“We are already seeing a shift from animal-based to plant-based protein. The next evolution — from land-based to air-based protein — will allow us to [feed] a growing population without needing to remove rainforests or natural habitats.” — Air Protein CEO Dr. Lisa Dyson
The challenges plaguing our current global food system are staggering. The double burden of both widespread hunger and obesity sees one in three people currently suffering from some form of malnutrition. Some 795 million people face hunger on a daily basis, while more than two billion people lack vital micronutrients in their diet, such as iron, zinc and vitamin A.
Disease, health problems and early deaths are estimated to cost world economies roughly $2 trillion, with undernutrition negatively impacting GDP by 11 percent every year.
Climate change and land use changes are exacerbating the problem, with higher carbon dioxide levels reducing the nutritional make-up of grains and legumes, affecting key nutrients such as zinc and iron.
Meanwhile, food production uses 70 percent of all fresh water and contributes around a third of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It is predicted that by 2050, we will need 120 percent more water and 42 percent more cropland if we’re to continue feeding the planet in the same way. We will also lose 14 percent more forest and produce 77 percent more GHGs.
And as our population soars over the next 35 years, we need to produce more food than has ever been produced since life on Earth began (and not waste 40 percent of it along the way) — with limited new land available for agriculture.
Clearly, business-as-usual is not an option; innovation in the food industry is crucial if we are to feed 10 billion people by the middle of the century.
Back in the 1960s, scientists at NASA spent lots of time trying to work out ways to produce food for year-long missions in deep space. They knew astronauts had limited space and resources, so found ways to transform carbon into nutrients.
But, as Air Protein CEO Dr. Lisa Dyson recently told Sustainable Brands, “Their ideas were never completed; they just sat on the shelf for decades.”
Fast-forward a few decades and Dyson and her team have built a carbon-transformation technology based on NASA’s ideas that is now set to take the world by storm — making delicious, nutritious foods from elements of the air we breathe.
“With this process, we will sustainably produce protein in a way that requires orders of magnitude less land versus alternative forms of food production. And it will enable us to serve the mission of feeding 10 billion people by 2050 without the need to remove more rainforests in search of arable land.”
How does the technology work? Well, the company takes elements found in the air — such as CO2, oxygen and nitrogen — as well as some renewable power, and uses a (proprietary) natural probiotic production process that converts the elements into nutrients.
The result is Air Protein — a neutral ingredient in both color and taste, but with the same amino acid profile as animal protein. This can then be used to make a host of different foods — from burgers and cereals to meat-free meat and even cookies. It can also be paired with spices and seasonings to make snacks and meals.
“Protein is a part of meals that we each have multiple times a day. Because we are making a neutral flour, Air Protein can be a part of countless recipes to add protein to any dish or to replace other protein sources,” says Dyson, a former Boston Consulting Group employee who describes herself as a “mission-driven entrepreneur.”
And crucially, it’s rich in all of the essential amino acids needed for a healthy diet — as well as vitamins such as B12, which is traditionally lacking from a vegan diet.
There are plenty of environmental benefits, too. First, the production of Air Protein is completely natural, free of any pesticides or herbicides. It requires 10,000 times less land and 2,000 times less water than soy protein production. It can be made in just a few hours, unlike traditional crops; and doesn’t rely on rain or sunshine. The company is keen to point out that, although more and more people are eating flexitarian diets to reduce their meat consumption, meatless meat is traditionally made using soy or pea proteins, which are still land- and water-intensive to produce.
“We’re pioneering a new category: air-based food production,” Dyson added. While the business is currently focused on using its technology to create much more sustainable protein, Dyson says it is in discussions with a number of interested partners to scale efforts.
“We want to usher in a new era of sustainability. We are already seeing a shift from animal-based protein to plant-based protein for both environmental and health reasons. Air Protein is the next evolution: from land-based protein to air-based protein. [This] will allow us to meet the demands of a growing population without needing to remove rainforests or natural habitats.”