Using microbial organisms like yeast and molds as cell factories to produce animal proteins, Pat Brown and his early team at Impossible Foods gave the go-ahead for the modern precision fermentation industry.
Within a few years, Clara Foods, Geltor and Perfect Day were using the technique to produce a variety of egg, dairy and collagen ingredients. By the late 2010s, these were first movers raised hundreds of millions of dollars And dozens of other startups followed in their footsteps.
Over-reliance on the capacity story
Today, recognition of the industry’s promise is becoming mainstream. Environmental figures such as George Monbiot proclaim this precision fermentation “Possibly the most important green technology ever.” Proponents position it as a promising solution to the limited supply of conventional animal products.
Given the fervor, investors, as well as the commentary, are urging companies to begin large-scale production as soon as possible. And so the industry conversation spotlight is now fixed on how do we build enough capacity to meet future demand, which could rise in the tens of millions of tons by 2030? A stimulating and undoubtedly important question.
To get the economics right for large-scale food products, the precision fermentation industry would do well to focus on a few areas.
However, this almost exclusive focus on capacity is troubling. It seems to imply: the unit economy of precision fermentation has essentially been solved, and all that remains is to build factories. We’ll need it eventually many more factoriesYes.
And the precision fermentation industry should not shy away from pushing for total bioproduction industrialization, a necessary condition to beat livestock farming. But we also have to be honest with the science, which says that the critical work to be done in precision fermentation for low-cost animal-free alternatives is not simply building or enabling capacity, but rather designing new or radically improved production systems.
I’ll tell you an open secret: Leading scientists and technologists from industry and academia tend to tell me—often in hushed tones, and sometimes only unofficially—that the economics of food-grade precision fermentation are nowhere near competitive with regular dairy products or eggs.
This problem, they warn, will not be solved simply by scaling up to larger tank volumes. At best, it will scale up production to immense tank volumes reduce costs by 35% to 40% instead of the multiple reduction required.