Knowledge for a sustainable world

Parag Acharya

Livestock emit 14.5% of global greenhouse gases (GHGs), including methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O) and carbon dioxide (CO2). In response to the urgent need for a reduction in emissions and a transition to more sustainable diets, the uptake of livestock-free, alternative plant and algae proteins can play a key role.

This fits well with the recommendation from the independent UK Committee on Climate Change for a 20% reduction in consumption of meat and dairy products to achieve NetZero carbon emissions by 2050. However, the modification of plant and algae proteins to functionally, nutritionally and sensorially mimic meat and dairy products via harnessing clean/green food processing is a key innovation challenge. A team of researchers at NRI is working to understand how to future-proof plant and algal protein supply, identifying the drivers of the plant-based food value chain, and developing solutions to innovation challenges for alternative protein-based food.

Algae are rather underexploited as sustainable sources of alternative protein, and do not compete with food crops for land and natural resources. Seaweed (also known as macroalgae) contains upto 47% protein but there is a lack of eco-innovative, or environmentally friendly, solutions for improved extractability of the proteins. NRI’s Dr Parag Acharya has begun work on a project to develop scientific insights on how to improve the yield of seaweed protein extraction, in collaboration with the University of Lincoln, and ISIS Neutron and Muon Source (ISIS-STFC), UK. This project, funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) Food Network+, will involve experts from NRI’s Aquatic Biotechnology group led by Professor Patricia Harvey and Dr Birthe Nielsen from the Faculty of Engineering and Science at the University of Greenwich.

Much of the approximately 1.6 billion tonnes of global agri-food loss and waste – responsible for around 8–10% of total GHG emissions – can be upcycled (Prandi, B. et al. Frontiers in Nutrition, 2021, 8, 695793) to generate alternative proteins with co-benefits of developing a circular food system and improving its resource efficiency. Dr Acharya is collaborating with Professor Chu-Ky Son from Hanoi University of Science and Technology, Vietnam, to decipher the techno-economics (i.e. the economic performance) of plant proteins from under-utilised rice and maize by-products while complying with food safety. Funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), this project involves NRI scientists Dr Conor Walsh and Dr Marcos Paradelo Perez as co-investigators.

As part of the ‘Growing Kent & Medway’ (GK&M) project (supported by UKRI’s ‘Strength in Places’ fund and led by NIAB EMR), Dr Acharya, Prof Andy Frost and Dr Deborah Rees are involved in developing a plant-based food accelerator where new food start-ups can grow to regenerate the local economy. The accelerator is part of the state-of-the-art ‘Medway Food Innovation Centre (MFIC)’ being built at the University of Greenwich, through NRI’s Food and Nutrition Security Initiative (FaNSI, supported by the Research England E3 scheme) and GK&M. MFIC is focused on strengthening the regional food and drink industries through research, innovation and enterprise. In this way, NRI’s research on alternative proteins aims to accelerate a transition to climate-smart protein, while the concomitant collaborations seek to enable a much-needed ecosystem for alternative protein-based food innovation.