Molecular Plant Farming to Advance Alternative Proteins — Expert Insights

Plant power is evolving! If you are familiar with the alternative protein industry, you likely don't need any persuasion about the power of plants. Nonetheless, if you want even more reasons to be impressed, hang on for a deep dive into molecular plant farming guided by industry leaders.

In this industry, plants function as remarkable mini-factories that utilize the essentials – carbon dioxide, water, and sunlight – to produce animal proteins.

If you missed the conversation with Amos Palfreyman, CEO at Miruku, Gastón Paladini, CEO at Moolec Science, and Kathleen Hefferon, CEO at Forte Protein, don't worry; we've got you covered with the highlights!

Keep reading to learn why these leaders are investing in a different kind of farming.

Topics include:

  • Where does this nascent market fit into the alt-protein landscape?
  • How does molecular farming compare to other alternative proteins in terms of sustainability and efficiency?
  • What approach does each company take when it comes to marketing this novel product?
  • What does the investment landscape look like?

But first, a refresh:

In a nutshell, molecular farming uses genetically engineered plants to produce specific proteins through permanent or temporary genetic modifications.

The process involves:

The process of molecular farming

The emerging companies in the molecular farming industry fit into two general categories listed below.

Molecular Farming: Expert Insights

Where does Molecular Farming fit into the Alt-Protein Landscape?

Q: This year, the Good Food Institute included molecular plant farming in their state-of-the-industry reports on alt-protein. Where does molecular farming fit within the alt-protein landscape? Do you believe molecular farming should have its own category? Or does it fit within one of the existing pillars of Cultivated, Fermented, or Plant-Based?

On this question, all three leaders were on the same page — molecular farming constituted its own distinct category.

Pillars of Alternative Protein- Protein Directory

Kathleen Hefferon proposed that molecular farming cannot be easily classified under any of the three existing pillars (plant-based, cultivated, and fermented), therefore necessitating its own distinct category.

Amos concurred, agreeing that molecular farming was absolutely the fourth pillar of alternative protein.

Gaston aligned himself with Kathleen and Amos, asserting that molecular farming was the fourth pillar in alternative protein. He further suggested that, while it didn’t fit within the other pillars, molecular farming combined the best aspects of plant-based and fermentation technologies by utilizing plants for scalability and cost-effectiveness and selectively harnessing specific molecules and ingredients to produce high-quality products.

Sustainability and Scalability:

Q: How does molecular farming compare to other forms of alternative proteins when it comes to sustainability and production?

Amos emphasized that by growing plants, molecular farming harnesses photosynthesis to produce protein — potentially the most simple solution in terms of efficiency and sustainability. However, he acknowledged the complexity of comparing molecular farming to other alternative protein production methods. He also noted that the production model would influence the lifecycle analysis (for example, comparing growth in open fields to growth in greenhouses and considering transportation logistics). He anticipated that future Lifecycle Assessments (LCAs) would be more accurate as technologies matured and market roles became clearer.

Adding to Amos' points, Katherine said sustainability measurement was still in its infancy, and she expected better insights to emerge over time. She mentioned that compared to traditional livestock production; she believes molecular farming would have fewer carbon emissions (per kg of protein) in any future LCA. Additionally, she mentioned that Forte utilized greenhouses for production. If the target proteins are produced in greenhouses or vertical farms, they could be situated in urban centers, minimizing transportation and associated fossil fuel costs.

Like Amos and Kathleen, Gaston views molecular farming as efficient, utilizing photosynthesis' natural efficiency instead of large bioreactors. In addition, Gaston emphasized the importance of targeting mass markets for alternative proteins to compete with traditional sources. The key, he said, is scaling for industrial demand. Additionally, he advocates leveraging existing GM crop infrastructure by having farmers switch to molecular farming seeds. He noted that the regulatory focus should be on GM-friendly regions, possibly excluding Europe initially. Gaston concluded with optimism for molecular farming's future, emphasizing education for industry players on the technology's scalability and affordability.

Marketing Strategies: How to Communicate about Molecular Farming?

Q: Given the challenges associated with consumer acceptance of GM crops, what is the role of marketing to help convince people that these crops are beneficial and safe?

Kathleen suggested that effective marketing strategies for genetically modified (GM) crops should focus on public education and better communication between scientists and the public. She believes that scientists need to better explain the benefits of GM crops, such as improved yields and reduced pesticide use, which are demonstrated in published studies. Also, a significant portion of the public is uninformed or undecided about GM crops, and targeting this group with accessible and informative materials could be impactful.

Amos, who held a different view, shared his thoughts on marketing strategies for GM crops. He thought that instead of persuading consumers about GM crops' safety or benefits, the focus should be on offering tasty, sustainable food at an affordable price. He cited Nestle's success in altering sodium content in products without over-explaining the benefits, relying on familiar branding to sustain consumer acceptance. Amos argued that large players in the industry should offer consumers options and engage with them directly while allowing tech experts to concentrate on developing the technology behind GM crops.

Gaston emphasized the industry's responsibility to get clear about communications and marketing internally and collaborate with CPG companies (which have the commercial and marketing strength to influence consumer perception). He argued for transparency but acknowledged that the molecular farming industry is novel and communicating about the product will require strategising. For example, Gaston shared that at Moolec, they are developing a new soy concentrate with animal protein genes. They are still determining whether to call it a hybrid product, an animal or plant-based product, or an enhanced commodity product. He suggested that companies should engage with other alternative protein and commodity companies, major ingredient players, CPG companies, the Godfrey Institute, and other organizations shaping the agenda.

Investment Landscape

Q: Have commercial agriculture companies started investing in molecular farming? What can you tell us about that?

Amos highlighted that traditional agriculture companies are keenly interested in molecular farming but are adopting a "wait and watch" approach. He anticipates that, as the technology proves viable within the next decade, these companies will actively acquire startups involved in molecular farming. He pointed out that these startups typically bear the initial risks and are backed by Venture Capitalists. He also pointed out that many of these traditional agricultural companies have indirect exposure to molecular farming through their investments as limited partners in venture capital funds. He clarified that while these companies may not directly invest in startups like Miruku, some of the investments Miruku has received from VC funds can be traced back to these large agriculture companies — indicating that they are, in some manner, invested and involved in the development of molecular farming, albeit through a more indirect route.

Collaboration Opportunities

Q: What opportunities exist for collaboration with traditional farmers?

Amos suggested that there are opportunities for both existing row crop farmers and existing dairy farmers. 

In California, for example, where there is increasing pressure to reduce water use, he suggested that some farmers may have the opportunity to adapt part of their land to grow Miruku crops that can produce dairy components (proteins and modified plant lipids).

Will molecular farming present a potential win-win scenario for molecular and traditional farmers? Only time will tell!

Hungry for more? Check out Protein Directory to learn more about others in this industry including, Mozza, Nobell Foods, Tiamet Sciences, Bright Biotech, PoLoPo, Greenovation Protein, Veloz Bio, and Asterix Foods!

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