Easy as Fy - RSA Journal - RSA

Easy as Fy

Feature

  • Picture of Dr Debbie Yaver
    Dr Debbie Yaver
    Chief Scientific Officer, Nature's Fund
  • Business and entrepreneurship
  • Health and wellbeing

How one tiny microbe could change the way the world eats.

Over the coming decades, feeding a world population nearing 10 billion in the face of climate change will require a truly global solution, and one that radically changes the status quo. Ensuring our growing population has access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food, specifically high-quality protein, is critical. So, the problem becomes one of managing our shrinking resources to feed our growing population – simply put, how can we do more with less?

Global food production faces numerous challenges that exact a heavy toll on the environment. One of the most pressing issues is the expansion of agricultural land. According to the Good Food Institute (GFI), right now animal agriculture occupies more than 75% of all agricultural land, and the majority of what is not used for animals is being used to feed those animals. This, despite the fact that animal agriculture only provides 17% of humans’ global food supply. The need for land expansion often leads to deforestation, the destruction of valuable ecosystems, and diminishes the planet’s ability to cope with climate change.

Intensive meat production is a major contributor to these environmental challenges. Raising livestock demands vast amounts of land, water and feed, leading to water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. The extensive transportation networks required to distribute food globally add to the carbon footprint, worsening the climate crisis. The world’s population is projected to be almost 10 billion by 2050, and global demand for meat is set to nearly double. Addressing these challenges is essential to ensure a sustainable and resilient food system for future generations.

Creating a system to feed the world in a way that is nourishing for human health and nurturing for the health of the planet is an audacious goal, but it’s one Nature’s Fynd is prepared to meet with resilient optimism and Fy Protein™.

The story of Fy Protein begins millions of years ago in an acidic hot spring, located in what is today Yellowstone National Park, where a remarkable microbe was born. In 2009, one of our co-founders, Dr Mark Kozubal, was performing NASA-backed research on what life could look like if it existed in other parts of the universe. This led him to the park’s hot springs, where he discovered and isolated our remarkable fungus, which he later named Fusarium strain flavolapis. It was found associated with a native alga (Zygogonium), minimal bacteria and no other fungi – a very simple community. With the lack of biodiversity, there are no surprises, as not many species can thrive in the extreme conditions in which F. strain flavolapis was discovered. Its native environment has high UV light due to its elevation, high ionic strength (the water contains a significant concentration of dissolved ions, such as sodium, chloride, magnesium and calcium), and is quite acidic. As a result, F. strain flavolapis is not a picky eater! It grows well on a range of feedstocks, from simple sugars to oils to algal biomass.

Fast-forward to 2012, when a chance encounter on a beach in Hawaii brought our Co-Founder and CEO Thomas Jonas and Mark together. Thomas was on a sabbatical after spending years as president of a major packaging manufacturing company; he wanted to do something that left the planet better than he found it. The meeting led Thomas to Mark’s lab in Wyoming; Mark had initially considered using the organism to make biodiesel, but it became apparent that F. strain flavolapis was producing a high amount of protein. The surprising protein production, in conjunction with the organism’s ability to grow in conditions that minimise contamination during commercial food production, inspired the pair to explore the potential in the food industry, and eventually a new start-up was born – Nature’s Fynd, a food company for optimists.

Determined to do more with less, the scientists, explorers and optimists developed a technology known as liquid-air interface fermentation to grow Fy anywhere, anytime, with just a fraction of the natural resources of traditional proteins. This was a breakthrough in sustainable food production, and a significant leap forward in addressing the pressing issues of land scarcity, water scarcity and climate change.

Harnessing nature’s power

The key innovation of liquid-air interface fermentation is that microorganisms grow at the interface between a liquid medium and air. This method harnesses the power of nature to grow Fy in a highly efficient and sustainable manner. The implications of this technology are vast. Fy can grow in tall growth chambers commonly associated with vertical farming. Compared with traditional protein sources, such as beef, research shows Fy Protein requires 99% less land and 99% less water and emits 94% fewer greenhouse gases at scale. Fy Protein can then be turned into almost any food imaginable, including meatless breakfast patties and dairy-free cream cheese, the company’s first products available across the US.

In addition to its environmental advantages, Fy Protein’s nutritional profile as a complete protein source means it has the potential to address global malnutrition and food security challenges. Fy is a complete vegan protein with all 20 amino acids essential for human health. To create proteins, cells piece together a set of 20 different building blocks of amino acids, but human cells can only make 11 of these from scratch; people must get the other nine in their diets. Most animal proteins provide the right balance of amino acids, but vegetarians and vegans need to mix and match to get enough of the right amino acids. As a vegan source of complete protein, Fy comes with a naturally balanced ratio.

Fy is also a good source of fibre, including betaglucans and prebiotic fibre. Fy has 50% more protein per serving than tofu and twice as much as raw peas – and is a non-GMO (genetically modified organism) food, grown without the use of antibiotics, hormones or pesticides. It’s also a significant source of carbohydrates and lends itself to a variety of applications ranging from dairy and meat analogues to flour substitutes in baked goods, making it a viable option for regions facing limited access to traditional protein sources. With its complete amino acid profile, Fy offers a high-quality protein source that can also help combat protein deficiencies in vulnerable populations.

Furthering the impact of liquid-air interface fermentation, we recently received a multiyear grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support research to develop a decentralised fermentation-based production method to benefit small farming households in low- and middle-income countries across Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. This partnership demonstrates the potential of Nature’s Fynd fermentation technology as a tool to improve livelihoods in economically disadvantaged regions. Decentralised fermentation is a promising solution that uses locally grown crops to develop novel protein sources within infrastructure constraints and through the involvement of local stakeholders.

Fungi have never been as popular (or as heavily funded) as they have been in the last few years

Chief Scientific Officer, Nature's Fynd Debbie Yaver

Extraterrestrial cultivation

The transformational nature of liquid-air interface fermentation extends beyond its immediate applications on Earth. This technology also has the potential to revolutionise deep space travel by providing a sustainable and low-maintenance food source for astronauts on long-duration missions. By successfully growing Fy Protein in a microgravity environment during a collaborative project with NASA on the International Space Station, Nature’s Fynd has opened up new possibilities for extraterrestrial cultivation and self-sufficiency in space exploration.

Nature’s Fynd has over 55 patents covering a wide variety of technologies, including novel methods of microbial fermentation, production of mycelial (the vegetative part of fungi) mats, conversion of mycelial mats to foods and textiles, and production of cultured food products from filamentous fungi (such as vegan yogurt and cream cheese). These patents allow us to continue discovering the unique and life-changing capabilities of the liquid-air interface fermentation technology.

Nature’s Fynd has also received over $500m (£390m) in funding to date to fully scale our technology both on Earth and in space, raising a record amount of money for a food/beverage company in the Series C category of investment funding.

Aiming for delicious

The sustainability and nutritional value of Fy are important, but in order to make the impactful change we want to see in the world, the food made from Fy must also be delicious. Three-star Michelin chef Éric Ripert joined our team as a culinary adviser last year and, since then, Fy has been featured on the menu of his Le Bernardin New York restaurant as warm potato olive Fy parfait, Fy-filled squash blossom with blackberry sorbet cheesecake, apricot sorbet chamomile ice cream and, most recently, in a white and green asparagus with Fy béarnaise sauce. Like Nature’s Fynd, Chef Ripert wants to leave a positive mark on our food system, so he also collaborated with us to launch a limited release of three vegan Fy dressings – they sold out in just six hours.

Revolutionary potential

The advent of liquid-air interface fermentation and the revolutionary Fy Protein marks a monumental leap in the realm of sustainable food production. Fy’s unparalleled resource efficiency, coupled with an exceptional nutritional profile and minimal environmental impact, make it a game-changer in the quest for a sustainable future. Imagine a future where protein can be cultivated in regions previously deemed unsuitable for agriculture, thereby reducing pressure on ecologically sensitive areas. The versatility and adaptability of Fy enables us to envision sustainable solutions to food insecurity and malnutrition, especially in vulnerable communities facing environmental challenges. Fy production doesn’t have to be restricted to historically inhospitable environments; we have proven that we can grow Fy in the middle of America’s third largest city, at our headquarters in Chicago, Illinois. The ability to grow protein in densely populated urban environments has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption typically incurred in long-distance shipping.

We see Fy as a platform technology with potential impact even outside of the food sector. Browse the patent outputs of filamentous fungal applications and you’ll find a wide range of surprising applications – disease biosensors, building materials, leather alternatives, wastewater treatment. Fungi have never been as popular (or as heavily funded) as they have been in the last few years. The more our work and the work of other mycoprotein-based companies can inspire others, the better for all. Continuing to isolate organisms that thrive in different environments will only expand the toolbox we have to address the massive challenges we are facing.

Fy holds significant potential for long-term advancements in space exploration and socioeconomic development. Embracing Fy Protein could revolutionise the way we produce, consume and think about protein, fostering a brighter and more sustainable future for all.

Dr Debbie Yaver is Chief Scientific Officer at Nature’s Fynd, a food company for optimists

Artwork by Maria Contreras for the RSA. Maria is an illustrator born and raised in Chile. In 2022, she won the Young Guns award from The One Club for Creativity.

This article first appeared in RSA Journal Issue 3 2023.

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