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By  James Chesters 26 February 2024 4 min read

Key points

  • We need to source enough protein to feed nearly 2 billion worldwide more people by 2050.
  • Our scientists are researching diverse ways to get more from existing protein sources like meat, plants, and fish.
  • No single science of protein will fix the challenges we face, but our Future Proteins team is on a mission to meet the growing demand.

It's 2050, and the global population has grown to 9.7 billion.

Consumers are enjoying improved health and nutrition from high-quality diets and value-added protein products. Meanwhile, the natural environment is benefiting from reduced greenhouse gas emissions and more efficient use of water and land.

That's the future we want and what our Future Protein Mission is working towards. To get there, we have to produce more protein, more sustainably, and from more sources to feed our world's growing global population.

Dr Crispin Howitt is the Mission Lead for Future Protein. He says we'll need to source enough protein to feed nearly 2 billion extra people by 2050. And that's in a world where global protein demand will be almost double what it is today.

"We're looking at diverse ways to get more out of existing protein sources like meat, plants, and fish. We're also seeking out new sources to complement them," he says.


Crispin Howitt, Future Protein Mission Lead

Global challenges, hybrid solutions

Crispin is frank about the challenges facing our planet. These include a growing middle class wanting to eat more and better-quality protein, combined with limited new agricultural land for growing more food. And then there's the impact of a changing climate. Around the country, many Australian farmers face climate predictions of less rainfall and higher temperatures.

The ever-increasing global demand for high-quality protein opens up exciting new opportunities for Australian industries. These include creating new products and ingredients. We are focussing our efforts on three different areas:

  • deriving more value from animal processing by value adding
  • developing new plant protein-based ingredients from crops we already produce at scale to go into new products
  • creating completely novel protein through technologies like precision fermentation.

No single scientific solution will fix the major challenges we face. However, our Future Proteins team is exploring innovative approaches to meeting the growing demand for more proteins. One approach involves hybrid products, where plant and animal proteins are blended together to make products such as burgers.

Together, diverse protein sources can produce something greater than the sum of their parts.

Loving the lupin

An increasing number of consumers are choosing to eat less or no meat, and so there is a growing demand for plant-based foods. When it comes to the future of protein, it's not a case of one or the other.

"We're going to need all kinds of protein," Crispin says.

The protein-rich legume lupin has been part of the human diet for thousands of years. Our scientists have been trying for almost 50 years to turn it into a useful food ingredient.

Lupin is known for being drought-tolerant, with deep roots that break up compacted soil and enrich it with nitrogen from the air. They are also sustainable and nutritious, containing vitamin C, calcium, potassium, iron and zinc.

Lupin is a legume and traditionally a common livestock feed. Since a ‘sweet’ lupin variety was developed in the last century, Western Australia now grows over 80 per cent of the world’s lupins and is a leading exporter of Australian Sweet Lupin. Lupin is rich in protein and fibre and has a low (or no recordable) glycaemic index. 
The Australian sweet lupin: rich in protein and fibre

What has historically limited the high-protein grain to stockfeed is its texture and bitter taste. But food manufacturing research is unlocking the legume’s potential and Curtin University scientists have developed a process for forming a gel from the protein of the Australian sweet lupin’s seed.

This lupin variety tastes sweeter, and the reforming process gives us a lupin that can take on water, flavours, and other important components.

Wide Open Agriculture (WOA) is a regenerative food and farming company. A Western Australian partnership between Curtin University and WOA is harnessing novel food production technology that is transforming the lupin into to high-value food products.

Our Food Innovation Centre has demonstrated the viability of lupin products with commercial-scale production samples across a wide range of food sectors. Together with WOA, we're producing lupin prototypes that can be used as a complementary plant protein in the place of eggs and meat. These prototypes are also suitable for creating gluten and dairy-free products and supplements.

Precision solutions create high-value food products

Dr Thomas Vanhercke is a synthetic biologist. He works on genetically engineering microbes and plants so that they produce specific ingredients and molecules.

In his work, Thomas is exploring new frontiers in precision fermentation. This process has a long and safe history in supplementing and diversifying our foods. Since the 80s, precision fermentation has been used for a range of high-value products, including pharmaceuticals like insulin. The latter is used to treat diabetes.

“Because of massive advances in technology over the past two decades, the cost of using precision fermentation has gone down,” Thomas says.

“As a result, in the last five years new markets have started to open. Now, we have the chance to use this process to create new high-value food products.”

Making the most of the protein in meat

Dr Aarti Tobin leads our animal protein production research.

"Animal-based protein sources such as red meat, dairy and seafood will always play a vital role in global human diets, " she says.

"Meat is a key source of protein, an essential macronutrient."

Aarti is coming up with clever ways to reinvent and add value to meat.

Studies estimate steak cuts only make up 20 per cent of the meat on an animal's carcass. Yet, they often generate most of its total value. Aarti says finding sustainable ways to extract greater value from meat production is vital to meeting the growing demand for protein.

One way we're doing this is by working with Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) to convert lower-value cuts of red meat into nutritious, allergen free, high-value meat protein powder.

Aarti says producers can use this "magic" white, soluble, low flavour, high-protein powder in different foods or drinks. The powder is being trialled in product formats like protein balls, snack bars, or smoothies.

While no single science will fix the major challenges that we face, our Future Proteins team is playing an important role. They are helping meet the growing global demand for more protein.

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