Farmless, a Dutch protein fermentation startup, is emissions-less, animal-less, virtually land-less, and is also, sugarless.
Let’s back up. Precision fermentation is a process used by a myriad of startups including FootPrint Coalition Venture’s backed companies Chunk Foods, Motif Foodworks, MyForest Foods, and Zero Acre Farms, to create everything from meat replacements and cooking oil (like FPC’s portfolio companies) to chocolate and nylon for clothing.
The basic process of fermentation converts a carbohydrate, such as starch or sugar, into an alcohol or an acid. Innovative startups are taking this process, used to make beer, to genetically engineer microbes to express target ingredients and then extract them from the fermentation broth. They then turn these ingredients into anything they want.
What Farmless has done is perfect this process but without starch or sugar. Instead, they use planet-warming carbon dioxide to make their planet-friendly protein.
With its May pre-seed round, the startup has €1.2 million ($1.3 million) to expand its “carbon negative” platform, and create what they call, “A future where food production is freed from animals and agricultural land; a world with more nature and less farms.”
Using renewable electricity, Farmless creates a protein they think can eventually outperform traditional agriculture, and provide the world with a “universal and abundant food supply.”
The round was led by Revent, Nucleus Capital, and Possible Ventures, with participation from HackCapital, Sustainable Food Ventures, VOYAGERS Climate-Tech Fund, and TET Ventures.
Because Farmless is currently filing a patent, its process is under lock and key and so is where it gets its CO2, but according to the startup’s founder Adnan Oner via Agfunder, “basically, we’ve synthesized CO2 and hydrogen into a liquid feedstock and then we use ammonia as a source of nitrogen and some minerals.”
Using a non-GMO strain of bacteria that naturally produce high levels of complete protein, weighing in at 70%+, Farmless harvests the whole biomass to create a highly versatile ‘carbon negative’ whole food ingredient, Oner says.
Compared to any animal protein product, Farmless’s approach requires a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of land. Because of its CO2 and hydrogen feedstock and usage of the world’s tiniest creatures, it uses between 10 and 25 times less land than other types of plant-based protein. Plus, by using renewable energy, Oner says they can run the operation anywhere that can be powered on renewables.
“With our fermentation platform, we aim to dramatically outperform animal agriculture and reliably produce low-cost proteins at a planetary scale,” Oner said in an interview with TechCrunch, “We believe this technology has the potential to end factory farming, rewild our planet and draw down gigatons of carbon.”
The idea of ending factory farming is a tall order that would have huge payoffs.
In addition to CO2, factory farms emit extremely high levels of methane and nitrous oxide, which are up to 300 times more damaging to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. They account for 37% of the world’s methane emissions, according to the National Resources Defence Council, and globally, deforestation for animal grazing and feed crops is estimated to emit 2.4 billion tons of CO2 every year.
These stats don’t even begin to account for the biodiversity loss that comes with deforestation, the human health effects of living near large-scale factory farms, water use, and the emissions related to manure, fertilizer, waste, and so much more.
Oner is the co-founder of a handful of startups, and as he said in an for his next startup, he wondered “how much impact” he could have.
“I found out that there are very few people making food production dramatically more land- and resource-efficient,” he said. “Efficient food production is crucial if we want to reverse centuries of agricultural sprawl and reforest the world in my lifetime… I got pretty excited when I found out there is a much better path to food than traditional agriculture: fermentation based on renewable electricity.”
Just six months old, Farmless currently works out of a lab, but the funding will help it experiment with larger fermentation vessels, hire more people, and work on regulatory approvals.
Still, it has accomplished a good amount in its initial stages. Oden says they have a microbe that tastes just like animal protein and is currently developing their initial product prototype, “which is an amino acid-complete protein with high functionality” with a dedicated team of fermentation and food scientists.
For the next steps, the company plans to get bigger vessels, build out its supply chain, and bring its protein to the right market after clearing regulatory approvals.
“The Farmless fermentation platform can potentially create a whole new food repertoire, producing proteins, carbohydrates, beneficial fats, vitamins, and minerals from the bottom up,” Oden said.
Still regulation could prove tricky for the Amsterdam-based startup.
Currently, the United States is inching ahead of the European Union in terms of regulatory approval for alternative proteins. While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued at least four “generally regarded as safe” (GRAS) letters for fermentation-derived products, the European Commission has yet to approve any.
That’s why it's so important that Farmless uses a non-GMO strain of bacteria because in 2016, when the now plant-based burger giant, Impossible, fell into GMO-territory, it was approved in the U.S. but had to undergo the long process of getting GMO approval from the European Food and Safety Authority (EFSA), only to have patents revoked months after debuting in 2022.
Plus there are other hurdles. While countries like China are providing vast resources to firms in biomanufacturing, the world’s first state of global fermentation report by Synonym Bio, shows manufacturing capacity in the U.S. and E.U. lags behind.
Because of regulatory restrictions, Farmless can’t yet conduct customer tastings in the Netherlands, making it hard to gauge how meaty their protein actually is and if consumers will buy it. Plus without government support, it can be a bit more difficult to get investors on board.
Despite the challenges, Farmless is determined to push through, because of animal agriculture’s disastrous impact on the planet.
“Animal agriculture belongs in the same category as the fossil fuel industry,” Oner said, noting the biodiversity loss, emissions, freshwater depletion, soil erosion, and other perils associated with the industry.
Farmless isn’t the only fermentation startup working for regulatory approval. Plus, other companies like U.S.-based Air Protein and Finland-based Solar Foods, also make protein “out of thin air” using elements and may undergo the same regulatory process, opening the door for Farmless.
Europe’s Solar Foods already has approval from the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) and is transitioning from demo to factory this year, with plans commercially launch in Singapore next year, launch in the U.S. and Japan by 2025, and finally launch in Europe in 2026.
Thus, Farmless won’t be in the push for fermentation protein in Europe alone. The company also has a community in its investors.
“We’re proud to be backed by this large group of experienced climate tech investors who share our radical mission,” said Oner. “They are as eager as us to find a reliable way to produce low-cost proteins at planetary scale, end factory farming and rewild our planet.”