Bacteria Fuel Tiny Protein Factories of the Net-Zero Future

Fancy a high-protein bacteria burger? Katelijne Bekers is betting you will.

When it comes to decarbonizing our food supply, protein presents a Pandora’s box of problems. From methane-emitting cattle to the space and resources consumed by factory farming, standard modes of producing this vital nutrient can leave a conscientious consumer in a state of despair.

That’s where Bekers comes in.

“A bacterial cell is 60-70% protein,” says Bekers, whose company, MicroHarvest, was one of the winners in the BloombergNEF Pioneers awards last month. “Bacteria are normally used to create structure or flavor, but actually they are very efficient protein-production factories. [So] we use the bacteria itself as a protein ingredient.”

Harnessing the power of these pint-sized protein powerhouses, MicroHarvest has developed a process for growing, harvesting, and drying fermented bacteria that are similar to the microbes found in yogurt or kimchi. The result is a protein-packed powder that companies can incorporate into food, pet food and livestock feed.

The benefits of MicroHarvest’s process are manifold. The company believes its product reduces land use by 99% and carbon dioxide emissions by more than 70%, relative to beef-derived protein. MicroHarvest protein is ready in around 24 hours, compared to the months or years necessary to bring plant- or animal-based proteins to maturity. And the portability of the process means that, given the correct infrastructure, MicroHarvest protein can be grown anywhere.

Working bacterial protein into diets isn’t a slam dunk quite yet. There are still regulatory hurdles to overcome, following which MicroHarvest will have to convince manufacturers to incorporate the protein into their prepared foods. Yet Bekers isn’t worried. “Make it taste great,” she says, “and people will want to use it.”

In this interview, recorded live at the BNEF Summit New York, Bekers discusses MicroHarvest’s process and product, the challenges inherent in bringing a new foodstuff to market, and what comes next for her company.

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