Arttu Luukanen at the ELEVATE Space & Sustainability Conference

Arttu Luukanen – Food Out of Thin Air

One of the most anticipated presentations of the 2nd ELEVATE Space & Sustainability Conference was Arttu Luukanen’s on harvesting natural microscopic food. For the first time in history, humankind can produce food without burdening our home planet.

Food production, as we know it, is entirely dependent on land and weather conditions. Protein production is a massively disproportionate squanderer of the Earth’s resources. It’s time to enter the era of sustainable food production to liberate our planet from the burdens of agriculture.

Litres of water used in production of 1 kg protein
Litres of water used in production of 1 kg protein / Image: Solar Foods

CO2 emissions must be cut fast. Even if we drastically reduce consumption, the planet will warm by two degrees, the limit of life as we know it. Fish stocks will crash if nothing is done. The global fish catch peaked 20 years ago and continues to drop. Meanwhile, more engine power and fuel are needed to go further out to sea to catch more fish.

We have to realize that 30% of emissions come from food production. In other words, our current eating habits are a big part of the problem.

Land area used in production of 1kg protein
Land area used in production of 1kg protein / Image: Solar Foods

Throughout history, humanity has found success by harnessing the bounty of nature. Modern agriculture has created an era of well-being but has also led us to exceed the limits of the planet. To create a prosperous future, we must find ways to spend natural resources more wisely.

According to UN estimates, we will need over 50% more calories to feed people by mid-century. Our way of life and the amount of available land form an impossible equation.

In the last century, water use increased at almost twice the rate the world’s population grew. On average, agriculture accounts for 70% of global freshwater withdrawals. The production of Solein lightens the load by requiring only a fraction of water needed for agricultural food production.

Emissions solein pollutes five times less than plant production
Emissions solein pollutes five times less than plant production / Image: Solar Foods

What are the key environmental benefits and sustainability goals of Solar Foods’ food production process?

Based on a lifecycle analysis study, Solein is about 10 times more climate friendly than most plant-based proteins and about 100 times more climate friendly than meat. 

Given that the production of Solein requires no agricultural feedstocks, land usage, and water usage by the process is a miniscule fraction of traditional sources of protein.

For centuries, conventional food production has been based on meat and dairy. Livestock is the world’s largest user of land resources, with grazing land and cropland dedicated to the production of feed representing almost 80% of all agricultural land. Plants are more efficient, but even they pale in comparison to Solein.

Solar Foods’ unique bioprocess can grow a single microorganism, one of the billions found in nature, into an endless supply of edible food with air, electricity, and fermentation. This bioprocess may not be traditional, but it is as natural as the air we breathe.

How does Solar Foods ensure the safety and quality of the protein and food products it creates?

Solein is proven to be 100% safe. This means it needs a novel food approval from authorities before it can be sold as food. We received our first novel food approval from Singapore in September 2022. During the approval process Solar Foods generated safety and property data together with independent accredited laboratories using Solein produced at our pilot plant. 

There is no evidence that Solein would not be as safe as any existing food, and approvals by the US FDA and EU EFSA are expected in 2024/2025.

Solein is the purest and most sustainable protein in the world. It is nutritionally rich. It can taste and look like anything you use it for. It is unparalleled in its functionality – it can be used in any food, regardless of diet.

Arttu Luukanen at the ELEVATE Space & Sustainability Conference
Arttu Luukanen at the ELEVATE Space & Sustainability Conference

Can you share some examples of potential applications for Solar Foods’ protein, both in terms of consumer products and industrial uses?

Solein is expected to be used as a protein ingredient in existing foods such as bread, pasta and plant-based dairy, drinks, and between meals. 

Secondly, Solein is planned to be used as a protein ingredient in meat alternative products. 

Thirdly, if laboratory-grown meat production will scale in the future, Solein could provide the amino acid platform that real meat cells could use for growing. 

Therefore, Solar Foods’ technology should be seen as a platform technology for disconnecting food production from agriculture in a strategic manner, rather than just a production of protein ingredient.

Cattle produces 45 kilos of CO2 per kilo of protein which amounts to 14.5 % of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Again, plants are more efficient than animals, but Solein beats both in efficiency.

What challenges and limitations does Solar Foods face in scaling up production and commercializing its technology?

Solar Foods has scaled the production up 1000 times in one year. Another 1000-time scaleup is needed in order to commercialize the protein. 

This is an intellectual, scientific and technological challenge, which we are addressing through the construction of our first industrial-scale plant, the 40 M€ Factory 01 which will start operations early 2024.

How does Solar Foods address issues related to resource efficiency, including energy consumption and raw materials?

With the best available technology, the efficiency from electricity to calories is about 20%. By hectare, the yield in Solein is 10 times more than photosynthetic plants – even if the electricity for Solein production would be from solar panels (that needs quite a bit of land area).

Land released from agriculture can return to its natural state and start removing carbon from the atmosphere. If only a fraction of this land is used to produce Solein, an already minimal CO2 footprint turns into a carbon sink, thus becoming carbon negative.

What role does innovation play in Solar Foods’ ongoing research and development efforts, and are there any new breakthroughs on the horizon?

Solar Foods invests heavily in R&D, and we have several ongoing research projects. For instance, we are constantly screening for new production organisms, which may provide either quantitative or qualitative benefits and new product lines. 

In addition, we recently started a precision fermentation project, funded by the EU in which we will modify Solein microbe to enable it to excrete milk protein. If successful, it will be a major breakthrough, as it could open doors to producing many other things using microbes fed with carbon dioxide and hydrogen as the “factory”, such as other food proteins, materials (e.g. silk), and pharmaceuticals with minimal environmental impact.

Can you discuss the potential global impact of Solar Foods’ technology in addressing food security and mitigating the environmental impact of traditional agriculture?

The current food system is vulnerable, as is evidenced by e.g. the impact of the war in Ukraine to the availability of wheat grain from this important agricultural region. Moreover, the production of crops (as well as feedstock) relies on a small number of species, each with a narrow genetic base thanks to millenia of yield optimization. This non-diversity of crops makes them vulnerable to diseases that could severely disrupt the global food supply.

The effects of extended draughts brought about by climate change has made many parts of the World unsuitable for food production. 

As Solein production is not dependent on the agricultural conditions as there are no agricultural feedstocks needed, Solein can be produced anywhere, be it in the middle of the desert, in the arctic, underground, or even in space. Thus, it provides a shock and future-proof food production method that ensures security of supply also in most extreme conditions.

Arttu Luukanen at the ELEVATE Space & Sustainability Conference
Arttu Luukanen at the ELEVATE Space & Sustainability Conference

How does Solar Foods view the competitive landscape in the alternative protein sector, and what sets the company apart from other players in the field?

Many microbial protein manufacturers produce mycoproteins using fungi. Fungi, however, need sugar as a source of energy and carbon, and thus is connected to agriculture. 

There are some other gas-fermentation companies, but they use a different production organism. 

We believe that Solein will perform well with the competition given its superior productivity (production of biomass per unit volume per time), its uniquely good nutritional profile, and functional properties that make it a broadly applicable ingredient over a multitude of recipes. 

Finally, the alternative protein market is huge and measured in hundreds of Billions, so there is plenty of room for other companies.

Traditional food production relies on agricultural means, requiring massive amounts of water and land. The impact of Solar Foods comes from breaking the connection between agriculture and food.

With protein grown without vast tracts of field and irrigation, natural resources are liberated and biodiversity can flourish. This is how Solar Foods feed the world, sustainably.

Could you provide insights into Solar Foods’ future plans, partnerships, and initiatives to drive further growth and adoption of its sustainable food technology?

We at Solar Foods live exciting times, given that the Factory 01 is starting operations early 2024. There are a number of major food production companies eager to get access to the Solein produced by the factory.

Our first major strategic partnership with the Ajinomoto group, a major food producer in Japan, was announced recently. 

As our production capacity increases, we see many partnership opportunities in the future. 

We have already preliminary plans for our next factory, Factory 02, with a production capacity of some 10 000 tons of Solein per year. The investment decision will be made in the next 1-2 years.

Do you think ELEVATE can help people to understand better technology and sustainability?

Absolutely. We strongly believe that we can innovate out many pressing environmental problems when we put our minds to it, and it is important that each individual of the planet is aware of the impact of the decisions they make on the planet. 

I especially appreciated the many excellent questions asked by young students in the audience. They are the future.

Arttu Luukanen at the ELEVATE Space & Sustainability Conference
Arttu Luukanen at the ELEVATE Space & Sustainability Conference

Solar Foods’ vision is revolutionizing the current food production order and the way we think.

In the future, favorable places for protein production can be those locations where it has previously been impossible. Extreme conditions can be harnessed to produce food.

It’s time to usher in a new era of sustainable food production and a limitless future of possibilities, liberating the planet from the burdens of agriculture.

Read the full and illustrated interview in the Winter 2023 edition of the Living in Monaco, the Monaco Residents’ Magazine.

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