Would You Eat A Protein Made Out of Thin Air?
By Brendan Wang '23
Consider the following puzzle. You are trapped in a closed system. You have no food left. The only supplies you have at hand include a tank full of microbes, carbon dioxide, and a little spark of inventiveness. How do you survive?
In 1967, researchers at NASA were experimenting with different ways to support space missions that exceeded one year in duration. Their mission was simple: given that astronauts could only take a limited supply of organic carbons—that is, food—with them, find a way to sustainably generate a food supply to feed the astronauts. After multiple rounds of research, they concluded that the use of bacteria and archaea to generate food was the practical missing piece to our mystery puzzle.
However, such fascinating research eventually ended up being overshadowed by other exciting innovations over the decades. It was not until the last decade where this venture garnered more attention. In particular, the startup Kiverdi launched the new idea of creating protein from air as a means towards a more sustainable, eco-friendly source of food and energy. The startup has dubbed their product as simply, “air protein.”
So what exactly is air protein? Simply put, air protein is an edible protein that is synthesized using elements and compounds from the air. As opposed to conventional proteins, such as beef from cattle or pork from pigs, air protein is actually made by tiny microorganisms called hydrogenotrophs.
The process first starts when these tiny archaea take in the carbon dioxide and hydrogen gas from their surroundings. Then, through a process called fermentation, the archaea converts the hydrogen and carbon dioxide to produce methane and organic compounds. These organic compounds are then processed into a flour-type substance rich in amino acids and nutrients found in proteins.
At this point, you might be asking: who cares anyways? Or more formally, what are the future implications of an innovation such as air protein? To answer this question, it might be helpful to notice that in a sense, as Kiverdi CEO Lisa Dyson framed it in her Ted Talk, our planet Earth is a mega-spaceship in which we dwell as inhabitants. There are many reasons why our food supply is also unfortunately limited, why current agriculture trajectories are not sustainable:
Limited amount of raw materials: growing crops and raising livestock takes lots of land and water. The UN Convention to Combat Desertification estimates that “up to 10 pounds of grain are required to produce just 1 pound of meat” and that “56 million acres of land are used to grow feed for animals” (PETA).
Climate change: raising livestock for proteins emits many greenhouse gases and often requires the deforestation of many areas, destroying habitats and decreasing the area’s photosynthetic capacity.
Population growth: by 2050, our planet is projected to surpass a population of 10 billion people. With many more mouths to feed, we can anticipate to increase food production by 70% relative to current levels of production.
In light of these concerns, the prospect of cultivating air protein to solve environment challenges facing the next generation appears to be both promising and ideal. Indeed, air protein will likely bring the following pros:
Sustainability: air protein requires less space and natural resources and emits much less greenhouse gases. In fact, according to Kiverdi, the cultivation of air protein will generate 10,000 times more output per given land area than the production of meat from livestock.
Time: The time it takes to make air protein is on the scale of days as opposed to conventional proteins, which takes months or years to produce. For instance, according to the USDA, “as a baseline, regular beef cattle which are raised from calf for beef are slaughtered at around 32 to 42 months of age” (FaunaFacts). Air protein cultivation is also extremely versatile since there are minimal inputs so production can be performed in any geography (much like breweries).
Ethics: the efficiency of the production of air proteins may serve to incentivize air protein production in place of conventional protein production. This transition may bring about a decrease in meat-production practices that are unethical and which may involve the mistreatment of animals.
Disease Prevention: farms are often the source of disease outbreaks and pandemics. Air proteins may offer a cleaner, more sanitary alternative to proteins obtained from animals.
While these benefits certainly provide reasons as to why our food industry should steer in the direction of air protein cultivation, there are also many potential limitations and concerns to consider:
Community Response: Give it an honest thought: would you eat air protein if it were available? The response of individuals and communities will vary, especially given that each locality has its own set of regulations, preferences, and geographical conditions. The concern is that air protein, though beneficial, may not suit the majority’s appetites (both literally and figuratively).
Nutrition: there is the concern of whether air protein actually contains equivalent amounts of nutrients as is found in conventional proteins. While proponents have stated that air protein is “rich in vitamins, minerals, and nutrients,” others have been more skeptical, questioning whether air protein will measure up to our nutritional needs (e.g. how does air protein contain fiber? Are there other substances that are added to supplement the protein?).
Financial Sustainability: Holistically, in terms of the pure financial costs, air proteins might not be a win over conventional proteins. Air proteins are grown in a laboratory setting and the growth process must be closely monitored. In addition, the equipment needed to cultivate the protein must also be precise and specialized, which bears a large financial cost.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions: the byproduct of methanogenic fermentation is methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas. As such, the air protein industry must do a careful job of properly containing methane; in fact, they might even utilize it as a source of energy.
All in all, though there are many potential obstacles and limitations to air protein, the terrain of using fermentation to create sustainable proteins looks very promising. In our consideration of whether to travel towards a future where proteins come from the air, we must carefully consider the implications as well as perform further research and analysis over the economic, environmental, health as well as futuristic pros and cons.
And, thus we have come full circle: perhaps, what we are looking at is not a simple puzzle but rather a complex mission in a mega-spaceship that we call our home. You as an astronaut have the potential to better the future of ourselves and the generations to come.