Ghost-written op-ed: Can mycelium deliver a paradigm shift in the food system? (New Food)

Ghost-written piece for Meati Foods published in February 2024. The byline went to Harold H. Schmitz, Chair of the Scientific Board for Meati Foods. Read the article on New Food’s website.

The emergence of the modern food industry in the 20th century was marked by a struggle with nourishing the globe that drove revolutionary advances in everything from crop yields to safety to nutrient fortification. Among the impacts of these changes were the exponential growth of the world population and the facilitation of global conflict. Such widespread and deep transformations are a perfect example of a paradigm shift — a concept established by Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

As Kuhn explained, these types of dramatic changes arise when our existing ways of making our way on this planet — technological, economic, and other types of human systems or models we build to collectively respond to life’s challenges — go into crisis because new and unusual issues emerge that those legacy systems cannot address.

Today, as we navigate the third decade of the 21st century, our food system faces another crisis. Climate change, a diminishing supply of natural resources, obesity, diabetes, and many other planetary and human health problems are exceeding the ability of our “nutrient-acquisition model” to handle them. Its entire value chain — from the initial generation of crops, meat, and other inputs all the way up to their transformation into finished products — has matured over decades into a struggling legacy sector.

As a scientist committed to understanding and improving the food system’s role in human health and environmental sustainability, I believe it’s time for another paradigm shift. Something called “MushroomRoot” could be the key to it.

Rooting a revolution in nature

MushroomRoot is the name that Meati Foods, a Colorado food startup I advise, gave to its Neurospora crassa mycelium, a remarkable organism from the kingdom of fungi that has the power to be an example of a positive paradigm shift in terms of how we feed ourselves today. I and several colleagues serving on Meati’s scientific advisory board wrote about it, as well as mycelium more broadly, in our December 2023 paper for the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

In our review of Meati’s data and the scientific literature on mycelium — the vegetative body of filamentous fungi that companies like Quorn and Nature’s Fynd also use in their products — we discussed evidence suggesting the potential for these friendly fungi to be converted into straight-from-nature solutions to many of the challenges we face in creating a healthier and more sustainable food system.

Meeting the challenge of systemic change

Mycelium’s potential to lead a positive revolution derives from its long list of impressive characteristics satisfying the five categories of needs I believe are required for a food system paradigm shift. While the dominant organisations in today’s industry can meet some of these needs, none of them can grapple with all of them as mycelium can.

Taste, texture, and convenience

In the medical community, the concept of “compliance” refers to the struggle doctors have with getting patients to take their medicine. If you think of food as a kind of preventative medicine — after all, proper nutrition can help stave off or mitigate a variety of health issues — then no one is going to take their “food pill” unless it provides a desirable sensory experience. Great taste and great texture aren’t just afterthoughts — they are how you address the very real problem of human behavior. Mycelium inherently provides a meat-like texture that consumers clearly love given the more than 100 billion animals killed each year to provide food and other products. It also lacks any strong flavor of its own, which makes it possible to season in ways that can please all kinds of preferences. Just as importantly, an enjoyable sensory experience needs to be paired with convenience. Many consumers don’t have the time or energy to struggle with complex cooking requirements. Mycelium shines here, too. It can be prepared in ways familiar to anyone who has flipped a steak on a barbecue, sautéed a chicken breast in a pan, or tossed a potato in an oven.

Health and nutrition

Malnutrition remains a problem to this day, manifesting itself not just as hunger or nutrient deficiencies, but also as diabetes, obesity, or other metabolic maladies. Mycelium naturally comes packed with complete protein, fiber, B vitamins, zinc, and a host of other important nutrients that can help address these challenges. It also lacks sugar, cholesterol, and saturated fats. Furthermore, it’s possible to adjust mycelium’s growing conditions to trigger its production of other healthful nutrients, such as vitamin D. Processing is part of this nutrition equation, too.

While there remains much research to be done on establishing the impact of processing on nutrition, it’s of significant concern to health professionals and consumers. Mycelium, given its filamentous nature, requires fewer ingredients and less preparation to provide the sensory experience consumers crave and the nutrition they need. Meati has committed to mastering this and was recently awarded a patent for a method optimising mycelium’s naturally meaty characteristics, thus enabling a simple ingredient list and minimal processing.

Environmental sustainability

 We have pushed planetary health to its limits, and it is letting us know: January 2024 was the warmest on the books and it followed a year of shattered heat records. Our food system is a big part of the environmental footprint, being responsible for a third of global greenhouse gasses. No one doubts we must reduce the negative environmental impacts of our food production methods, but industry incumbents have been slow to act. This presents a paradigm-shift opportunity for companies like Meati focused on mycelium, which uses fewer resources to produce more positive nutritional impact relative to other options. If you can get complete protein, fiber, B vitamins, and many other nutrients in one convenient and delicious package while reducing stress on our land, water, and air resources, why wouldn’t you? 

Manufacturing scalability

We have eight billion mouths to feed today, 10 billion by 2050. As a consequence, we’re going to need to produce 70 percent more food than we did around 2005, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). To meet current demands for just animal-based nourishment, the world already annually produces 352 million tons of meat, or 776 billion pounds. To have any significant impact on a problem of this size, the solution must be able to scale up —efficiently, affordably, and sustainably — to production levels reaching hundreds of millions or billions of pounds. A precision fermented protein source like mycelium can. Its growth rate is already astounding in the wild, and this can be optimised in conditions that have been studied and perfected by companies committed to this food production method. Meati, for example, can develop a few spores into a cow’s worth of protein in just four days, which would take the animal itself an average of 1.8 years. It can do so in vertical tanks much like those used in beer brewing and cheesemaking — and it is more environmentally friendly to increase capacity by expanding operations vertically rather than horisontally.

Consumer affordability

Related to scalability is affordability. If a product’s price tag is too high, you can bet consumers won’t buy it at all or at the volumes required to make a dent in the problem. Efficiencies of scale drive prices down. Meati and other mycelium-based companies have a lot of work to do here, but it’s clear — with time and resources — they can reach the scale that unlocks mass affordability because of the naturally exponential potential of fungi. Many other food sources do not have this advantage.

Embracing the future

Enabling a healthier and more sustainable food system requires a paradigm shift, a true revolution in how we think about and execute the production of desirable nutrition for a massive and growing global population. As we learn more about mycelium and the companies developing its remarkable attributes, we start to see the revolution is already here. Yes, it’s young. Yes, there is more to understand. Yes, it is still scaling up. But take a walk through Meati’s Mega Ranch production facility in Colorado, and you’ll know transformational positive change is not only possible, it is happening.

About the author

Harold H. Schmitz is the Chair of the Scientific Board for Meati Foods

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