PARIS, March 26 — What if, instead of eating crickets or cell-cultured meat, we relied on an everyday raw material to put food on our plates?

That raw material is wood, or rather a waste product from paper manufacturing. Italian researchers have set themselves the task of extracting amino acids, the basic components of proteins, from a by-product called lignin, with the aim of designing a new form of meat-free meat.

The name of the “meat from wood” project leaves little doubt as to its aim. At first glance, the concept seems futuristic, the idea being to produce meat from trees.


But rather than using up more forests to put food on our plates in the future, the goal is to make better use of waste from the paper industry.

To be precise, the project focuses on lignin, a by-product of paper production that manufacturers generally don’t know what to do with. In fact, this material is often burnt.

This material is central to this research project funded by the Ministry of Universities and Research, reports the Italian daily La Repubblica. A team of researchers has been set up, led by Marco Vanon, a professor from the University of Milan-Bicocca.


The scientific initiative, in which The Protein Factory 2.0 laboratory at the University of Insubria is also collaborating, consists of developing new biotechnological processes to obtain amino acids — the basic components of proteins — from these waste products, which are interesting from an economic point of view since they are inexpensive. In addition to lignin, the researchers are also working on wheat bran, which is obtained when the grain is “peeled” during flour production.

“[The] scientists want to develop bacterial cells containing all the necessary enzymes to behave as a kind of ‘factory’ in which vanillin obtained from lignin or wheat bran is converted into amino acids,” explains La Repubblica, reporting the explanations of Elena Rosini of The Protein Factory 2.0.

From precision fermentation to in vitro bovine cell cultivation or plant-based imitations of pork tenderloin, the food-tech industry is exploring all kinds of avenues when it comes to alternative proteins, and this Italian research could offer a new approach.

Moreover, if scientists manage to perfect it, the process could have multiple benefits. By recovering and adding value to the by-products of the paper industry and wheat bran, it could also be useful in the manufacture of cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and even medicines.

According to researcher Elena Rosini, new additives and flavor enhancers could even be developed.

Nevertheless, this project remains surprising, not only for the originality of its raw material, but also for the fact that the research is being carried out in Italy. In the land of pasta and pizza, the development of new technologies for the production of foodstuffs that bypass livestock is not looked upon favourably.

A year ago, the Italian government was already taking a dim view of research into lab-grown meat.

This position was later validated by Italian MPs who voted in November to back a law banning the production, sale or import of cultivated meat, even though the EU itself has not yet authorised the consumption of lab-grown meat.

For the time being, only pets can be fed animal cells cultivated in labs. — ETX Studio