December 11, 2023

Technology Development

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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 holds the potential to help decrease food insecurity, and Saskatchewan is poised to be a global leader in it. 

“In Canada, we are lucky to have so much food,” says Mehmet Tulbek, the president of the Saskatchewan Food Industry Development Centre 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 about this technology.”

Fermentation technology at a commercial scale offers the opportunity to develop more nutritious food products using crops and by-products that exist in abundance in Canada, and even to transform what would otherwise be waste from food processing, Tulbek says.

WATCH | CBC’s Natascia Lypny checked out some of the Sask. companies experimenting with fermentation:

Can fermentation help improve food security?

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

Why fermentation?

Fermentation was historically used to extend the shelf life of foods. It basically refers to converting microorganisms into food, ingredients or products with specific functions. 

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

A person wearing a lab coat, hair net and gloves examines the contents of a beaker of liquid.
The Saskatchewan Food Industry Development Centre helps companies develop new products and commercialize them at a larger scale. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

According to the Good Food Institute, the food processing industry began using fermentation widely in the 1980s. In recent years, interest in this technology is spiking to the point where it’s considered a pillar of the “new protein revolution,” which refers to the increasing global demand for high-quality alternative and plant-based proteins that are developed in sustainable, ethical and environmentally friendly ways.

Innovative food processing solutions, such as fermentation, will be critical to addressing the world’s growing food insecurity issues, says Steven Webb, the executive director of the Global Institute for Food Security. In its Saskatoon-based bioengineering facility, it develops substances such as proteins that can be used in food and product development at processing centres like the Food Centre. 

Webb says, globally, 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 a rapidly increasing world population. In November, the world hit eight billion people, and the United Nations estimates the global population will hit 9.7 billion by 2050.

A man wears protective glasses and a white lab coat over his business attire. The logo on the coat reads 'Global Institute for Food Security.'
Steven Webb, the executive director of the Global Institute for Food Security, says as the world’s population continues to grow, we need to think about not only how to feed more people, but also in a more nutritious way. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

“We need to be able to feed the world nutritiously and sustainably with less land, less water and less resources,” says Webb.

Why Saskatchewan?

Home to approximately 43 per cent of Canada’s arable land and a burgeoning value-added sector, Saskatchewan is particularly well positioned to do that.

“In Saskatchewan we have too many resources,” says Rajneesh Tyagi, a Saskatoon-based entrepreneur and fermentation expert. “Our challenge is basically to add value to our local crops.”

A tall, cylindrical, metal tank stands in a large industrial building.
Proveta Nutrition operates on a scale much larger than many of those experimenting in this area: This is its 20,000-litre fermentation system. (Proveta Nutrition)

For example, several local companies are now producing protein concentrate from pulses (crops like peas and lentils), which leaves a starch by-product. Fermentation offers the opportunity to use those by-products by transforming them into nutritious products, like ready-to-eat, plant-based “meat” that looks, tastes and feels like the real thing, and can be used in a variety of ways. 

Fermentation can also help create protein concentrates and isolates from the cereals and pulses grown in Saskatchewan that are more easily digestible for humans. So, your body ends up getting more out of the same amount of food, says Tyagi.

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

Another Canadian company, Algarithm, has used fermentation to create a plant-based, environmentally friendly Omega-3 oil. Now, it’s working with the Food Centre to test new ways of using the oil in food products.

‘The next bio revolution’ 

In 2020, McKinsey and Company, a management consulting firm, estimated the bio-manufacturing industry could grow to $4 trillion a year globally over the next 10 to 20 years.

“It’s thought of as the next bio revolution or next industrial revolution,” says Webb.

To get there, Canadian businesses need more support to scale up their production to get items on shelves at affordable prices.

A man wearing protective glasses and a white lab coat motions to a large black machine that has a couple of trays containing small liquid repositories sticking out. Another person in a lab coat works at a computer screen next to the machine.
Webb shows off a liquid handler at the Global Institute for Food Security. It can handle 96 samples of liquid at a time. The institute plans on acquiring seven more of these to meet its clients’ demands. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

“There are so many organizations in Canada working in this space and when we combine all these efforts, still there is not enough capacity,” says Tulbek. “So this is a really growing area. Over the next 30 years we’ll be needing quite a bit of fermentation and the bioengineering research, incubation and commercialization for the startups to grow and then to commercialize that.”

The Saskatchewan Food Industry Development Centre is building an eight-thousand-square-foot facility in Saskatoon to support just that.

“It’s a place we can pilot and trial different things at a big enough scale that we can see if it’s going to work when we go up to 100,000 litres or not,” says Algarithm president Ben Kelly. 

A computer rendering of a grey, industrial building consisting of two blocks: one lower and more rectangular than the other, more square one. A sign in front reads 'Advanced Food Ingredients Centre.'
Construction is underway on this new building on the Saskatchewan Food Industry Development Centre’s property in Saskatoon. It will focus largely on fermentation technology. (Saskatchewan Food Industry Development Centre)

Last year, the Food Centre also announced along with partners that it was putting $1.3 million into expanding its fermentation and training program, with a focus on plant-based products.

Another challenge will be addressing the regulatory side of things, says Webb. 

“One of the things that’s been a real challenge for innovation in the ag and food space is the ability to take really interesting technical innovations and make them market impacting,” he says.

Any new food processing technology in Canada is subject to strict federal regulations, which some industry members believe can be prohibitive to innovation. 

A man in a suit an tie stands in a laboratory next to a lab-coat-wearing staffer working under a fume hood and a vat churning a brown sludge.
Mehmet Tulbek, the president of the Saskatchewan Food Industry Development Centre, thinks Canada is well-poised to be a leader in improving food security thanks to fermentation technology. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

Tyagi also sees a need for investment — monetary and otherwise.

“The industry is very new, so 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 resiliency into our systems here at home and internationally to ensure food security,” Webb says. “I believe that innovation is the solution. I believe, because of our performance and proven track record in terms of new tools, new technologies, new innovations, we can address these challenges.”