New technology has meant that a type of yeast can be produced cheaply alongside ethanol manufacture: the global ethanol production of around 100 billion litres means there is no shortage of opportunity. If one plant producing 50 million litres of ethanol retrofitted their facilities, the yeast produced could provide around 16 grams of protein to 1.7 million people every day at a producer cost of less than $0.10 per person. Why isn’t this product getting to market?
AFC’s food-grade yeast protein can be produced during ethanol manufacture using an innovative continuous fermentation method developed by David Maclennan. The process significantly reduces the length of the fermentation process, resulting in the yeast cells not breaking and retaining all their nutrients. Previously, this cost of this process would have been prohibitive: the new technology means that ethanol production can also manufacture a significant volume of non-allergenic vegetable protein that is cost competitive. For ethanol producers, it offers a more profitable by-product than distillers grain, which is sold as animal feed.
As part of The Protein Challenge 2040, Forum for the Future is looking for options to better valorise nutrients within current supply chains. The AFC process provides a much more nutrient-dense product for human or animal consumption than current ethanol byproducts which are used as low-value animal feed or biofuels. This more efficient nutrient transfer is a priority to tackle global protein supply and to reduce pressure on environmentally impactful livestock agriculture. The relatively speedy production of high volumes of yeast is also a key benefit.
What are the barriers to this product successfully commercialising? Unlike many other new and novel ingredients, it does not face the hurdle of satisfying stringent regulations: vegetable yeasts already have GRAS status (generally regarded as safe) in the US, for example. The commercial viability is convincing, with low supply accessibility risks and immediate global opportunity, again areas where other new innovations struggle. There are no issues with consumer acceptance- yeast is already an important food- and AFC has honed the technology already. This start-up is not saddled with any of these common barriers to scale, so what’s going on?
Keen to maximise positive impact, McLellan’s target geographies have been those struggling with malnutrition, particularly India. There has been some progress with use as high value animal feed, but no success with processing for food. Across continents he has encountered resistance from ethanol producers, food producers and, even more surprisingly, companies involved in both. Overall, businesses appear to be averse to investment in this diversification. Ethanol is part of a dynamic market that has recently fluctuated significantly, simultaneously, farmers worldwide are struggling to operate at a profit. From an ethanol producer’s perspective, the safer bet is to focus on the core business and the current success of distillers’ grain as a low cost feed. Food companies without active involvement in ethanol may avoid interacting with such an unfamiliar market. The drawbacks of the investment for a company with activity in both food and ethanol are less obvious. Though the economics of an active AFC process are persuasive, it is a new product that would require investment of time, expertise and capital to mobilise.
When talking to businesses, McLellan has tended to lead with economic opportunity before nutrition or sustainability. In 2016, multinationals are feeling the pressure to prove an active sustainability strategy, including working for a more circular economy. With ever more food businesses looking to join up their nutrition and sustainability strategies, is presenting a long-term view of sustainability as a risk reducer becoming a stronger sales pitch for innovations like this?
Image credit: Konstantin Lazorkin / Flickr
Don McLellan (in conversation)
Don McLellan (April 6th 2016) http://www.ethanolproducer.com/articles/13202/new-coproduct-technology-produces-food-grade-yeast
R. J. Whitehead (August 5th 2015) http://www.foodnavigator-asia.com/Nutrition/Entrepreneur-s-frustration-in-marketing-cheap-protein-for-India-s-poor
Renewable Fuels Association http://www.ethanolrfa.org/resources/industry/statistics/#1454098996479-8715d404-e546