By the year 2050, microbial protein grown in vats and tanks will become a basic raw material for animal feed.
While this statement may sound like science fiction, it is in fact a likely outcome due to increasing global demand for food.
The facts of the challenge are simple … and potentially catastrophic:
- Global population is predicted to be over 9 billion people by 2050.
- World food production must increase to match growing demand or people will starve.
- Rising standards of living mean that per capita meat consumption will also increase.
- Currently 80% of global agricultural land is used for livestock grazing or for the growing of feed ingredients.
- With current technology, the planet cannot grow enough feed to match future demand.
In an attempt to predict how the agricultural industry will react to this situation, a team of international researchers, including Benjamin Bodirsky from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Ilje Pikaar, a lecturer on Environmental Engineering at The University of Queensland, and their colleagues, used an advanced computer model to generate projected land-use and agricultural-production patterns. Their results show that microbial proteins are a likely future livestock feed raw material.
Microbial protein is an alternative to plant and animal protein. Instead of growing plants and rearing animals to create protein as a feed ingredient, microbial proteins are grown using bacteria, fungi, yeast, and algae.
The proteins use nitrogen as the main energy source, but also require, “an electron donor, a carbon source (can be the donor) and an electron acceptor (e.g., oxygen)”. All of which is fed into a reactor system that enables the highly efficient production and harvesting of the protein.
When the idea of microbial proteins for industrial scale production was first developed in the 1970’s, the main feedstock was methanol. However, as oil prices increased, and fishmeal and soybean prices dropped, it no longer made economic sense to develop the fermentation process further.
Modern fermentation technology and increasing feed ingredient prices, combined with an improved understanding of the environmental impact of waste nitrogen have now made feed manufacturers look again at opportunities that microbial protein production could bring.
Microbial protein production takes place in fully controlled, enclosed and automated bioreactors similar to those widely used in the fermentation processes by the food industry for the production of, for example, beer and yoghurt. The microbes convert Haber Bosch nitrogen into cellular protein with an unmatched efficiency of close to 100%.
In fact, the researchers believe that modern reactor systems are now so efficient that as much as 10–43% ends up as consumable protein, compared to only 4–14% for agricultural based protein production.
It is this productive rate of protein production that led the computer modelling system to predict its major role in future feed raw material sourcing.
As the feed industry journal WattAgNet reports on the study, “Overall, the 48 scenarios tested suggest that, by 2050, microbial proteins produced with hydrogen and other gas feedstocks could replace between 175 million and 307 million tons of crop-based animal feed annually, or 10 to 19 percent of conventional crop-based animal feed protein demand.”
While the use of microbial proteins grown in tanks may seem a more complicated method of animal feed raw material production, it may be a necessary solution given the impact that livestock farming has on the planet’s atmosphere.
As the report notes, “By replacing 13 percent of the protein in feed with microbial proteins, the research team projects that worldwide cropland usage could be reduced by 6 percent, global nitrogen losses from croplands by 8 percent and agricultural greenhouse gas emissions by 7 percent.”
The study has now been published by the American Chemical Society in the journal of Environmental Science & Technology in a paper entitled Microbes and the Next Nitrogen Revolution. Here they accept that there are challenges to surmount before microbial protein becomes a mainstream feed raw material. These include:
- Public acceptance of this ‘alternative’ feed ingredient.
- Upscaling of facilities and microbial cultures.
- Maintaining low costs (something that is highly dependent on the price of natural gas).
While it is not yet clear if microbial protein farming will act as a revolution of future agribusiness, the computer models do highlight key economic and environmental advantages. Indeed, there is already pressure on livestock farmers to reduce climate change impact, while the rising price of farm land and input costs is driving the search for more affordable and effective feed.
If these trends continue, with no signs that they won’t, then it is understandable why computer modelling is predicting the widespread use of microbial proteins to limit global hunger.
As Jeff Simmons, president of Elanco Animal Health, noted in a recent interview with WattAgNet, “Building a food-secure world is one of the greatest challenges of our time. To address it, we all need to understand the challenges we face.”
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