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Gavin Schneider, co-founder and CEO of Maia Farms, sits among samples of the company's mycoprotein products at their North Vancouver office.Photography by Kayla Isomura/The Globe and Mail

Protein from fungi is a front-runner in a race to Mars. The product promises to help feed astronauts on a three-year mission – while also helping solve food insecurity on Earth.

A mycoprotein collaboration between North Vancouver-based companies Ecoation and Maia Farms is one of four finalists in the Canadian Space Agency and NASA’s Deep Space Food Challenge, a competition where researchers and entrepreneurs propose solutions for one of space travel’s greatest challenges: keeping astronauts fed with healthy and tasty food for three years, with little to no water or sunlight.

And with the global population set to hit 9.5 billion by 2050 and climate change wreaking havoc on traditional agricultural production, the space agencies’ challenge is fostering innovative solutions for one of Earth’s most acute problems: food insecurity.

Maia Farm’s fungi-based product is part of a mycoprotein global market projected to reach US$1.1-billion by 2030. The ingredient is promoted as one of the solutions to the global shortage of protein, the macronutrient most in demand yet also the most land intensive, inefficient and unsustainable.

The only question is whether production capacity will be able to keep up with demand.

“Every person needs 50 to 100 grams of protein every single day,” said Gavin Schneider, vice-president of agronomy at Ecoation and chief executive officer of Maia Farms. “And we’re not gonna do that with cows, chickens or pigs.”

Ecoation’s design for the Deep Space Food Challenge is a self-sufficient growing container that can churn out strawberries, cherry tomatoes, lettuce and microgreens. But it’s the mushroom-produced protein, developed by Maia Farms, that has NASA and CSA most intrigued, Mr. Schneider said.

The process combines crop-milling waste (grains that would usually feed livestock) with salt, sugar, water and mushrooms in a bioreactor (similar to the fermentation tanks seen in breweries). Seven days later, the protein is ready.

This spring, the design was selected to go through to the finals stage where, alongside three other contestants, Ecoation and Maia Farms have 12 months to build a full-scale food production model. The system is not designed to be the sole provider of food to a team of astronauts, but rather a supplemental source.

The grand prize winner, to be announced in spring 2024, will take home $380,000 in funding.

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Ashton Ostrander, co-founder of Maia Farms, holds a bag of mycoprotein samples.Kayla Isomura/The Globe and Mail

However, the space challenge is just one small part of what Mr. Schneider and his team envision for CanPro, the proprietary name for the mycoprotein. Mr. Schneider is more focused on the down-to-earth applications. “This is the missing ingredient to make plant-based protein more mainstream,” he said.

Technically, protein from fungi is not plant-based, as fungi are neither plant or animal, and fungi are classified into their own distinct kingdom. (Scientists classify living things into five kingdoms; the other two, protist and monera, are comprised of single-celled organisms.) However, from a marketing and industry standpoint, protein from fungi fall into the same category as other alternative, non-meat protein sources such as soy and pulses.

According to UN forecasts, global demand for animal-derived protein will double by 2050 to 455 million tonnes (a 75-per-cent increase from 2005). The issue is these protein sources are resource intensive and often unsustainable. The demand for high-protein foods accelerates deforestation and biodiversity loss, strains the global water supply and accelerates greenhouse-gas emissions.

Hence the boom in plant-based alternatives. In 2022, the mycoprotein sector was worth an estimated US$641.5-million globally and is projected to reach US$1.1-billion by 2030. In Canada, more than 40 per cent of the population is trying to incorporate plant-based foods into their diets, according to a report from Statistics Canada.

This is good news for the environment. Plant-based proteins emit fewer greenhouse gases, use significantly less land and are less energy intensive. They have on average a 50-per-cent lower environmental impact, according to a paper published in March.

However, consumers are still proving fickle when it comes to meat substitutes. After a promising launch Beyond Meat, for example, saw its products drop out of favour and its stock price plummet as sales growth for plant-based proteins in Canada slowed to 7 per cent in 2021 versus 34 per cent the year before. “The notion that the world would just change in a few years from beef burgers on the barbecue to burger patties made from pea products or other newer sources of protein was probably optimistic,” said Jared Carlberg, professor of agribusiness and agricultural economics at the University of Manitoba.

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Sean Lacoursiere, co-founder and chief science officer of Maia Farms, works at the company’s lab. The makers of CanPro claim the mycoprotein will help take plant-based diets mainstream in ways that other meat substitutes have not.

Mr. Schneider promises his product is better, in terms of both flavour and environmental impact. Mushrooms are easier to digest than soy and pea proteins, which have a bitter taste. And the CanPro system also requires just one metre of space and 100 litres of water (which can be recycled) to produce one kilogram of mycoprotein – much more efficient than large fields that require irrigation systems. The product is shelf-stable for 12 months.

This is why, according to Mr. Schneider, mycoprotein will be successful where other products have failed.

Still, growth for CanPro – and all other mycoprotein producers – will require huge investment in bioreactors.

Mycoprotein requires economies of scale to become price competitive. At $8.50 a kilogram, for example, CanPro costs more than meat, soy or pea products, which average between $5 and $6. To match the price of soy or pea products, producers need large-scale bioreactors: Current global capacity is 15 million litres, but 120 million litres is needed to meet just 1 per cent of U.S. protein demand. To reach its goals, Maia Farms alone needs 10,000 litres.

In the meantime, Maia Farms is working with partner labs at the Saskatchewan Food Industry Development Centre and the National Research Council of Canada to grow product that will be on shelves by 2025.

Mr. Schneider is confident that with the right product, plants will eventually become big players in the protein market. The current limitations are a small step back in the bigger leap forward for the future of food, he says, within and beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.

“In 15 years time, it’s going to be very common for most North Americans to regularly consume a mycelium-based product,” Mr. Schneider said. “This is the ultimate solution.”

Editor’s note: (Aug. 23, 2023): An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to fungi as plants. This version has been corrected.

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