Cornell AgriTech is positioned to be a leader in the emerging fermentation farming industry, thanks to the opening of the Fermentation Farming Lab (FFL).
Under the leadership of Bruno Xavier, Ph.D. ’08, associate director of the Cornell Food Venture Center (CFVC) and member of the New York State Center of Excellence for Food and Agriculture (CoE) staff, the lab will provide cost-effective support and extension services to companies using fermentation techniques to develop food products.
The FFL will provide a wide variety of services, including preservation and maintenance of microbial cultures, fermentation safety evaluations, and fermentation services ranging from bench scale to 300 liters, with a goal of a larger, 1,000-liter capacity soon.
Xavier said that the lab will work with clients to develop custom-tailored approaches to each project based on individual needs. Depending on the project, the FFL can provide work as a service or as a part of a research agreement.
While fermentation has been used in food production for millennia, techniques such as precision fermentation – used to produce specific proteins, enzymes and other compounds – and biomass fermentation, in which the entire cells of bacteria, yeasts or molds are used as food ingredients – are new innovations with the potential to produce environmentally sustainable food at a large scale.
“It’s a sector with immense potential that’s still largely untapped,” Xavier said.
Products made using fermentation farming techniques, such as plant-based meat, egg and dairy proteins, are already available at supermarkets, although on a limited scale and often at premium prices. Other food products and additives, such as fats, emulsifiers, thickeners and coloring agents are also produced using fermentation farming. The current high cost of these products, however, indicates the need for an increase in production scale and for improvement in technologies used.
While fermentation farming can be used to make plant-based and animal-free foods, it also has many applications for traditional meat and dairy, Xavier said.
He cited the potential use of acid whey, around one billion pounds of which are produced in New York every year as a byproduct from Greek-style yogurt production, as a medium for growing mushroom mycelium through biomass fermentation as an example of how products once seen as waste can be used for the production of high-value ingredients.
“We are expanding the horizons for the existing food manufacturing systems,” Xavier said. “You can obtain just a certain proportion or each component of cow’s milk, for example, but the market may want more of the milk protein and less of the fat. With fermentation, we can more easily fine-tune the production and match it to the market needs, thus increasing production, profitability and reducing waste.”
New York State is uniquely positioned to thrive in the fermentation farming industry, thanks to large commercial markets in New York City and other population centers and while the state’s relatively short growing seasons may be a hurdle in other forms of agriculture, fermentation farming can be used year-round with more efficiency, less land use and less environmental impact than traditional farming.
The FFL, a collaboration between the CFVC and CoE, joins a vibrant, growing food and agriculture ecosystem at Cornell AgriTech. The lab is located within the CoE, a business incubator and economic development center that works to grow the food and agriculture economy in New York by connecting businesses and entrepreneurs with the services and resources they need to succeed.
The main goal of the FFL is to reduce the time and cost for companies to achieve proof of concept so that the sector can remain lean and creative, and not be constrained by the need of large initial investments in laboratory and pilot equipment.
Opportunities are available for companies that work with the FFL to license lab, office and manufacturing space within the CoE or the Cornell Agriculture and Food Technology Park (Tech Farm).
CoE Executive Director Cathy Young said the FFL is a unique facility that will draw companies using fermentation farming into New York State and will serve as a hotbed for research and development into an emerging area of agriculture.
“The FFL will open the doors for Cornell AgriTech to take a leading role in the growth of the fermentation farming industry and the development of improved, more sustainable food systems,” Young said. “Whether it’s creating new food products, improving existing products, reducing food waste, or one of the many other applications, fermentation farming is an exciting new frontier for us to explore.
Jacob Pucci is the marketing and communications coordinator for the New York State Center of Excellence for Food and Agriculture at Cornell AgriTech.
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