Episode 1 – Protein permutations with Maurice Moloney

Sep 3, 2021

About this Episode

We discuss the current drivers and pathways to scale the increasing interest in new forms of protein for consumers with Maurice Moloney.


CB: Hello, everyone. My name is Cameron Begley, and you’re joining us for Tech Transfer Talk. Tech Transfer Talk is a podcast series which we’re establishing to explore issues in technology transfer. There’s always a lot of talk about the science and the opportunities and the markets, but what we’re finding in our experiences is that not a lot of conversation takes place around how the technology gets transferred from the bench, from the lab, from the pilot plant, out into the hands of industry and ultimately, consumers. So, we’re developing this podcast series to explore the questions around technology transfer, and our hope is that by unpacking certain technologies, certain markets, we’ll unpick some of the questions and learn from some of the experiences of others around technology transfer. Some of the good things that happened, and some of the not so good things that happen. So, with that, we have today our first guest on Tech Transfer Talk, which is Professor Maurice Maloney, who’s joining us from Barcelona. Maurice, hello. Greatly appreciate you making time to join us.

MM: My pleasure. Cameron. Always good to work with you.

CB: Yeah, thanks. And, whilst our relationship goes back 6 or 7 years from the heady days of CSIRO, a lot of things have been unfolding in those subsequent seven years.

MM: Well, I think there’s certainly a real trend that’s emerging, Cameron. And oddly enough, it’s driven not by food but by climate change initially. As we’ve looked at the carbon footprint of agriculture, it’s pretty clear that an agriculture, of course, is non-negotiable. We have to do it. So the question is, you know, where what constitutes a carbon footprint of agriculture and a lot of the carbon footprint of agriculture comes about actually, not just from CO2, carbon dioxide emissions, but actually from nitrous oxide, which is related to fertilisers, and methane, which is related to anaerobic fermentation, particularly that which takes place in the stomachs of ruminants. And so, when we when we look at the overall carbon footprint, that’s a significant contributor. So, people are asking the question, is it possible to reduce the overall carbon footprint of agriculture and food and still ensure that we feed the population? Now we have, you know, for quite a long time, said that we could actually feed the entire population of the world. If we were all vegetarians, there would just about be enough food to go around. But it’s always been a question, you know, how on earth could we envisage that suddenly all of these countries that have begun to enjoy wealth would say, we’ll all be vegetarians? That’s not going to happen. Interestingly enough, in the rich countries, there has been a move towards, if not a vegetarian diet, more of a flexitarian diet. And as a result, many companies are beginning to focus their efforts on delivering products which, while providing many of the same benefits and even the flavors and textures of meat, are actually plant-based. And in rich countries, there’s going to be a market for that.

CB: Yeah, it’s interesting, I must say, as as a curiosity, I wonder what happened to the word ‘omnivore’ – but that perhaps a conversation with a student of English rather than a professor of agriculture, but nonetheless, the question that does strike me about that shift in diet, is in a conversation I had actually in at the Spruce meeting last year, about the cultural aspects of animal agriculture. And there are certainly parts of the subcontinent, parts of Africa, where there is a great deal of cultural pride on the use of, you know, of the keeping of animals and also the use of animals for either milk, milk products or indeed as meat product. I’m not anticipating that those cultural changes will move with the rise of flexitarianism. And that covers, you know, a few billion people, doesn’t it?

MM: Absolutely, yeah. So no, you’re absolutely right on that. And I think the impact in the developing world of this kind of trend is going to be very limited. The fact of the matter is a lot of the poorer countries have lived what now we would call a flexitarian diet and that the odd chicken and goat that one can incorporate into the diet has been a luxury. And so, absolutely, I think we’re all agreed on that. But equally, the carbon footprint of those countries is also relatively modest in terms of their contribution to the overall net emissions. Those countries are generally fairly modest, but think where we are, interested in seeing how much of an impact we can make would be in in richer countries or very high population countries that have relatively recently moved from development into what we now would think of as developed world countries. I’m thinking India and China, obviously large populations and every day becoming more wealthy and influential in that respect. What I do think is happening, though, and this is more consumer-driven, is that there is a market now, and that market has given companies early stage and now fairly well developed companies, an opportunity to put investment into this area. And so, it’s consumer driven to a large extent. But consumer is motivated by the fact, in part, that they are doing something virtuous with respect to climate change.

CB: So, with consumer pull, you know, in terms of tech transfer is a wonderful thing. More often than not we have experienced ‘technology push’ rather than ‘market pull’. So, with market pull comes the need to scale and the need to find suitable feedstock for the process, suitable, suitable amount of input, whether that’s protein or whether that’s other things that go into these alternative meat products. What do you see emerging as, as challenges in this space of scaling in the first instance and feedstock in the second?

MM: Right. Well, obviously, with respect to major plant products that contain protein, most of which are seeds, not all, but most of which are seeds, and they’re already grown at very large scale. And so, in a sense, that isn’t the biggest challenge. The challenge is, first of all, are we growing the right things at scale in order to feed into this new market? Genetics play an important part of that, and traditionally we haven’t tailored our genetics around processing dynamics. And so, we may need to match genetics to process technology eventually. But I think the other thing is we get very locked into specific process technology, and consequently it’s very difficult to have the flexibility to deliver the kind of protein products that are now being demanded through these large-scale processing facilities. For example, if you go to a canola or a soybean processing factory, then you know the seeds are crushed. Oil is separated from protein using solvents like hexane. Veal is then dried down and comes out looking very unappetising. And it ends up going into animal feed. And it’s actually the way it’s processed is not even that highly digestible for animal feed, but it’s, it’s all a big challenge. But why don’t people change? Well, I was talking to a group the other day asking that question. They said, it’s amazing we still make a 20% margin on that at scale. Well, if they’re making a 20% margin on hexane extraction of oilseeds, they don’t want to change that process.

CB: And so, someone’s got to come and say 25%.

MM: Exactly. And so, there’s got to be some value proposition and I think if a consumer’s prepared to pay a premium to eat plant-based proteins as opposed to meat. Then that might change the large-scale business or at least give them some reason to develop other niche opportunities, that would be sufficiently scalable to deliver to that that market. And so, things like aqueous processing of oilseeds to get a much higher quality protein, adapting existing crushing facilities to be able to handle a wider variety of protein seeds, chickpeas, fava beans and so on, field peas, developing at scale process technology around those things is going to be the way in which the industry pivots a little bit towards what the consumer is asking for.

CB: So, you’ve layered a couple of non-trivial challenges on the table there from so, so, if one considers that the market is looking for the same experience in terms of their eating, you’ve laid quite a challenge out there. You’re contending there, I think, Maurice, that not only do we need to change what we grow, either by way of different crop and or different genetics, but then we also need to contemplate new infrastructure to deal with those different protein profiles in a way that creates a better-quality outcome. And then, if I might suggest doing that at a cost point, that remains competitive and profitable for everyone in the value chain.

MM: Exactly. They’re massive challenges there that we haven’t yet fully adapted at scale, the technologies that are going to be needed to deliver this. The raw materials are a lot, lot cheaper, but the processing is not all there at this point.

CB: Right. So, the bigger challenge lies in the processing technology than in the ability to grow the feedstock at scale.

MM: Yeah, I think so. I think we know how to grow most of these protein crops, but the moment they hit things like hexane extraction or solvent extraction and heated rollers, then that protein essentially becomes unmanageable for the kind of the kind of processes that are needed to give you a plant-based meat texture and feel. The process technology is probably incompatible with what we are trying to do, in order to turn this wonderful plant protein into something that’s got the flavour, the texture, the mouthfeel of a meat product.

CB: So, so then, I guess there’s the follow-on question from a, from an adaptation perspective almost, is that if the process technology doesn’t exist right now, or is suboptimal, perhaps is a better way to describe it, then how do entrants into this new market adapt to make a product that is fit for purpose? So, I get, I get the sense that if you can’t have the right protein profile process in the right way, other additives are then coming into play to adapt the product to meet the consumer’s requirement.

MM: So, what’s needed? Well, what is needed is to actually crank up the protein percentage in the seeds that are destined to feed this particular market. It doesn’t matter so much for animal feed, but if you’re actually going to use this for human feed, food, then what you need to do is increase the protein level in the seed, and then it becomes economic to do it using air classification. So, the genetics also has.

CB: Yeah. So, what you’re sort of leaning into there I, I interpret Morris is, that the challenge around the commercialisation and overall development of, of the value pool is, will lend itself more to closed loop type systems than it will into open sourcing which, which in at least in my in my sort of framing of it in my mind at the moment and in listening to you, it’s around while you’ve got your, your very average cuts of alternative protein or just protein, they could be alternative animal cuts or alternative or average plant cuts or whatever they are, they’re average cut to protein. And then you will have your Wagyu marbled type proteins, whether they come from animal – they won’t be Wagyu marbled plant, but there will be someone will come up with that name in due course. If it’s not us, it’ll be someone else. So, so is that the next step in terms of the development of this, this market and the associated, you know, sort of questions around developing up the technologies to someone need to, instead of chasing volume, start heading more out to that higher value to get that conversation going.

MM: Yeah. So, I think at the moment the companies that are involved in this business, they basically do it all themselves. So, they, they don’t go out and buy commodity ingredients and then weave some magic and turn these into vegetarian burgers or, or whatever other meat substitute they’re trying to make. Bbasically most of the processing they have to develop themselves. And obviously the combinations of proteins and lipids and carbohydrates that go into these extruded products are minimally trade secrets. And often they’d be patented now. So, that would stop other people being able to do this. The availability of simple commodity, off the shelf products, that could then feed into, you know, a particular meat substitute is pretty limited. It’s limited, again, because of the process technology. We’re still using process technology that’s virtually 100 years old. So and so many of these companies have to develop their own methodologies. Now, if the whole thing catches on at massive scale, like the consumer really does want to consume billions of veggie burgers, then the whole thing will have to scale up. That’s very clear. And the companies that have got the technology will have a challenge on their hands to go from, you know, the scale of operation that they can do to a scale of operation that could deliver that amount of product.

CB: So, Maurice, that would then take one to think that they actually either have access to their own genetics or they’re already in buyer relationships, whereby they have tight specifications on what they’re prepared to take.

MM: Yeah. So, I think that’s certainly one of the trends that we’re going to see. The idea of forward contracting a soybean sounds completely ridiculous, but in fact, there will be forward contracting of certain germplasm in due course, in order to find a supply chain for these particular products. The advent of genome editing, which is amenable to generating the kind of genetic changes that would affect protein levels in a particular seed, that could be done fairly rapidly. And because the regulatory hurdles are lesser, yeah, as they have been around genetically modified crops, at least in, in North America, South America, even Australia. I think, you know, you’ve got the opportunity there to begin to tune some of the genetics through genome editing. And in fact, that’s what we see. There are alliances between companies who are looking for these protein feedstocks and start up biotechs that have got the ability to do editing to tune a particular crop, to deliver a product like that, a higher, higher protein.

CB: It raises an interesting associated question, though, Maurice, that given the rather oligopolistic nature of gene editing, not everyone may be able to play in the way they want to play or aspire to play. So, there is an interesting tech transfer hurdle which, which, which is bumped into regularly around ‘freedom to operate’.

MM: Yeah. And think if we’re thinking only about CRISPR, then clearly there’s, there’s a lot of limitations around the intellectual property, and that those constraints will actually persist for quite a few more years. So, it’s true, that there will be relatively few players with complete freedom to operate. However, I think what we do know is that genome editing has been around a little bit longer than CRISPR Cas9. And, you know, there are several other methodologies which have been used. They’re a little bit more cumbersome. But again, some of them have other desirable features.

CB: What else do you foresee here? We’ve discussed a lot about the plant-based protein side of it. How do you see the just by way of how do you see the insect side playing out, which is we’re just getting a little bit of airtime at the moment.

MM: Yeah, well, I’m, I’m a big fan of insect proteins. I’ve got to say, and, you know, there is, there’s still for, I would say, a large percentage of consumers, a little bit of an ick factor associated with the idea of an insect protein. Having said that, you know, we love our shrimps and prawns on the barbie as, as is the tradition in Australia. And of course, they’re very close relatives in an evolutionary sense to it.

CB: Yes. This one’s wet. The others are dry.

MM: Uh, so in a sense, it’s psychological more than anything. Having said that, already, in a number of retail areas, insect proteins are already on sale. Crickets have been in the Asian diet for quite a while. You can actually get roasted crickets on the street vendors, in the hawkers in Singapore, I know because I’ve had them.

CB: So yeah. And none the worse for the experience.

MM: Oh absolutely. But I think you’ve hit upon an interesting point, though, because, if you do want to find a low carbon footprint source of protein for animal feed, and let’s just take an example, fish feed in aquaculture, because aquaculture is a growing area for development of protein products. Then as fish often live off insects anyway, feeding them insect protein is a very natural thing to do. And so, I could see insect protein feed in, in a market like aquaculture, becoming very mainstream.

CB: Yeah. No, that’s an interesting connection. The with notwithstanding the consumer, you know, sort of I guess reaction to the concept of insect protein. Do you see any other tech transfer issues emerging, you know, scaling those production systems, for example, are there any are there any challenges you can see on the horizon? It, whilst it looks incredibly prospective, I suspect we’ve both been in conversations where we’ve had that thought and then made discoveries subsequently where we perhaps wasn’t quite as a clean run as we thought.

MM: Yeah, well, and you’re quite right. I mean, the, the difficulty with very large-scale insect protein is the scaling of it, because we simply don’t have the technology right now to, to grow insect larvae at the 100,000-litre scale, which is the sort, you know, if you’re thinking about large scale fermentation, fermentation, that’s the kind of scale you’re talking about in order to deliver a product. And that, I don’t think that exists right now. What it has done is provided the opportunity for a lot of more, what you might call smaller scale, localised production in smaller units, a bit like we make biogas from waste products, you know what, for food and so on, where you have a catchment area of a certain distance. And that’s the, you know, we collect the food waste and then make biogas out of it. Similarly, you can use food waste that’s collected in order to, to grow insects. But if you were doing it at the, you know, 100,000 litre scale, you have to have a feedstock, you’ve got to grow on something and acting, you know, 100,000-litres worth of food waste. That’s not trivial. In fact, the stench of it, wherever you stored it, would be incompatible with the industry. So, it would have to be a commodity product that they were found.

CB: Yeah. Is there is there a role then for the, you know, the, the model of distributed production? And with that comes the challenge of cost. Predominantly when we think about distributed production in the bio economy, cost then starts to kick in reasonably hard because you’re replicating, you know, not properly scaled units, so, and repeating the infrastructure and over and over again.

MM: Yeah. No, the tradeoff is you might be able to develop more circular economy ideas at a small scale. Yeah. But of course there’s a cost associated with that. We’d have to look at the, you know, the monetised carbon benefit of the circular economy aspect versus using some commodity / starch / protein feedstock to grow these insects on a very large scale. So, I think for the moment, it’s, it’s still looked upon as a large cottage industry rather than, you know, a mega scale industry.

CB: Yeah. Okay. With all of those thoughts swirling around Maurice, what is the tech transfer challenge of this alternative protein sector? What, what’s the one thing from, you know, leaning back into your years of doing tech transfer and thinking about the sorts of challenges that we bump into, what do you see as that that tech transfer question on that looms largest on how to pull all this off?

MM: Well, I think just going on experience with our company AgritecKnowledge, you know that what are people asking us to do for them. Because that’s a question. That’s a way of understanding what the problem is. What people are asking us to do, is actually help them to understand all of the supply chain and the value chain, and how each piece interdigitates with the other, because it’s in the handover pieces, that you actually lose value if it’s not done in an efficient manner. And so, we, you know, have been involved in analyses right at the early stage of genetics, right the way through to what are all the processing variables. Right the way through to, if you’re going to use extrusion technology, what are going to be the best feedstocks that are compatible with that? How do you find them, and how do you provide people incentives to produce the feedstock that you want? Because if you’re not reaching back into that supply chain, it’s going to be a bit haphazard. You might be able to get, 60% of what you need off the shelf as a commodity, and the other 40% you’ve got to, you know, make it yourself or, or persuade somebody to make it for you. And so, what we’ve been doing a lot is, using our knowledge of the overall supply chain with people right at the, the genetics, plant breeding and farming technology and harvesting, storage and then the various levels of processing in order to help people to understand what they need to do if they want to do this at scale and smoothly.

CB: What you’ve just described there, Maurice is a is a problem we deal with as well, around articulating and identifying all the actors in a value chain, and then starting to consider how the value distributes amongst them. And as you point out, if there’s one particular ingredient or a pinch point somewhere, all of a sudden, the value starts skewing and then relationship problems start to arise, which then leads onto other issues.

MM: And the thing that we’ve also identified is, most of the companies that are producing a defined product made from many ingredients or many components also need redundancy of supply.

CB: Yes.

MM: So, you know, if they’re absolutely dependent on a single supplier for one component, this is true in the car industry and it’s true in the food industry. they’re in a problem situation. And they need to understand how we can get redundancy of supply. So, we help them with that as well.

CB: Yeah. Fantastic. Maurice, that’s been a really fascinating conversation, not only around the world of protein and how that shifting, but also starting to touch upon the questions that are going to get asked, not of the technologies per se, but also of the way those technologies will integrate and how the value will move through the system in in the years ahead. I think one of the great things that you’ve highlighted is, we now have a lovely situation of market pull. So, so for, in my experience, it’s a pleasant change to have the technology chasing the market because the market’s leading, not the technology pushing the market, hoping it will turn up.

MM: Yes. It’s a very different world out there. And the fact is, the consumer to a large extent is driving this, this change and seems to be sufficiently popular to sustain some quite interesting new companies that are delivering the products.

CB: Maurice, thanks so much for your time today. It’s been fantastic having you share some of your insights with us.

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