proteins for plant-based milk.
The researchers are optimistic about the impact of these next-generation alternative proteins, especially in Asian markets, where demographic growth and increasing wealth is driving changes in consumer behaviour. Countries like China and India are seeing a rising consumer interest in meat alternatives.
With a nod to the past, Weingarten concluded that adopting eating habits of our grandparents, where meat was savoured as a weekend treat, can help steer us towards a sustainable food future. Weingarten envisioned that by 2035, every fifth portion of protein consumed worldwide could be from an alternative source.
The A*STAR-affiliated researchers contributing to this research are from the Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation (SIFBI) and the Institute of Sustainability for Chemicals, Energy and Environment (ISCE2).