The environmental impact of agricultural protein production could be mitigated with the help of cell culturing techniques
A study carried out at the University of Helsinki showed that cellular agricultural products could reduce the environmental impact associated with traditional protein production.

The environmental impact associated with food production has never been so pronounced in human history.

Natasha Järviö’s doctoral dissertation explores the potential of cellular agricultural products to reduce the environmental impact associated with protein production. Järviö showed that the decoupling of protein production from agricultural land using microbes grown in bioreactors can mitigate its environmental impact with only minor trade-offs.  

Furthermore, by comparing the environmental impacts of cellular agricultural proteins with those from traditional agricultural and aquacultural systems, she found that potential reductions were largest when animal-based protein sources were replaced, most noticeably in the cases of beef and crustaceans.    

Järviö focused on two examples of protein sources from cellular agriculture: microbial protein produced using hydrogen-oxidizing bacteria and ovalbumin produced using the Trichodora reesei fungi.  

Microbial protein is a so-called cellular product, while ovalbumin is an example of an acellular product. The distinction lies in the fact that cellular products contain living or once-living cells, while the acellular products do not. Both products can in principle be used both for human consumption and as a protein ingredient of feed. However, the main target of ovalbumin is to replace chicken-based egg white powder, of which more than 50 percent is ovalbumin.

Agricultural land use can be reduced

Järviö showed that a reduction in land-use requirements for protein production is the largest benefit of the replacement of existing protein sources with microbial protein and ovalbumin. For example, the amount of land needed to produce microbial protein and ovalbumin was 0.1–1.3 per cent of the land required for beef herds. An additional benefit of microbial protein production is the complete independence from agricultural land.  

“This means that microbial protein can, in principle, be produced anywhere in the world — even in desert areas that are otherwise unsuitable for food production,” says Järviö.  

This reduced need for productive land means that more land could become available for reforestation projects when cellular agricultural products replace protein sources from conventional agricultural and aquacultural systems. This would not only restore ecosystems but also aid in climate mitigation.

Dissertation

Msc Natasha Järviö defended her dissertation on 8 November 2022  at the Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry: "The planet we eat - Comparing environmental impacts of protein-rich food and feed ingredients from cellular agriculture, agriculture and aquaculture".

 

Environmental impacts of microbial protein smaller in comparison to ovalbumin production

Järviö further identified that the environmental impact of microbial protein in comparison to ovalbumin production was less, which was mostly explained by the reliance of ovalbumin on agricultural inputs. Up to 94 percent of the environmental impacts of ovalbumin production were related to its use of agriculturally sourced glucose. For microbial protein, the environmental impacts were mainly caused by the use of electricity. This contribution of electricity contrasts with the environmental impacts caused by the agricultural and aquacultural sector, which are mostly linked to emissions from deforestation and agricultural production processes, such as enteric fermentation and the application of fertilizers.

The environmental impact of cellular agricultural products could be further reduced by using renewable or low-carbon energy sources. Alternative glucose sources, such as from agricultural side-streams, could potentially further reduce the environmental impact of ovalbumin.