Bridging the gap in alternative protein production

May 21, 2024

A bowl of pasta with cultivated meat

Credit: Mosa Meat

As technology and regulatory conditions mature, consumers enjoy a wider selection of exciting and better-quality novel foods. GEA helps customers bring these products to market through its engineering expertise and innovative process solutions. Soon, companies will have access to GEA novel food process development services at a new cutting-edge facility in the heart of the U.S.

Global population growth and meat consumption continue to rise. This dynamic increases harmful CO2 emissions and further jeopardizes land and water resources. Add on climate change and systemic drought, and the result is less arable land available for animals and the crops required to feed them.

The upswing in the number of flexitarians – people who replace meat in some of their meals with alternative proteins – relieves some of the pressure. Still, meat, fish and dairy remain popular mealtime staples and provide the demand for animal agriculture. In 2015, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimated that livestock accounted for around 12 percent of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Without intervention, the FAO estimates this figure will reach around 15 percent by 2050. To eat more sustainably, the world must rethink its food production models.

New protein production methods required

Plant-based foods are well-known to consumers. As unit costs come down and taste and nutrition improve, these foods will grow in appeal. More recently, fermentation – using microbes to produce nutrient-rich, delicious foods – is emerging as a production method of choice for many innovators in the alternative protein ecosystem focused on meat, seafood, egg and dairy alternatives. An ancient food production method, fermentation is now expanding far beyond its historical uses, including via precision fermentation, a fascinating technology that uses microbes like yeast to produce specific, high-value functional ingredients – such as proteins, vitamins, flavors and fats.

Cultivated meat – meat produced directly from cells, without the need to grow the whole animal – has the potential, when commercially scaled, to truly satiate people’s love of meat and fish without the downsides of conventional protein production and processing methods. Another benefit, it can be made without antibiotics, steroids and other additives, mitigating antibiotic resistance, which is on the rise and poses serious health risks globally. Cell-based meat is also produced in facilities under cleaner conditions than conventional meat processing facilities, reducing the risk of foodborne illnesses and other animal-transmitted diseases which can become future pandemics. Cultivated meat and other alternative proteins can offer consumers greater choice, providing them with the foods they enjoy, made in ways that significantly reduce health risks and impact on the environment.

U.S. a front-runner in alternative proteins

A land famous for its fast-food culture, the U.S. is actually the largest overall contributor to the alternative protein sector. The reasons: a robust venture capital culture, a fairly positive regulatory environment, and the sheer size of the market itself. According to the Good Food Institute’s (GFI) 2023 state of the industry report on plant-based foods, despite high food costs and inflation, 36 percent of U.S. consumers reported eating plant-based meat in 2023, while 25 percent reported eating it monthly or more frequently.

Gea precision fermentation dairy imagindairy cream cheese

This lactose-, hormone- and cholesterol-free cream cheese has the same taste, nutritional value and mouthfeel as conventional cream cheese. It is based on animal-free whey protein produced via precision fermentation. (Image: ImaginDairy/Sarit Goffen)

In the novel food sector, according to the GFI, one-third of all companies working in protein fermentation and cultivated meat are headquartered in the U.S. and nearly 80 percent of global fermentation investments are from the U.S. (calculated between 2014 and 2023). In cultivated meat, the U.S. contributes more than 50 percent of global investment. North America, particularly the U.S., looks set to remain in the driving seat of novel food development and production. Buoyed by milestone FDA and USDA cultivated meat approvals in 2023, large investments in cultivated meat production facilities were also made. Coast to coast, universities, too, are investing in novel food R&D and partnering with industry to further develop the sector.
GEA novel food investment in growing U.S. market

The U.S. is not new territory for GEA. The company has a growing portfolio of alternative protein customers it already supports there. What is new is that GEA has invested USD 20 million to build a greenfield technology center dedicated to novel protein testing and development in Janesville, Wisconsin. By fall of 2025, businesses actively working in alternative proteins will be able to develop and prove out their concepts – with GEA’s support – as a lead-up to industrial-scale production.

The future GEA Technology Center for Alternative Proteins will sit adjacent to the company’s already operational Separation and Flow Technologies facility. For GEA the location is ideal: close to Chicago and other large cities, within striking distance of major biotech, pharma and food companies as well as food science universities, with access to a strong talent pool.

“Our new technology center comes at a critical time for the industry,” explains Arpad Csay, GEA’s Senior Director of New Food for North America. “Venture capital investors in the sector have put a stop to their portfolio companies spending funds on facilities and capital equipment. Startups must now find new ways to develop and commercialize their products. Our technology center fits in well with this realignment since we offer the very process development services that those capital investments would have gone towards. GEA’s inhouse know-how across the technologies relevant to the production steps – and deep application knowledge – will ensure speedy process development for each customer.”

Future customers will benefit from dedicated GEA lines to test and pilot microbial, cell-based and plant-based processes. Scaling novel foods to meet commercial production capacities remains a challenge, particularly improving cell density and reducing the cost of the growth medium for cultivated meat. Here, GEA combines its bioreactor and separation expertise to dramatically improve cell densities and thus the unit economics of the production process. This innovation is key to achieving price parity between conventional and novel foods. “Once we have the process optimized our team can outline basic design requirements and provide customers with a firm quotation for a production facility,” explains Csay.

GEA’s inhouse know-how across the technologies relevant to the production steps – and deep application knowledge – will ensure speedy process development for each customer.

Arpad Csay

Senior Director of New Food for North America, GEA

“Every new alternative protein production facility is a win-win-win for the local economy, the food industry and the planet”, says Caroline Bushnell, GFI Senior Vice President of Corporate Engagement. “With demand for meat on the rise globally and conventional protein production contributing to some of the world’s most pressing challenges, we need more facilities that can help alternative protein innovators scale sustainably, feed more people with fewer resources and give consumers the foods they love at prices they can afford.”

In keeping with GEA’s strong climate commitments, the new technology center will integrate heat pump technology and rely on electricity generated by GEA’s own on-site solar park. The green electricity will cover the needs of the building and all production processes – with any excess power sent back to the grid. “With our investment in Janesville, GEA will fill an important gap in the novel food ecosystem and demonstrate how this can be done using renewable energy,” says Csay.

Every new alternative protein production facility is a win-win-win for the local economy, the food industry and the planet.

Caroline Bushnell

Senior Vice President of Corporate Engagement, GFI

Cultivating relationships to remove production barriers

Our global food system today relies on a complex supply chain network and a skilled workforce to bring products to consumers. The same is true for the alternative protein sector. While the ecosystem to get plant-based foods and beverages to market has a slight jump-start on other alternative protein production methods, the entire sector is still in its relative early days.

For cultivated meat, much more bioreactor capacity is required to achieve commercial scale. In this application, bioreactors must be similar in design to those used in biomedical processes with bespoke nutrient broths for growing cells. “GEA will investigate multiple options to solve this challenge for producers, either using our own resources or by exploring partnerships,” explains Csay.

Building relationships with academia is another important pillar of GEA’s new food business strategy. GEA is formalizing an industry-partnership agreement with the Integrated Center for Alternative Meat and Proteins (iCAMP) headquartered at the University of California, Davis, one of the most important agriculture and food science universities in the world. “Together with iCAMP and their partner network, we aim to build an ecosystem of focused research, education, training and physical facilities to advance alternative proteins,” says Csay. “This is a great opportunity for our group to tap into the knowledge base, network and resources of UC Davis and continue being a driving force in the development of the alternative protein industry.” A second partnership with another high-profile food science university is in the pipeline and will help ensure novel foods have a bright future in the U.S. and beyond.
Gea alternative protein production solar panels renewable energy

Renewable energy and alternative proteins go hand-in-hand

The use of renewable energy in alternative protein production is an important lever to further reduce food-related emissions. For GEA, it was necessary that the new Technology Center for Alternative Proteins in Janesville align with its own ambition to reach net zero by 2040. Therefore, the new site will:

  • create its own electricity via a ground mounted solar photovoltaic array, covering 100% of the site’s electricity needs
  • incorporate heat pump technology, instead of natural gas
  • use building insulation that is 40% more thermally efficient than the baseline
  • use efficient HVAC systems and incorporate LED lighting, both with automatic control systems
  • achieve a regulated building energy consumption that is 43% lower than the baseline

The facility will meet the requirements for sustainable investments as defined by the E.U. Taxonomy regulation, as well as GEA’s own climate targets.

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