Can we ferment our way to more food security?

When you think of fermented foods, you probably conjure up images of sauerkraut, wine, and cheese.

But this centuries-old food processing technology has the potential to help reduce food insecurity, and Saskatchewan is poised to be a world leader in this field.

“In Canada, we’re lucky because we have so much food,” says Muhammed Tolbek, president of the Saskatchewan Center for Food Industry Development in Saskatoon, which works with companies to create new products, including using fermentation. “That’s why we need to lead this movement. We can provide a more sustainable and secure food supply chain. That’s really the key in this technology.”

Fermentation technology on a commercial scale provides the opportunity to develop more nutritious food products using crops and by-products that are abundant in Canada, and even to transform what would be leftovers from food processing, Tolbeck says.

watch | CBC’s Natascia Lipney checked out some of Sask’s hardware. Companies that test fermentation:

Can fermentation help improve food security?

Food fermentation technology is used to produce more nutritious foods in an environmentally friendly manner. CBC’s Natascia Lipney speaks to the people in Saskatoon, Sask, who are leading the way.

Why fermentation?

Fermentation has historically been used to extend the shelf life of foods. It mainly refers to the transformation of microorganisms into foods, ingredients or products with specific functions.

On a commercial level, the fermentation process works much the same, although it is more controlled in terms of the cultures involved. Companies have focused particularly on using fermentation to change the nutritional content of foods and make them more palatable.

A person wearing a lab coat, hairnet, and gloves examines the contents of a liquid beaker.
The Saskatchewan Food Industry Development Center helps companies develop new products and market them more widely. (Chance Lagaden/CBC)

According to the Good Food Institute, the food processing industry began using fermentation extensively in the 1980s. In recent years, interest in this technology has increased to such an extent that it is considered one of the pillars of the “new protein revolution”, which refers to the growing global demand for high-quality proteins and vegetable proteins that are developed in a sustainable, ethical and environmentally friendly manner.

Stephen Webb, executive director of the Institute for Global Food Security, says innovative food processing solutions, such as fermentation, will be crucial to addressing the world’s growing food insecurity issues. At the bioengineering facility in Saskatoon, it develops materials such as proteins that can be used in the development of foods and products in processing centers such as the Food Center.

Globally, Webb says, food insecurity is worse now than it was three years ago due to a variety of factors, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and the rapidly growing world population. In November, the world Hit eight billion peopleThe United Nations estimates that the world’s population will reach 9.7 billion by 2050.

Man wearing goggles and a white lab coat over his work clothes.  The logo on the coat is
As the world’s population continues to grow, says Stephen Webb, executive director of the Institute for Global Food Security, we need to think not only about how to feed more people, but in a more nutritious way. (Chance Lagaden/CBC)

“We need to be able to feed the world in a more nutritious and sustainable way with less land, less water and fewer resources,” says Webb.

Why Saskatchewan?

Home to approximately 43 percent of the arable land in Canada and a The booming value-added sectorSaskatchewan is particularly well placed to do so.

“We have a lot of resources in Saskatchewan,” says Rajneesh Tyagi, a Saskatoon-based entrepreneur and brewing expert. “Our challenge is basically adding value to our local crops.”

There is a tall cylindrical metal tank in a large industrial building.
Proveta Nutrition works on a much larger scale than many of those who have experimented in the field: that’s the 20,000 Liter Brewing System. (Proveta Nutrition)

For example, many domestic companies now produce protein concentrate from pulses (crops such as peas and lentils), leaving the starch as a by-product. Fermentation provides the opportunity to use these by-products by turning them into nutritious products, such as ready-to-eat, plant-based “meats” that look, taste, and feel real, and can be used in a variety of ways.

Fermentation can also help create protein concentrates and isolates from Saskatchewan-grown grains and pulses that are easier for humans to digest. Therefore, your body ends up getting more from the same amount of food, Tyagi says.

One of Tyagi’s companies, Proveta Nutrition, has already seen success using fermentation to create a cost-effective animal feed that does just that.

Another Canadian company, Algarithm, has used fermentation to create an environmentally friendly, plant-based omega-3 oil. Now, she’s working with the Food Center to test new ways to use the oil in food products.

The next biological revolution

In 2020, McKinsey and Company, a management consulting firm, estimated that the biomanufacturing industry could grow to $4 trillion annually globally over the next 10 to 20 years.

“It’s seen as the next biological revolution or the next industrial revolution,” says Webb.

To get there, Canadian companies need more support to scale their production to get the items on the shelves at reasonable prices.

A man in goggles and a white lab coat operates a large black machine with trays containing protruding small liquid reservoirs.  Another person in a lab coat is working on a computer screen next to the instrument.
Webb shows a liquid processor at the Global Institute for Food Security. It can handle 96 samples of liquid at a time. The institute plans to acquire seven more of these to meet the demands of its clients. (Chance Lagaden/CBC)

“There are a lot of organizations in Canada working in this area and when we put all these efforts together, there is still not enough capacity,” Tolbeck says. “So this is a really developing area. Over the next 30 years, we’re going to need a lot of fermentation and bioengineering research, incubation and commercialization for startups to grow and then commercialize that.”

The Saskatchewan Food Industry Development Center is building an eight thousand square foot facility in Saskatoon to support exactly that.

“It’s a place where we can experiment and try different things on a large enough scale to see whether or not it will work when we get to 100,000 liters,” says Ben Kelly, president of Algarithm.

Computer rendering of a gray industrial building consisting of two blocks: one is lower and more rectangular than the other, and the other is more square.  A sign on the front says
This new building is being constructed at the Saskatchewan Food Industry Development Center building in Saskatoon. It will focus heavily on fermentation technology. (Saskatchewan Food Industry Development Center)

Last year, the Food Center also announced with its partners that it would commit $1.3 million to expand its brewing and training program, with an emphasis on plant-based products.

Another challenge, Webb says, is tackling the regulatory side of things.

“One of the things that has been really challenging to innovate in agriculture and food is being able to take really interesting technical innovations and make them impact the market,” he says.

Any new food processing technology in Canada is subject to strict federal regulations, which some members of the industry believe could inhibit innovation.

A man in a suit and tie stands in a laboratory next to a worker in a lab coat working under a fume hood and trough excreting brown sludge.
Muhammad Tolbek, head of the Saskatchewan Food Industry Development Center, believes Canada is well-positioned to be a leader in improving food security thanks to fermentation technology. (Chance Lagaden/CBC)

Tyagi also sees the need for investment – cash and otherwise.

“The industry is very new, so the participation of all stakeholders is required for the rapid growth and expansion of the sector,” he says.

Despite these challenges, there is a strong sense of optimism within the sector.

“We need to be more proactive in building resilience into our systems here at home and internationally to ensure food security,” says Webb. “I think innovation is the answer. I believe because of our performance and proven track record in terms of new tools, new technologies and new innovations, we can meet these challenges.”

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