🧪🌱 Molecular farming: the hot new trend

Trends can shift quite fast, notably in tech. Take, for example, alternative proteins:

  • Just a year ago, the spotlight was on cellular agriculture startups as a couple gained regulatory approval for their meat products in the US. However, their inability to scale quickly put a shadow on that trend, which is now moving fast toward the pit of disillusion.
  • Then, precision fermentation, using micro-organisms to produce proteins through fermentation, climbed to the top of the hype as numerous startups received regulatory approval while announcing large-scale facilities and new products. For similar reasons (scale), the hype has watered down.

So, is it over, and are we waiting for these technologies to be mastered or used differently (for new ingredients, for example, coffee, sugar, or cacao)? Obviously not; there is a new hot tech in town: molecular farming.


Above is DigitalFoodLab’s hype curve with the curent state of the different alternative protein technologies (for more information look at our full trends report). Molecular farming is moving forward with increasing speed. From a niche topic that was barely considered between 2021 and the end of 2023, it has become a major topic of discussion in the overall alternative protein ecosystem.

How does molecular farming work?

First, it is important to note that this technology as many others in the alternative protein ecosystem derives from the pharmaceutical industry. That’s why, this technology is often referred as “molecular pharming”.

Then, also quite similarly to other technologies in this space, it is quite simple on paper: instead of using large fermenters, the goal is to use plants as bioreactors. Plants, such as soy, tobacco, canola or potatoes, are genetically engineered to produce desired molecules. They are then grown, and through well-known processes (used widely for the extraction of ingredients in today’s food industry), the desired substances are extracted and then isolated.

Finally, depending on the type of plant used, you can either have an extract which is a solid (powder) or a liquid which can be directly used in a recipe.

The goal is to achieve large-scale production of these molecules at a very low cost, notably compared to the technologies mentioned themselves.

Who is doing what with molecular farming?

As explained above, we observe a new hype around molecular farming. Startups are mostly working around two types of applications in food:

  1. Ingredients for other alternative protein technologies, notably growth factors used in cellular agriculture. These are the most expensive ingredients used in the process of cultivating meat, and producing them at scale in plants could be one of the keys (with scaling up production) that would make this technology viable.
    BioBetter, an Israeli startup, is one of these startups.
  2. Dairy proteins, notably caseins: here molecular farming (MF) the technology is in direct competition with precision fermentation (PF). Some consider that PF could be efficient for “small” proteins such as whey, but not for larger ones, such as caseins (the proteins you want to produce cheese). From a single company (Alpine Bio, US), the ecosystem of MF startups focusing on dairy proteins has expanded a lot in the past year with now a handful of players in Israel, France and in the US.
  3. Meat alternatives: this is a much smaller space, embodied by Moolec, one of the precursors in this space, with its “piggy” soy which includes pork proteins and which received regulatory approval to grow it in the US.

What’s next?

This space is moving fast with the first authorizations to grow these crops. It has yet many challenges ahead, notably:

  • demonstrating the ability to scale at an affordable cost
  • showing the potential to create highly-concentrated ingredients that can be used in food products
  • facing regulatory challenges around genetically modified crops in Europe: we should note that technically, the end product (the purified molecule) is not genetically modified, so it could be authorized in the EU.
  • explaining the technology to consumers

These challenges appear to be impossible to meet due to the experience we have with genetically modified plants. We do not expect to see products on the shelves with their key ingredients made with molecular farming in the near future. However, some applications for high-value ingredients could be visible in 3 to 5 years. That’s why we consider molecular farming as one of the elements that dairy and bakery companies should put at the top of their innovation agendas.

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