The Rise of Alternative Proteins
Biotechnological successes are often reinforced by a social need or desire. The rise of alternate proteins, insect based foods and other “new” foods has become the cornerstone of the new food industry. The trend towards vegetarian and vegan diets means more people are looking for meat-free protein alternatives. A lot of work has gone into creating meat-like products in the form of burgers, mince and sausages.
There are four main factors that have influenced the creation of this niche – awareness of animal life, the impact of animal agriculture on the environment, a potential food shortage in the future and the long-term negative health consequences of animal meat abuse. This creates a climate that is more than ripe for the rise of healthier, more sustainable and more productive foods than conventional livestock farming can provide. Therefore, biotechnology is probably the most important scientific field of this century, as it allows us to adapt biological systems to social expectations.
Naturally, we cannot anticipate the fruits of present research, so the paradigmatic future of human nutrition is still beyond our understanding. However, it is possible to analyze the different ways that are currently being developed or have already been successfully implemented, which use biotechnology systematically to improve a natural process, usually by editing the genome so that more protein is produced, or that it accumulates at a specific site in the organism, or even that this protein comes from another organism. As you can see, there are no clear limits to what human ingenuity can create through the disciplined use of the scientific method.
The biggest alternative protein proposition on the market today is undoubtedly plant-based proteins. Traditionally, this included for example the use of proteins extracted from soy and pea, which continue to be the captains of this trend. While the health benefits of consuming these vegetables are considerable and have already established themselves in the market, the biotechnological potential of plant-based proteins has yet to be exploited. The fact is that there are already several initiatives betting on gene editing of crops, not only to make them resistant to pests caused by insects, bacteria and fungi, but also to increase their productivity and properties, adding an ecological and healthy attraction for consumers and, of course, for the companies themselves.
It doesn’t end there, as I’ve saved one of the biggest facets of this industry for last. This is the targeted expression of proteins in plants, whether they are heterologous (from other organisms) or not. To exemplify, what would you say if I told you that you could produce citrus fruits that were high in ascorbic acid, a potent antioxidant, but had also accumulated just the right amount of deer creatine? This could be marketed as the “organic fruit of bodybuilding”, as it does not involve additives or chemical synthesis of amino acids to build high quality protein for human consumption and is comparable to eating a serving of beef in terms of that protein that stimulates the regeneration of muscle fibers.
Insects as protein source?
Yes, this is no kind of joke; the future is undeniably about eating insects. While Western countries have not adopted this culture, many Asian countries do use insects as their usual food source. This is already a reality: there are insect farms and I myself have even seen a shelf of insect larvae snacks set up in my local supermarket. The advantages of using insects as a partial substitute for traditional poultry are many, including the industry’s yield per square meter – since soil loss is a major concern in livestock -, nutritional yield (an average of 60% protein, compared to 42% for chicken) and productive yield. The reproduction rate of insects is much higher, as they are strategists of the r, and in non-competitive conditions – i.e. in abundance of food – survival is quite high. Their life cycles are incredibly short, and it is possible to choose the stage of development on which to focus production, as they are animals with metamorphosis. In addition to all this, the ethical implications are much more bearable, as the nervous system of a chordate – traditionally higher animals – is much more complex and developed, allowing it to have a more remarkable perception of its environment, including pain and its confinement in an indolent industry.
Once again, this is not the end of the story. The massive use of insects can have some negative consequences, such as the presence of unexpected allergens or health complications arising from mammalian pathogens that use insects as reservoirs, as is the case with malaria and many other diseases. This is easily avoidable with biotechnology and hygienic production habits. Genetic manipulation, for example, can easily deal with the presence of bacteria. In addition to solving problems, it can also add solutions to this system, since the same thing happens as in the previous case, proteins from any organism can be expressed and their production can be increased.
Current Status & Start-ups
In the area of plant-based proteins, there are many start-ups, such as The Latte Co (products for children), Zero Egg (egg alternatives) or NovaMeat (Spanish company that imitates steaks with plant-based proteins). Some initiatives in the insect field are veterans, such as Agrifood and Ynsect, which has been processing insects for livestock feed or extracting their components since 2008. Entocycle intervenes in the natural cycles of degradation and production for a green alternative. However, the use of transgenic insects is not yet on the table at the international level, although the “classic” businesses in this area are more likely to be upgraded.
In this article we have discussed only two of the most promising and striking alternatives, but there are many more, such as in vitro meat cultivation or microorganism farming, which do not compete for the same space, but add options to this industry that is inevitably flourishing before our eyes. Current research is trying to elucidate more efficient metabolic mechanisms in each organism, as well as the determination of possible allergenic and beneficial substances for health.
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