"Chaff-burgers" made from crop waste will be a reality within five years, according to the boss of Quorn.
Eight billion tonnes of chaff is created around the world each year and largely goes to waste, with most being burned or ploughed back into the ground.
Chaff is a name for discarded parts of crops such as wheat and barley, which are left behind after the grain has been extracted and include straw, leaves and husks.
Marco Bertacca, the CEO of Quorn, told The Telegraph he hopes to develop a way to ferment the leftovers and turn them into a protein to be forged into food products.
He said developing an environmentally-friendly method to do this would "change the world" by slashing the greenhouse gas emissions made by farming.
Quorn, based in Stokesley, Yorkshire, has already started work on creating the technology needed to recycle the harvest leftovers.
But the difficulty is that the main component of the waste is a polymer called lignocellulose, which makes up the walls of the plant cells and is extremely tough. There is as yet no way to make use of this, despite it being the most abundant raw material on the planet.
Mr Bertacca admitted the company is still at the "theory stage" and does not yet have a proposed technology, but told The Telegraph he is hopeful it will have found a way to turn lignocellulose into a useful protein in just five years.
He envisions a fermentation method akin to Quorn’s current model, which takes the arable waste and converts it into a dough-like mycoprotein, the bedrock of all Quorn products.
The crop waste created could become the mycoprotein equivalent to five million cows, according to Marco Bertacca
Credit: Arnd Wiemann/Reuters
Quorn’s original method was developed more than 30 years ago and hinges on a microfungus called Fusarium venenatum. Although it took 20 years for the company to scale up that technology, Mr Bertacca has taken inspiration from the rapid development and rollout of Covid vaccines.
"Historically, it took ages [to get a vaccine] and then all of a sudden, people started to work together and we have found something which has changed how we have done things," he said.
"I really believe that if we work with a group of other, like-minded people, we can crack this and change the world of protein in the space of five years."
Mr Bertacca said eight billion tonnes of waste crop are created globally every year, adding: "When you translate it into what it could be, we would be able to ferment that and create mycoprotein equivalent to five million cows, which is about three times the amount of cows we have on the planet now."
This, he says, has two main benefits – helping meet the growing demand for food and slashing the volume of greenhouse gases produced by farming. Emissions from animal agriculture are responsible for almost a fifth (18 per cent) of all greenhouse gas emissions made worldwide.
Boris Johnson’s Government said in December that they wanted to reduce CO2 emissions by 68 per cent by 2030 – the most ambitious target of any major economy. But many experts believe that to be too ambitious and only attainable if there is radical change to the daily lives of Britons.
The proposed technology Quorn is diving into has the potential to reduce the dependence on meat as mycoprotein uses 90 per cent less land, 90 per cent less water and 90 per cent less CO2 for the same amount of product.
"The ability for us to produce, at scale, a product approaching the price of animal protein is what will flip the world," Mr Bertacca said. "There are people that are selling a burger for $5. Fine, there will be some people that can afford to pay $5 a burger.
"But I can tell you they’re not going to change the world with that, because we need to find a way to be able to be affordable. For me, the ability of transforming this eight billion tonnes of waste into five billion cows – that really gets me out of bed."