A protein made by science, out of thin air – with no agriculture involved and no carbon emissions – sounds improbable. But Pasi Vainikka, CEO and co-founder of food tech start-up Solar Foods, says that this is the way of the future.
1. Climate change is causing irregular and extreme weather patterns globally, which affects agriculture. What is your vision for ensuring global food security?
We approach these challenges with a top-down approach because we see food production as a critical area in developing a sustainable path forward. When we calculate the cost of producing Solein (the brand name of the Solar Foods protein), we compare it against the cost of producing the final food product via agriculture or the meat industry, and this is essentially our benchmark.
A protein source that is disconnected from agriculture would change our decisions about what we grow and how we grow it. Agricultural development could be centred on what is sustainable rather than the intersection of food preferences and production cost.
2. Why is it important to disconnect food production from agriculture?
There are 12 species – five animals and seven plants – that account for 75% of global food intake. Relying on this homogenous diet makes us vulnerable. If a disaster wipes out any of these food sources, the population of the whole world would be affected.
At the moment, we are targeting meat-based diets as a way to reduce carbon emissions by moving to a plant-based diet. It still assumes that we have climate conditions that are conducive with industrial-scale agriculture. As a sustainably sourced protein, Solein reduces the risk that climate change poses to food security, as it is completely disconnected from agriculture.
3. What role does renewable energy play in this process?
Solein is produced in a carbon-neutral process – but this can't be achieved without electricity. For this reason, our top choices for prospective factory sites are in the world's deserts or similar sites with an attractive combination of wind and solar power. The factory itself has a very small footprint, it is not fertile land that is needed for agriculture, and the environment provides us with what we need – an abundance of sunlight. I was pleased to see the price of solar energy reached a record low this year – EUR 14/MWh.
Fossil fuels are responsible for 75% of global carbon emissions. If Wärtsilä can deliver its vision of rolling out 100% renewable energy through energy management systems and storage, then that will transform energy production. We, on the other hand, see our role as addressing the remaining 25% of carbon emissions that originate from food production.
4. Solar Foods has an ambitious roadmap. Your SEED funding round finished in 2018 and you plan to produce 50 million meals per year starting in 2022. How will you scale up, and how will Solein end up on people's plates?
We have scaled our production by a factor of 1,000 in one year, and we need to repeat the same feat again to be ready for commercial production. In addition to scaling our production, we need to get the protein approved as a novel food.
What we see as attractive and viable is that it will form part of both the everyday meals people grab for lunch, as a protein in plant-based meat alternatives and traditional dinners cooked for their families.
Once Solein is ready to be stocked in supermarkets, it will reach people's plates largely undetected as an ingredient among others. We are not proposing that anyone will eat this product as a pill or any compromise in taste and convenience - we want to provide what is available now, but in a more sustainable way.
5. If someone told you 20 years ago that this is what you would be working with, how do you think you would have reacted?
In this line of work, you are often called to defend the future because the project we are working on is something unprecedented. That tends to be perceived as an objective that is impossible or at least improbable. I've seen that instinctive reaction previously when working in the renewable energy sector, which has made leaps and bounds in the past decade.
I think I would have said that it was a ludicrous idea, but still, I'd like to think that on the inside I would have felt a wave of excitement and thought – wow!