Meat substitutes could be about to get a lot more meat-like. A UK-based company called Moolec says it has created genetically modified soya plants that produce beans in which a quarter of the soluble proteins are pig proteins. It has named its plant “Piggy Sooy”.
Moolec is also creating pea plants that contain beef proteins. It claims its products will be able to provide the taste, texture and nutritional value of meat, but without the high costs associated with cultured meat.
The company won’t yet say which pig genes have been added to soya to produce Piggy Sooy. “At this point, we can’t disclose that, for intellectual property reasons,” says Amit Dhingra at Moolec.
However, photos of Moolec’s Piggy Sooy beans show they have a pinky-red tinge inside them (see picture, above). This means it is likely that one of the added genes is for a protein with an iron-containing haem group such as myoglobin. Myoglobin gives red meat its colour and also contributes to its flavour.
Impossible Foods already adds a plant haeme protein called soy leghaemoglobin to its burgers to give them a more meat-like look and taste. Leghaemoglobin is naturally found in the roots of soya plants, but to obtain enough, Impossible Foods manufactures it in genetically modified yeast.
Another company called Motif produces beef myoglobin as an additive for meat substitutes called Hemani. Motif began manufacturing it in modified yeast, but plans to make it in modified maize to scale up production.
Dhingra says the added proteins in Piggy Sooy have been chosen to give the right “feel in the mouth” after food is cooked, but wouldn’t comment when asked if myoglobin was one of them, nor would he say if anyone has tried tasting Piggy Sooy beans yet.
Products such as Piggy Sooy could help make our food supply more sustainable, says Dhingra.
Environmental writer Mark Lynas agrees. “It should also be much more environmentally sustainable, and also avoid the unpleasantness of intensive animal farming,” he says.
Lynas has argued that the “yuck factor” associated with transgenic plants is what led to the opposition to genetically modified crops. He isn’t sure how Piggy Sooy will go down with the public.
“I really have no idea how this will land. It’s interesting that they have gone all-out for the ‘piggy’ thing – there is no attempt to sweeten the pill,” says Lynas. “Of course, scientifically it’s just a protein, and we already engineer lots of plants and microbes to make desirable proteins.”
This production of transgenic proteins in plants and microbes is sometimes called molecular farming. “While we aren’t aware of research specifically looking at molecular farming, there is strong evidence that consumers want – and are actively seeking out – more sustainable alternatives to animal agriculture,” says Seren Kell at the Good Food Institute Europe. “Sales of plant-based options have increased by 21 per cent in Europe since 2020.”
Moolec points out that 98 per cent of all soya grown in the US is genetically modified, and says the success of Impossible Foods shows that consumers aren’t deterred by genetically modified products.
The company is now seeking the approvals necessary to grow and sell Piggy Sooy in the US, says Dhingra. This should be easier to obtain than in Europe because of US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rules. “In the US, food ingredients developed in this manner would be considered under the FDA’s voluntary pre-market consultation programme for foods from new plant varieties,” says Kell.
In Europe and the UK, regulations are stricter and the process of getting approval would take at least 18 months, she says.
Transgenic plants with added genes from other species have been widely grown in many parts of the world, including in Europe, for decades. For instance, so-called Bt crops have an added gene for a bacterial protein that kills insects without harming larger animals.
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