You don’t need a Ph.D. in environmental studies to know that our planet has problems. From snowstorms in sunny SoCal to cyclones in the Mediterranean, sometimes it feels like we’re living out the plot of The Day After Tomorrow.
Unfortunately, one of the biggest causes of environmental degradation is our food system. We are a connected world. In our efforts to produce and transport more food globally, we’ve sadly damaged biodiversity, deforested rainforests, and degraded soils along the way. And we’ve done it all with impressive, even if depressing, speed and efficiency.
Take sugarcane for example. This water-thirsty crop covers 65 million acres of land worldwide and takes about 9 gallons of water to produce just one teaspoon of refined cane sugar. That’s an unsustainable amount of both water and land coverage for one crop. Especially when you consider this one crop also carries some pretty heavy baggage when it comes to human health.
We all know our planet is changing. And our food system needs to change with it. But more importantly, our food system needs to change for it. Because, quite frankly, the health of our planet depends on it.
That’s one reason we’re completely invested in precision fermentation. “Precision wut now?” you ask. Precision fermentation — an innovative approach to an age-old food preservation practice that may just hold the key to a better, more sustainable food system of the future. More on what precisely precision fermentation is in a bit, but first…
Sweet Proteins—What Are They & How Can They Help the Environment?
In the eternal words of Ron Burgundy, sweet proteins are “kind of a big deal.”
Derived from about a dozen fruits primarily found in West Africa and other equatorial environments, sweet proteins are a class of proteins that deliver a sugar-like sweetness with none of the negative health impacts.
From a human health perspective, the implication of sweet proteins is huge. Today, we’re in the midst of a sugar epidemic, where more than 40% of Americans struggle with obesity, and the average citizen consumes about one pound of sugar per week. If we can mass-adopt sweet proteins at scale, then we might just find the ticket to reducing our over-dependence on sugar.
From an environmental health perspective, the implication of sweet proteins is equally huge. First off, sweet proteins are thousands of times sweeter than sugar, which means you don’t need as much (in your chocolate or in your country’s backyard). Oubli Fruit Sweet Protein, for instance, a sweet protein found in the oubli plant of West Africa, is 2,000x sweeter than sugar and requires 222 acres/ton less than sugarcane to produce.
Add the process of precision fermentation to this equation — which requires essentially zero land at all! — and the farming real estate we stand to save is on the scale of literal countries.
The Not-So-Sweet Impact of Sugar on the Environment
The thing is: sugar is a silent slayer of land and water resources.
Sugarcane farming is like a horde of tourists in Times Square — everywhere. It’s grown in about 120 countries worldwide. About a dozen of these countries allocate at least 25% of their farmland to grow it. And 65 million acres of land worldwide is used to grow this crop — that’s roughly the size of the entire state of Colorado.
Beyond mere land coverage, however, sugarcane delivers a double knockout punch to freshwater. As in, it uses too much (roughly 210 liters to produce 1 kg of sugarcane) and then damages too much (polluting freshwater ecosystems with silt and fertilizers washed down from farms).
According to the World Wildlife Fund: “The cultivation of sugar leads to the degradation of wildlife, soil, air, and water where sugar is produced and of downstream ecosystems.”
Where Does Precision Fermentation Fit in Precisely?
Fermentation isn’t anything new. This ancient food preservation process has been around for thousands of years, dating back to the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt around 6,000 BC.
Essentially, fermentation is when microorganisms like bacteria and yeasts break down organic compounds such as carbohydrates, proteins, and fats into simpler compounds, producing energy and other useful substances. It’s like nature’s very own Transformers — you start with one thing, then end up with quite a resilient other.
Precision fermentation ramps this up a notch. It’s like taking the reins on the fermentation process. Rather than leaving it up to nature, now you’re essentially the director. You can fine-tune and refine the process however you see fit.
For instance, you can take a specific microorganism and genetically program it with the DNA sequence for the ingredient you want to create — in this case, let’s say sweet proteins found in plants like Oubli or Miracle Fruit. Then you put these microorganisms with the desired DNA sequences into a fermentation tank, let them ferment with sugars and other nutrients, then wham: you’ve got food-grade ingredients biologically identical to those found in nature, but without the environmental impact.
A Brief History of Precision Fermentation
It’s worth noting: precision fermentation isn’t some new untested thing. It’s been around for decades to produce foods and even life-saving drugs.
In the 1970s, insulin was perhaps the biggest breakthrough in precision fermentation. Whereas before 1 kg of insulin required killing 50,000 animals (since insulin is a hormone found in the pancreas of pigs and cows), a company called Genetech figured out how to use precision fermentation to create this hormone without such an outrageous cost to animal life.
Since then, precision fermentation has taken the animal-free meat and dairy industries by storm. Brands like Impossible have created animal-free beef that “bleeds”, while Perfect Day has mastered animal-free dairy, The EVERY Company has created egg whites, Brave Robot ice cream, and many more.
However, no company has leveraged the power of precision fermentation to solve the sugar crisis…until now.
How Precision Fermentation Supports Sustainability
At Oobli, our goal is to help people have sweets without sacrifice. This goes for human health — creating sweets that taste like sugar but digest like protein. And it goes for environmental health — using precision fermentation to cut down on sugarcane monocropping and its associated costs.
Here are a couple of ways precision fermentation of sweet proteins supports sustainability.
Precision Fermentation Helps with Crop Reduction
We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: Sugar is like a poster child for unsustainable farming.
It takes up huge amounts of land, uses tons of water, and is far from a regenerative crop. As in, sugarcane is often grown on steep slopes and hillsides, which leads to high rates of soil erosion and increased rates of water runoff. An estimated 5-6 million hectares of cropland are lost annually due to the severe soil erosion and degradation caused by sugar farming.
In short, one of the most obvious impacts precision fermentation can have on the environment is by… well, reclaiming the environment. Did you know that even just a 1% reduction in sugar production saves about 650,000 acres of land? With precision-fermented sweet proteins, this sort of reduction isn’t some pipedream; it’s a very real and crucially-important possibility.
Precision Fermentation Is Cost-Effective and Localized
A big advantage to precision fermentation is that instead of using sugar in food products that are deleterious to our health and planet, we can use local sugar supply as the “food” for fermentation.
This means we can optimize the sugar source to be region-specific (beet sugar vs sugarcane, for example), which vastly reduces our carbon footprint because we’re not shipping raw materials throughout the world.
By using sugar as the input for fermentation and using regional sugar stock, we save on all the associated transportation costs and greenhouse gas emissions that go with it. Think about it: getting one cube of sugar from where it’s harvested into your morning coffee requires thousands of miles of automotive travel. It’s better and easier to use what’s local to each specific region.
By growing, fermenting, and producing where we sell, we can tread lightly on planet earth.
Summing It Up
It’s not surprising that some experts have described precision fermentation as “the most important environmental technology ever developed.”
While some might find the terminology around precision fermentation to be a bit futuristic and new, the truth is anything but. This technology represents a landmark opportunity to create scalable food solutions that are better for our climate, our planet, and our health.
In short, with precision fermentation, we can have our sweets and eat them too.