Wageningen will be presenting its research into sustainable meat substitutes at the Dutch Agri Food Week (DAFW) held from 9 to 19 October. During the DAFW, farmers, entrepreneurs, government and scientists all over the Netherlands demonstrate their work on safe and healthy food, with a focus on innovations.
People have different reasons for reducing the amount of meat they eat or cutting it out of their diets entirely: animal welfare, greenhouse gas emissions or the impact on the environment and health. Wageningen conducts research in all of these areas. The WURtalk of 9 October (in Dutch) on Wageningen Campus takes sustainable meat substitutes as its subject.
When it comes to sustainable meat substitutes, termites are probably not the first thing that comes to mind. And no, we’re not trying to encourage you to eat insects. There are termites living in symbiosis with fungi that produce extremely high-protein edible mushrooms which occur in Africa and Asia. These mushrooms are very tasty and very high in protein and are therefore enthusiastically picked, eaten and traded on local markets. ‘It is a good source of food,’ says PhD candidate Sabine Vreeburg. She is researching the symbiosis between the termites and their mushrooms.
The symbiotic relationship between the insects and the fungi is remarkable: these types of fungi only occur in termite mounds and neither the termites nor their fungi can live without the other. And the production of the mushrooms takes place in such a way that the mushroom spores – equivalent to their seeds – are able to spread through the air at exactly the time that new termite colonies are founded. In this way, the fungus can move into a new termite home right away.
Vreeburg is keen to know how this symbiosis works for two reasons. The first is a fundamental one: how does a symbiosis like this remain stable? Successive generations of termites are born and the fungus too provides for progeny by means of its spores. How do they know they are living with the right species? And how can the production of the fungal spores be so well-timed that it coincides with the founding of new termite colonies?
This knowledge may be helpful for understanding other symbioses, explains Vreeburg (symbiosis being cohabitation to the mutual benefit of both species). For example, it may help us understand the symbiosis between humans and their gut microbiome – the whole of the various different bacteria that live together in the intestines – or between humans and their skin bacteria.
Partners in a symbiosis are called symbionts. The question is how the symbionts are transmitted to succeeding generations and whether there is also transmission between different hosts, the dominant symbiont. According to Vreeburg, ‘The transmission of symbionts is probably an important factor in determining the stability of a symbiosis. Because how can a host prevent symbionts from cheating to their own advantage? If that were to happen, the symbiosis would change into a parasitical interaction, in which the cohabitation would have damaging consequences for one of the partners. This kind of fundamental knowledge can help in developing solutions for cases when the balance has been disrupted, for example in intestinal or skin problems.’
The second reason why the symbiosis of termites and fungi is interesting relates to a direct application. If we know how the fungus forms mushrooms and how the termites influence that process, we might be able to grow our own mushrooms. Since the fungus grows on wood residues and the mushrooms are both high in protein and tasty, they would fit perfectly within a more vegetarian diet. And that in turn would be good for our climate.
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In this video of the international FameLab competition, in which young scientists are given a few minutes to talk about their research, Vreeburg gives us a glimpse into her research.
Some of those who want to eat less meat or none at all would like a meat substitute that still tastes and looks like meat. Wageningen researchers have found a solution for that. Technology can be used to make a plant-based steak, a piece of meat with the fineness and structure of meat. It is also a much more energy-efficient method. Moreover, production does not necessarily need to take place in large factories. The technology is also suitable for the local butcher, who could use it to make plant-based meat.
Wageningen is now working with a machine manufacturer, a producer of flavourings, raw materials and companies that want to make and sell the eventual products to create a new generation of meat substitutes that should be in the shops quite soon. In this video, Professor Atze Jan van der Goot explains how the technique works.
Dutch Agri Food Week
Dutch Agri Food Week is for everyone: consumers, citizens, pupils, students, farmers, suppliers, food processors, food professionals, retailers and policy makers. You can brush up your knowledge, meet investors, see how food is made and what it is like to work in the food sector or simply enjoy food. Everyone comes to see, learn, discover and taste. There are activities all over the Netherlands.
There is a special children's workshop in Wageningen on Sunday 8 October about growing vegetables on Mars, featuring the scientist who is doing research into that subject, Wieger Wamelink. Wieger explains his research in the bblthk (the public library, in Dutch).
On Saturday 14 October, you can visit the Hungry Conscience talk show (in Dutch) in Ede. This will focus on the question: How can there still be hunger in the world when we produce nearly 3,000 calories per person per day worldwide, we have the ability to produce food smartly and efficiently and there are a huge number of initiatives to combat hunger? And what can we do about it in the Netherlands? The panel will be made up of various well-known people from science, business and journalism, and audience members will also have the opportunity to ask questions.
You can find out all about these and other WUR activities in the summary on our website (in Dutch).