The way we feed the world is, if viewed with scientific sobriety, a miracle. At least that is the conclusion of a recent study by the Food System Economics Commission (FSEC), which includes renowned scientists as well as representatives from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Bank.

It is not only remarkable that food systems have kept pace with the growth of the world population, they have also reduced poverty and increased life expectancy.

But how can our diet become more sustainable? This question has occupied Urs Niggli, head of the renowned Research Institute for Organic Agriculture (Fibl) for 30 years and author of the book “Everyone full? Ensuring nutrition for 10 billion people”, all his life. Niggli recommends a largely vegetarian or vegan diet. Because apart from the fact that eating meat in the average amounts that are common in Europe is not good for your health, the environment and climate would be served if we reduced the consumption of animal products. “We need to achieve a sufficient nutritional culture,” said Niggli in an interview, “in other words, moderate our food consumption and eat more consciously.” That is his plan A.

Plan B in the research kitchen

And if this plan doesn’t work? Then, says Niggli, he’s relying on plan B: technological innovation and new types of food. One substance is currently being tinkered with in Hamburg. Behind an inconspicuous backyard door in the Barmbek district, there are flasks, cables, small and large fermentation tanks. A laboratory. A research kitchen. A growing production area. They belong to Infinite Roots, a young, fast-growing food company.

Philipp Göpel, the operations manager, provides a brief insight into what he calls a “completely new world that is currently emerging.” He means the world of mycelium. This is, in a sense, the root system of mushrooms – their main component, although in everyday life we ​​understand mushrooms to be the visible fruiting bodies. Mycelia, explains the doctor of biotechnology, are currently being feverishly researched worldwide. After all, they have a lot of tempting potential – as building material, as textiles, as a plastic substitute. “What we do with them at Infinite Roots is food production.”

To do this, Göpel and his team are growing mycelium in nutrient solution. The goal is to produce products that are as nutritious as they are tasty. Something that makes meat superfluous. They already have a few market-ready prototypes in the pipeline. “We want to change the world,” says Göpel. “That means we have to deliver enormous quantities of our products.” That sounds high-sounding for a start-up that was only founded in 2018 – then under the name Mushlabs – with just around 70 employees. But Infinite Roots’ mushroom-like ambitions have recently been given plenty of fuel. At the end of January, the entry of two industry giants was announced: Rewe, Germany’s second-largest food retailer, and Dr. Hans Riegel Holding, one of the two shareholders of the confectionery group Haribo. Together with other companies and an EU innovation fund, they invested 58 million US dollars, an extraordinary sum for Europe. They believe that big words will soon be followed by big actions. Cathy Hutz, co-founder of Infinite Roots and head of product development, is not the only one who sees mushroom mycelium as, as she puts it, a “new raw material” for the food industry. Another miracle for food systems. A root miracle.

Ecological and economic benefits

The calculation that Infinite Roots makes with the new raw material contains several ecological and economic advantages. Area factor: Instead of hectares of pasture or fields, a fermentation tank is sufficient, which also produces regardless of the weather and location. Time factor: “With mycelium,” explains Hutz, “you can produce the final food within a handful of days.” This is no comparison to the tofu ingredient soy, which is left in the field for five months. Those who rely on mushroom mycelium experience food production in fast motion. In this respect, says Hutz, mycelium is “a game changer.”

The production of food using fungal mycelia has advantages not only in terms of the causes, but also in terms of the consequences of climate change. “Climate change is increasing the number and intensity of extreme weather events,” says Humpenöder. “It is therefore helpful for food security to have a technology that is as resilient as possible to climate change.” Other meat alternatives also have a comparatively small ecological footprint – but also a reputation for being a bit bland. Soy tastes like little more than nothing. In terms of taste, they can sometimes only keep up with their animal competitors thanks to numerous additives. Infinite Roots, on the other hand, is confident that it can do without this arsenal of chemical helpers and flavors.

Cathy Hutz invites you to a prototype tasting in the Infinite Roots kitchen. For starters, there is cream cheese, a milky white spread, with crispbread and wafer-thin slices of cucumber; for the main course, fried mealballs with beetroot; for dessert, coconut ice cream with caramel mycelium sauce. In fact, the creations are surprisingly close to a cream cheese, a meatball and a classic caramel sauce, both in terms of taste and consistency.

Edible mushrooms provide umami taste

“The mycelium of edible mushrooms has umami, a basic taste that we can develop in many different directions,” explains Hutz. “And that allows us to completely reduce the list of ingredients.” Ideally, a handful of spices are enough. The fermentation of mushroom mycelium, says Hutz with a smile, allows us to produce “products that are as clean as possible.” In addition, the fermentation process can be used to control taste and consistency; Infinite Roots has already secured various patents.

“Fermentation creates added value in every respect. It is more natural, more sustainable and ultimately cheaper than common industrial processes,” says Hutz. This is another reason why fermentation is her “great love”. Before she co-founded Infinite Roots, the food product developer wrote a book about fermentation and worked in the fermentation laboratory of the Copenhagen Michelin-starred restaurant Noma, which has been named the world’s best restaurant several times.

Another factor in Infinite Roots’ calculations, which makes the new food raw material appear ecologically and economically advantageous, has to do with the nature of the mycelia: they are neither particularly picky nor particularly sensitive. They can thrive in many places and with all kinds of nutrients. According to Hutz, they are suitable as “grateful recyclers” of food waste, be it from the beer industry, chocolate production or large dairies.

“We use side streams – residues that would otherwise be declared as waste – to produce new foods,” says Cathy Hutz. “In doing so, we are closing a gap that has arisen in the food industry.” A type of circular economy that contributes to the comparatively small ecological footprint of the mushroom mycelium products. The large Bitburger brewery has been involved in the company for some time. The first market-ready mushroom mycelium products will soon be ripening in their giant kettles using their grain residues.