©Albert Jan Rasker
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Fermentation is hot. With the help of moulds, yeasts or bacteria, this ancient technique allows food to spoil in a controlled way. Enzymes are created during this process that change the taste, smell, acidity and digestibility of your food. This is how you make sauerkraut, yoghurt or beer. 

But fermentation can also be used to grow textiles. How about this jacket made from moulds? It may sound gross, but it can be made into a much more sustainable item than our current clothing. The production of textiles often involve polluting chemical processes. Plus a lot of synthetic clothing is difficult to recycle. Mycelium dust grows in a few days into fabric that you can use for making clothing. After use, the fabric is fully degradable.

Fatty acids

Now that a circular economy is becoming increasingly important in order to achieve the Paris climate targets, it is only logical that more attention is being paid to natural processes such as fermentation. After all, even the fatty acids (currently still made from mineral oil or palm oil) in your jar of chocolate spread can be created by fermentation. A spin-off from the Dutch Wageningen University and Research (WUR) makes bio-based fatty acids in this manner. These are created from VFG waste using a special composition of bacteria. At the moment, it is still used for animal feed, but it could also be used for humans in the future.

Also, allowing various crops to spoil in a controlled manner can be a solution to the scarcity of non-processed plant-based proteins. Today, more than half of the proteins in our diet still come from animal products. Many of these products, such as meat and dairy, have a major impact on the use of land, water and energy. Can this be done differently? A research team from the University of Copenhagen (UCPH), the Technical University of Denmark and Utrecht University is set to start researching this next year. They are going to find out whether oats and yellow peas can be successfully fermented as a meat substitute that really feels and tastes like meat.

Only on a small scale?

Those who think that fermentation only works on a small scale – a kind of corona hobby like baking sourdough bread – are wrong. Because the Dutch city of Breda has recently opened a factory for plant-based proteins. It is a pilot factory of The Protein Brewery, where about 100 kg of Fermotein rolls out every day. This is an odourless and tasteless protein powder or paste that the company ‘brews’ by converting the sugars from potatoes, sugar beet, maize, cassava and sugar cane into proteins through a fermentation process.

In this pilot project, the company cooperates with several international food producers who in turn process the protein into their products. According to Wim de Laat, founder of The Protein Brewery, the initial results are very good. “We get enthusiastic reactions which we make use of to improve the process and scale it up further. We want to open the first commercial factory next year – Then you are talking about thousands of tonnes per year.”

Whereas brewing beer takes a considerable amount of time, Fermotein takes just ninety minutes to double in size. “The total process takes only a few hours,” De Laat explains. But the greatest benefit really lies in the sustainable replacement of animal proteins. De Laat has known for roughly seven years that it is possible to extract proteins from beets, corn and potatoes. They are just as nutritious a source of protein as animals, but at the same time much cheaper and more sustainable. “Without nitrogen emissions, without animal suffering, and much less soil-intensive, we can provide the world’s population with its complete protein needs.” De Laat stated in an earlier interview.

Less use of land and water

When compared to beef, De Laat’s solution requires about 100 times less arable land and consumes 20 times less water. “Fermentation is a natural process, clean label, healthy and scalable. We use crops that grow all over the world so that means you can produce very locally. Also, they are a lot more sustainable than protein crops, such as soy. Plants are not good at producing protein. But they are good at accumulating oils, fats and carbohydrates. If you convert these carbohydrates into protein, you gain a much higher yield per acre and that way you can feed a lot more mouths with less by-products.”