Sawdust has emerged as a potential solution for the world’s growing food crisis.
Moreover, it could offer an alternative to palm oil, which has caused devastating deforestation across Asia, Africa and Latin America.
“What we have developed is very similar to brewing beer, where yeast converts sugars from barley into alcohol, and hops are added for taste,” according to Petri-Jaam Lahtvee, the co-founder of the start-up.
“We are using a different type of yeast that converts sugars from industrial sidestreams, but not into ethanol – into fats and oils instead.”
Mr Lahtvee co-founded ÄIO with Nemailla Bonturi and said timber and agricultural byproducts like straw and food waste are perfect ingredients for the food and cosmetic industries.
“It’s a very natural process like fermentation,” he said.
The process produces a rosey red oil, which is ideal for making alternatives to red meat, according to Mr Lahtvee, “which often needs a splash of colour to attract consumers away from animal-based rivals.”
The encapsulated oils in the process offer a “perfect” plant-based substitute for baked products, and “besides being tastier and healthier,” a key benefit is that the invention “mitigates” the “huge environmental impact” of animal and plant-based oils.”
While up to now, sugars used in food have been the main components in the production, Mr Lahtvee said Estonia has a vast amount of wood and agricultural waste, making it a logical choice.
“As sawdust is the most voluminous type of production waste in Estonia, it just makes sense to try sawdust,” he said.
As the production of fats and oils has a major global impact on the environment, the idea of making a food-grade spread from sawdust came up.
“If the project proves successful, it could replace using palm and coconut oil and animal fats in food.”
The Estonian scientist-come-entrepreneur is also working on technologies to “upcycle” household food waste, such as banana and orange peel.
In early 2023, the company completed a successful revenue raise, which saw ÄIO raise 1 million Euros to scale production.
The company is now working on commercialising its innovation process.
However, the start-up faces substantial barriers.
These include legislation with the EU having some of the strictest rules around food production in the world.
“Legal barriers are probably the trickiest to overcome, or let’s say they contain the most uncertainty because technology-wise, we have been able to scale up the process very nicely,” Mr Lahtvee said.
“The biggest unknown for us today is the regulations; we all know and understand that the food has to be safe. But the processes to apply for a normal food permit today are, how to say, not very understandable or predictable”.
When asked if ÄIO faces prejudice from consumers, who may be reluctant to eat industrial byproducts, Mr Lahtvee said the process is the same as making other fermented foods like kimchi or yoghurt.
“People don’t think twice before eating these products,” Mr Lahtvee said.
Then there is the question of price. To compete effectively, ÄIO must produce cheaper, more price-competitive products than alternatives like palm oil.
In May, the European Union introduced new legislation banning importing and selling products like beef, soy, palm oil, and cocoa associated with deforestation and infringing indigenous peoples’ rights.
This transformational legislation could have a significant impact on EU markets, with palm oil from deforested sources no longer being able to be sold into European and potentially global markets.
Conflict, Climate Shocks, COVID-19 combine for food crisis
According to the UN World Food Programme, the world faces a global hunger crisis of unprecedented proportions.
A new report produced by the UN reports that in just two years, the number of people facing, or at risk of, acute food insecurity increased from 135 million in 53 countries pre-pandemic to 345 million in 79 countries in 2023.
It alleges that conflict, climate shocks and COVID-19 have fueled the crisis and escalated by the war in Ukraine, which has driven up the costs of food, fuel and fertilisers.