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Air + sunshine = food. Really?

Words: Robert Langkjær-Bain

Photos courtesy of Solar Foods

The world’s most sustainable source of protein?
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As the world searches for ways to feed ever more people while cutting CO2 emissions and protecting nature, one Finnish startup claims to have created a super-sustainable food source out of thin air.

Air + sunshine = food.

That’s the claim from the makers of Solein, a gold-coloured, bland-tasting powder that could provide the nutrition we get from meat, without the colossal carbon footprint. And it’s coming soon to a dinner table near you.

Pasi Vainikka and Juha-Pekka Pitkänen were working on biofuels and renewable energy at Finland’s national technical research centre when they realised they had come up with something entirely different – but potentially just as significant in the fight against climate change.

“Solein is made from nothing but air and sunshine (and some bacteria, and a sprinkling of minerals)”

Pasi Vainikka and Juha-Pekka Pitkänen came up with Solein while researching renewable energy.

They believe their invention, Solein, is the world’s most sustainable source of protein – and it’s made from nothing but air and sunshine (ok, and some bacteria, and a sprinkling of minerals).

Not made, but found

Solein might sound futuristic, but Pasi Vainikka points out that the single-cell organism on which it is based, has been on Earth much longer than most of what we eat. “You can find it in nature,” he tells 5. “We did.”

In 2014 the team were working on new ways to make biofuel. They managed to grow single-cell organisms and extract oil from them, but what turned out to be more interesting was the residue left behind, which was rich in amino acids – the building blocks of protein. They realised their method could be used to make food, but they weren’t quite there yet  they needed to track down a new single-cell organism better suited to the job.

Eventually in 2018, they dug up a sample of frozen soil somewhere in Finland (don’t ask where – they won’t say) and struck gold. “It’s like a newly discovered potato or variety of wheat or something,” says Pasi. “But it just happens to be two micrometres across, so it’s difficult to observe”.

The Solein harvest.

Growing Solein is a little like brewing beer. You place the bacteria in a fermenter (running on solar power, of course) which feeds them with water and carbon dioxide that it takes from the air. The result is a powder that’s packed with protein, as well as nutrients such as vitamin B and iron, which are common in animal products but harder to get elsewhere.

How it works

  • The air around us contains water and carbon dioxide. The fermenter extracts them from the air.
  • It splits the water into hydrogen and oxygen (the H and O of H2O) and feeds the hydrogen to the cells, along with the carbon dioxide and a few added minerals.
  • The cells grow and multiply, producing proteins, carbohydrates and fats.
  • Drain the water away, and you have Solein powder.
“No matter how strict your diet, you’re allowed Solein: it’s vegan, dairy free, gluten free, and fine for all religious diets”

Solein, Pasi says, has a “mild umami flavour”, subtle enough that experts have classified the taste as “neutral”. When prepared, it has a juicy, even “meaty” texture. And no matter how strict your diet, you’re allowed Solein: it’s vegan, dairy free, gluten free, and fine for all religious diets.

All of this is important because, right now, the way we produce food is putting the climate in peril. Not only is agriculture responsible for billions of tons of carbon going into the atmosphere, it’s also hurting the planet’s ability to absorb that carbon, by contributing to the loss of forests. Most of the emissions from agriculture are from animal farming, and Solein joins a raft of protein sources competing to replace meat, including soy, peas, algae, fungi, lab-grown meat and products made from genetically-modified sources. But none is without its environmental impact, and soy, in particular, is under the spotlight for its role in deforestation. Solein, on the other hand, is even more efficient than plants at turning energy into food, emits no CO2 and requires no fertiliser, no water (except what it takes from the air) and hardly any land. It’s not yet available to buy, but Pasi’s hope is to beat soy on price.

Solein is grown in a solar-powered fermenter.

In fact, Pasi says growing Solein is 10 to 20 times more efficient per hectare than growing soy – depending where you do it. And in principle, you can grow it anywhere, on or off-grid, provided there’s a source of renewable electricity. Solein can even be considered carbon negative “at a system level”, says Pasi, because it frees up the land that would have been needed to grow protein the old-fashioned way. (The CO2 it extracts from the air unfortunately doesn’t count on Solein’s carbon balance sheet, because it doesn’t get stored long term).

Same only better

Solar Foods, the company behind Solein, is determined to make it part of our everyday diets. The first way to do this is to provide alternatives to meat that are more nutritious than what’s currently available. “Two existing categories that are more and more popular are plant-based drinks and plant-based meat alternatives,” says Pasi. “But they don’t inherently contain animal-like nutrition like iron, vitamin B and amino acids. We’re here to replace those products.”

The golden powder provides nutrition that is hard to get from plant-based products.

But not everyone is ready to brave the meat-free aisle and pick out an unfamiliar new product. So Solein also aims to become an ingredient used to enrich other products: noodles, breads, spreads, yoghurts, cereals, snack bars. That way, there’s no need to replace meat directly – we can get the nutrition from all the other stuff we eat.

It’s all about revolutionising food, without seeming to revolutionise food. After all, Pasi does not envisage big changes in how the typical meal will look over the coming decades. It will be “almost the same”, he says. “The same, but better.”

“If someone in the future insists on having killed meat, or udder milk, it might seem a strange idea”

Pasi Vainikka

What will change, he believes, are our attitudes. Pasi himself is a “flexitarian” – he hasn’t given up meat entirely but he eats less and less. “If someone in the future insists on having killed meat, or udder milk, it might seem a strange idea,” he says. “My grandchildren might ask, grandpa, did we really kill an animal to get this meat? Was this egg really stolen from a chicken?”

Food without farming?

To Pasi, the bigger mission of Solein is clear: “to disconnect food production from agriculture”. Replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy might be the first thing that comes to mind when we think about reducing carbon in the atmosphere, but agriculture is actually the next biggest source of emissions – responsible for more CO2 than all the world’s planes, cars and air conditioning units combined.

“It was a depressing moment for me to see a diagram of global emissions, where you can see that 20-30% are from the food system,” says Pasi. “Even if you install all those wind turbines for electricity, you’re only two thirds home.” Solein offers the hope of meeting at least some of the world’s growing demand for food, without the need for agriculture as we know it. Provided we have sufficient renewable energy to achieve this without creating yet more emissions, it would be a big win for the climate.

And while many of the important choices we make on the environment are outsourced to politicians, what we eat remains personal. “Food is an intimate issue,” says Pasi. “It’s me who is empowered to be the decision maker when I choose my meal.”

These individual choices are a chance to build a food system that the planet can sustain, by reducing the amount of meat we eat. The all-important question, says Pasi, is: “What’s the alternative? And is it good enough to find its way on to your plate more than once?”

Solar Foods’ video showing how Solein is made.

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