Research to create low-carbon meat and dairy substitutes using grass has begun at the University of Bath and Harper Adams University, following a major £2.5 million funding award through the UKRI as part of the Transforming UK Food Systems Strategic Priorities Fund (SPF) programme.

The Pasture to Plate project team will begin work this month that promises to lead to a range of new vegan and vegetarian food alternatives to meat and dairy. These products would dramatically reduce both agricultural emissions and deforestation, by replacing ingredients commonly grown in direct competition with tropical rainforest, such as soy and palm oil.

Realising the potential of UK grasslands

Grass is the UK’s largest crop, covering 70% of agricultural land. While a significant proportion of grassland is hilly, and so only suitable for feeding livestock, estimates suggest that over a third of the land - more than 4 million hectares - could be used for harvesting. The project team estimates that repurposing grass for direct consumption could easily produce enough edible material to match UK output of cereals, which include wheat, barley and oats.

Christopher Chuck, Professor of Bioprocess Engineering in Bath’s Department of Chemical Engineering, said: “By creating a genuinely new approach to using grass as a food or ingredient, we have the potential to create a virtuous circle that will benefit our environment in a number of ways. This process would dramatically increase UK domestic food production, reduce deforestation, make previously unviable arable land productive, increase soil health, reduce the impact of livestock overgrazing, and make soil and grassland ecosystems more sustainable.”

Head of Engineering Research at the Harper Adams-based National Centre for Precision Farming, Dr Richard Green, added: “Grass is more resilient to flooding and other extreme weather conditions than most other crops – which means we would see an improved resilience to climate change. We’d also see arable land that is prone to flooding profitably returned to meadow grass production, including wildflower-rich varieties, boosting our own biodiversity – and grass could also be added to arable rotations with resulting benefits for farmers and the wider public.”

The research will process harvested grass using mechanical assisted extraction, which requires lower energy and use of solvents than traditional techniques, and then treat it with a novel yeast to make additional protein and oils, such as a palm oil substitute. It is this combination of technologies that will unlock the enormous potential of grass as a direct food source.

Techniques developed at Bath are key

The project has been made possible by innovations in more efficient and precise separation techniques, led by co-investigators Dr Bernardo Castro Dominguez and Dr Hannah Leese. The team says these processing methods could not only be used to process grass efficiently, but once proven could be used more widely across the food and chemicals sector in the coming decades.

The project is funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) which is investing a total of £2.5 million over three years. The funding will be used to investigate the most suitable types of UK grassland, develop low-energy methods to extract the components, further scale the novel yeast biotechnology to increase the productivity, assess the components in novel foods, investigate consumer acceptance of these foods as well as determining the overall economic viability and sustainability of the system.

The project is a large collaboration which includes multiple commercial partners, government departments and charities to help scale the technology and steer the most optimal outcomes for the UK.