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Fast-growing fungal proteins could slash agricultural emissions ten-fold

Here's what we have to gain—environmentally and health-wise—if we swap meat for mycoprotein.
January 24, 2020

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Mycoprotein, a meat substitute made from cultivating the cells of a fibrous fungus, could provide a solution to many of the meat industry’s environmental weak points. This is according to a new study, which provides the a comprehensive review on the true potential environmental and health benefits of this alternative protein. 

Familiar to many consumers as the meat alternative, ‘Quorn’, mycoproteins are gaining a foothold in the meat-replacement market, as people switch to vegetarianism and veganism, or opt to reduce their meat consumption for health reasons. 

Yet with this growth, it’s important to grasp how much of a benefit mycoproteins could really provide – for both our planet and our health – compared to meat. Now, this broad literature review finds that making mycoproteins would generate 10-fold less in the way of greenhouse gas emissions compared to beef, and four times less, compared to chicken. Not only that, but producing the fungal cells efficiently at industrial scales would use up 20-times less water, and 23-times less land than resource-guzzling livestock farms. 

Mycoprotein production would also be free from the polluting effects and emissions generated by nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides, which are applied to crops grown for feeding livestock. 

And, the process of feeding this protein-rich fungus could, in itself, provide a partial solution to food and agricultural waste. Mycoproteins can feed on everything from leftover fruit and vegetables and fruit juice, to starch, excess molasses, and waste from dates. (Though, a crucial element here would be to ensure a safe and sustainable supply of these resources, to avoid any health and safety disasters further down the line, the researchers caution.)

Environmental advantages weren’t the only facet they considered. The literature review also showed that mycoproteins are low in fat and sodium, but high in protein and fibre, and they have sufficient dietary levels of minerals like zinc. Some clinical trials show that mycoproteins as a meat substitute can also help to reduce cholesterol levels. Overall, the researchers found that mycoproteins have a similar nutritional profile to regular meat—with one notable exception being that iron levels are lower in this alternative meat than in the real thing. 

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The study flags other benefits too – such as the potential of mycoprotein production to dodge the catastrophic rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria, which has accompanied the meat industry’s surge in recent decades.

On top of all this, the researchers found that when compared to other meat alternatives, mycoprotein products already have a high consumer acceptance ranking. With this existing social and cultural acceptance in place, there’s the potential for the food to expand further into the market, and become a more influential alternative to conventional meat.

This new wave of alternative meat does come with some caveats though – including that some consumers have reported allergies to mycoproteins, as well as gastrointestinal problems. The researchers suggest that production needs to be streamlined in the future, to avoid contamination by food-borne pathogens. 

While no single approach will ever be a panacea for the meat industry’s problems, the new study does underscore the relatively unique commercial position that mycoprotein is in, to help solve several of its most pressing challenges.  

Of course, this fast-growing fungal protein will only be truly beneficial to the environment and human health, if it becomes a strict replacement for traditional meat in people’s diets – and at pace. In the context of a growing world population where the appetite for meat products is sure to rise, that will require driving social and cultural changes that are desirable to exchange regular meat for a mimic.

Beyond upscaling mycoprotein production, this is bound to be the much larger future challenge.  

Source: Hashempour-Baltork et al. “Mycoproteins as safe meat substitutes.” Journal of Cleaner Production. 2020

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