This might sound far-fetched, but ironically the idea isn’t even new. Since around the 1970s, humans have been successfully turning agricultural waste into actual food with the help of fungus and/or bacteria. In fact there exists at least one highly successful food based on this environmentally friendly technology, and you may have eaten it without even knowing.
First pioneered in the early 1900s in Germany and the UK as a method to increase the protein content of animal feed without increasing imports, the process has been improved and applied worldwide. It shouldn’t surprise many of us, since we all know you can find edible mushrooms that grow on the forest floor (they’re not all edible, do not eat mushrooms that you cannot identify) and that microbes are the driving force behind the creation of cheese. But the exciting part is that mushrooms don’t just turn fallen leaves into food, but they can be used to turn plastics, ingestible plant fiber, and even toxins into food (of course, one needs to be careful when dealing with toxins and determine exactly how the fungus breaks them down or stores them).
The high-protein fungal product based on this process, called Quorn, is technically not based on a mushroom (we tend to think of Basidiomycetes when we say mushrooms, whereas Quorn is made using the Ascomycetes Fusarium venenatum… both are fungus though). Quorn has been around since 1985, but it was only introduced to the US in 2002, and is probably the best example of the practical application of this technology (it also uses egg albumin or potato starch to hold it together, so it is not entirely fungal). Friends of mine who have tried it said that it tastes like meat, but it carries only a tiny fraction of the ecological costs.
Potentially the most exciting new advance in the use of fungus in turning waste into food comes from Utrecht University using Schizophyllum commune and Pleurotus ostreatus to turn plastic into a protein rich neutral-tasting material. Although, unlike Quorn, this fungus has not yet been proven to be completely non-toxic and thus is not ready for widespread developement yet, it’s still an exciting possibility.
A recent discussion with Dr. Karsten Niehaus (with whom I also sat down to discuss GM crops and safety testing) touched on replacing meat as a primary source of protein for humans, and supplementing the nutritional value of grains, to help feed more humans while reducing our collective environmental impact. We discussed using insect protein to supplement a plant-based diet, at which point Karsten mentioned that a more efficient and effective solution would be to use discarded material from harvest to grow protein rich fungus.
Do we have any good reason to not use food, agricultural, and plastic waste as a template for protein rich food? Should we really rely on increasing the protein content of food through adding soy and milk protein? We have the capacity to feed everyone on this planet using even less farm land than we currently do (we could do also this by reducing the scale of animal agriculture, but aside from that…), and we can do this while vastly reducing our ecological footprint. If protein content is the question, and we don’t put genetic modification on the table, then the only really viable answer is using fungal/microbial/algal protein sources.