The race to Mars has space agencies scrambling for ways to feed astronauts during prolonged space missions. This task may seem impossible on a planet with limited light and water. However, mycoprotein, a fungi-based solution, may be able to satiate the hunger of both astronauts in space and the ever-growing population here on Earth.
Mycoprotein is a meatless alternative made from the mycelium of specified fungi. The meat substitute is not only high in protein and fiber but also contains several vitamins and minerals and is capable of mimicking the texture of meat. The industry is projected to reach a global market of $1.1 billion by 2030. There are already several mycoprotein products on the market, which not only serve as an alternative to meat but also soy and wheat gluten plant-based “meats.”
Due to increasing education and accessibility to plant-based alternatives, recent research has found that only 40% of the global population will continue to eat meat by 2040. Fungi technically isn’t “plant-based” since it doesn’t fall under the category of plant or animal; however, it provides a fast-growing, highly nutritious protein source that does not involve meat. This form of protein is a sustainable option both on our planet and in space and could potentially be the future of meatless alternatives since it is more digestible and considered a complete protein with all nine essential amino acids.
NASA’s Deep Space Food Challenge was announced in 2020 as a collaboration between NASA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). The competition was established to encourage researchers and scientists to develop novel solutions for producing nutritious, appetizing, and sustainable food for astronauts during long-duration space missions such as traveling to Mars. The challenge offers cash prizes and funding to further develop participants’ innovative methods.
Providing astronauts with good food is a difficult task during extended missions due to limited storage space, no access to fresh ingredients, and restrictions on things like water and energy. Though NASA researchers have found some ways to grow fruits and vegetables in space, creating protein is a harder task to tackle.
Two North Vancouver-based companies, Ecoation and Maia Farms, have collaborated to create a mycoprotein solution, landing them as one of the top four finalists in the competition. Ecoation has designed a self-sustaining growing container that can produce several types of fruits and vegetables, but after teaming up with Maia Farms, their CANgrow system can now produce mycoprotein. The mycoprotein feature is what’s impressed judges at NASA and CSA the most. Maia Farms, on the other hand, has produced a mycoprotein called CanPro™, a fibrous complete protein substitute that contains more protein than red meat. It is more digestible than other plant-based proteins and has a 12-month shelf life.
To create the fungi protein, crop-milling waste is combined with water, salt, sugar, and the fungi mycelium in a bioreactor. In seven days, astronauts would have a ready-to-eat protein source. This system would not be the sole source of food for astronauts but instead used as a supplement.
The Deep Space Food Challenge Winner will be announced in the spring of 2024 and will win $380,000 in funding for further research.
The UN predicts that by 2050, the global demand for animal protein will nearly double. This growing demand for meat is not sustainable for our planet, as factory farming is responsible for accelerating greenhouse gas emissions and contributing to mass deforestation. With a population nearing eight billion, our planet is already seeing negative effects from such a high demand. Greenhouse gases from factory farming represent 45% of all agricultural emissions, and this percentage is expected to grow. Furthermore, half of all habitable land on Earth is used for agriculture, with 77% of that land dedicated to animal agriculture (for both raising and feeding the animals).
In comparison, plant-based substitutes like mycoprotein have a 50% lower environmental impact (1). At an industrial scale, mycoprotein grows at a rate of two tonnes an hour after a few days of becoming established. As mycoprotein further develops and popularizes, it’s only a matter of time before the meat substitute reaches global success.
Though products like CanPro and other mycoprotein producers still require a lot more research and funding for expensive bioreactors, the ingredients for their products aren’t very high cost. Currently, mycoprotein costs around $8.50 a kilogram, which is more than the price of meat or soy products, but once the companies receive more funding, the prices are expected to lower significantly.
Gavin Schneider, the co-founder and CEO of Maia Farms believes that plants and fungi are the future of the protein market. Though there are a few financial obstacles in the way, the large sum of funding from NASA could help push Maia Farm’s mission further.
“In 15 years time, it’s going to be very common for most North Americans to regularly consume a mycelium-based product,” said Schneider. “This is the ultimate solution.”
Whether on Earth or beyond, fungi might just hold the key to a more sustainable and nourishing future for us all.
1.Smetana, Sergiy, Dusan Ristic, Daniel Pleissner, Hanna L. Tuomisto, Oleksii Parniakov, and Volker Heinz. 2023. “Meat Substitutes: Resource Demands and Environmental Footprints.” Resources, Conservation and Recycling 190 (March): 106831. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.resconrec.2022.106831.