Report | Biotechnology, driving change to tackle future food challenges

For World Environment Week, AseBio is analysing the role of biotechnology in tackling the challenges of the agrifood system, one of the main goals of BIOSPAIN 2023

Ángel Luis Jiménez
Madrid, España
Climate change
Food & feed

The demographic and climate situations right now pose significant challenges given the planet’s limited raw materials and resources. Tackling future food challenges today is an unquestionable need and one of the main aims of BIOSPAIN 2023, which will take place from 26 to 28 September in Barcelona. This international congress, organised by AseBio with collaboration from Biocat, the Barcelona City Council and the Government of Catalonia, is a not-to-be-missed event for the agrifood sector, as biotechnology has become a key part of the agriculture/sustainability equation.

Of the more than 300 AseBio members, 60 are working in areas related to the environment. Noteworthy among these activities are food safety, crop breeding and nutritional improvement, animal health, crop and biological control, waste valorisation, reducing soil erosion, environmental remediation and microbiological water treatment, among others. For World Environment Week, on 5 June, we’re analysing the role of biotechnology in tackling future food challenges with three of these members.

UN estimates warn that the global population will increase by 2 billion over the coming 30 years, for a total of 9.7 billion people on the planet by 2050. Forecasts put the total population at 10.4 billion by 2080. Rapid population growth all over the world, especially in Africa and Asia, makes it difficult to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) set for 2030, such as ending poverty, expanding healthcare coverage and fighting hunger and malnutrition, among others. 

Rethinking the global agrifood system

Sustainable production of quality food is one of the biggest concerns for the future of food. UN data shows that nearly 690 million people, 8.9% of the global population, face hunger. A situation that puts us further from achieving SDG 2: Zero Hunger by 2030, when the number of people facing hunger will be over 840 million if current trends continue. 

Some of the main factors behind this are armed conflicts, recessions and the growing consequences of climate change. In this context, a profound change in the global agrifood system is urgently needed to not only meet the food needs of the millions of people currently facing hunger but also of the nearly 10 billion inhabitants the planet is expected to have by 2050.

Biotechnology plays a key role in the search for sustainable alternatives that are suitable from a nutritional standpoint, by promoting agriculture and food that is safe, sustainable and healthy. 

Biotechnology plays a key role in the search for sustainable alternatives that are suitable from a nutritional standpoint, by promoting agriculture and food that is safe, sustainable and healthy. 

Biotechnology applied to the agrifood sector focuses on boosting yield, cutting costs, innovating and improving crops, as well as encouraging agricultural practices that lead to more sustainable agriculture, based on an eco-friendly use of resources. These aspects are key to the situation we are describing here. 

“The current geopolitical situation is putting even greater pressure on food systems, the European Green Deal strategy also deals with how to make food systems in the European Union more sustainable. As Bayer has welcomed the ambitious EU Green Deal to accelerate the transition towards a more sustainable food system, we believe the current geopolitical situation must also be taken into consideration,” explained Richard Borreani, head of Public Affairs and Sustainability at Bayer Crop Science, Gold Sponsor of BIOSPAIN 2023.

Borreani notes that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has had a severe impact on food security in developing countries. “Affordable food has also become a concern, as costs have increased throughout the food supply chain due to rising energy prices. These challenges require new solutions that combine the sustainability goals with the need to ensure food security and affordability.”

Here is where innovation in plant breeding comes into play, making the most of all the potential of digital agriculture to build a sustainable food system in Europe. “Innovation in crop protection, seeds and digital agriculture will help boost agricultural productivity and significantly reduce its environmental footprint, getting us closer to achieving the goals of the EU Green Deal,” continued Borreani, highlighting how fast our understanding of genetics has progressed over the past decade.

“At Bayer, we believe that ensuring food security and mitigating climate change won’t be possible without innovation in agriculture, including the use of new techniques like CRISPR gene editing,” said Borreani.

On the potential of gene editing for agriculture, he highlighted, “It allows you to create precise genetic mutations, ‘fine tuning’ the plant’s own genetic material to develop the desired traits or phenotypes. This editing allows you to introduce specific changes into the crop’s genome that are comparable to the changes that would come about through natural selection or conventional breeding, although these two options are limited in terms of their precision and how long it takes for natural variation to occur spontaneously.”

By speeding up discovery, development and delivery of improved crops, gene editing “has enormous potential to resolve the challenges facing farmers, consumers and the planet, which are getting bigger and more complex.” In this regard, he highlighted benefits like increased yield, better resistance to climate conditions (including drought), better resistance to diseases and pests (also reducing the need for plant protection products), adaptation to new farming systems, decrease in food waste and a more precise response to changing consumer needs. 

Time for biotechnology to shine in the agrifood industry

The constant upward trend in global demographic growth puts the food industry in an unsustainable position. Based on UN estimates, food production will have to increase 60% by 2050, requiring an additional 593 million hectares of agricultural land to meet demand, as explained by MOA Foodtech, a company that focuses on valorising the subproducts of the food industry through biotechnology and artificial intelligence to get high-value products. 

“At MOA we’re using more than 20 different subproducts to develop ingredients. Our microorganisms are fed with sources of carbon and nitrogen, so we can use a very wide range of subproducts. But this technology is new and right now we’re focusing on the simplest sources of carbon and nitrogen. Some of the subproducts we think have loads of potential are, for example, from the sugar or pasta industries,” said Bosco Emparanza, CEO and founder of the company.

“Everything seems to indicate that it is time for biotechnology to shine in the agrifood industry. The way we produce food has made this industry the biggest polluter and cause of environmental damage. And people’s habits are changing.”

On this note, Emparanza pointed out, “They want more sustainable, nutritional foods, and that is growing significantly in the newer generations. Plus, big companies are taking a stance. For example, Nestlé has set the goal of becoming net zero by 2050 and more than 70% of its carbon footprint comes from the ingredients Nestlé uses. These new ingredients and alternative proteins are going to revolutionise the industry. By 2030, we expect to see exponential growth in consumption of proteins from fermentation,” he concluded.

New food sources in the agrifood value chain

The agricultural sector is responsible for 30% of all greenhouse gas emissions and 80% of global deforestation is due to farmland expansion. Between 75% and 80% of agricultural land in the world is used to produce feed for animals. 

Finding alternative food sources is key to ensuring food security. One of the solutions on the table is producing alternative proteins from sources that haven’t previously been used, such as insects. Tebrio is a Spanish company that breeds and manufactures industrial products using mealworms.

“Insects are the great unknown in the food chain. They are high in top-quality protein, contain unsaturated fats, vitamins and all the essential amino acids. Plus, they’re a supply source that is practically unexplored, although they have been eaten in certain parts of the world for thousands of years. They have never been bred on an industrial scale, though,” pointed out Adriana Casillas, CEO of Tebrio.

The biggest problem we have right now for ensuring food security is the lack of arable land. And that millions of hectares are already taken up by crops that aren’t sustainable in the long term. Insect farms don’t take up much space, since they can be bred vertically, and they need very little water. That, with the constant threat of drought, is crucial. Nevertheless, they can produce more protein comparatively than other crop/livestock operations,” added Casillas, who then noted, “That doesn’t mean they’re going to replace crop or livestock farms, because we need all the food we can get. But they can help us be more sustainable and better distribute our resources.”

Tebrio argues that the use of insects as food for animals, which already eat them in the wild, would “free up millions of hectares of farmland that is now used to grow food for livestock and recuperate it for human consumption.”

Human consumption of insects faces serious social and cultural barriers, but using them to make animal feed is a sustainable alternative for the planet that we all benefit from. “Whenever you propose a new species for human or animal consumption, it has to be assessed by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which applies strict scientific and health criteria. And once it has their blessing, the European Commission has to approve its use and then the Member States transpose it in their national laws,” explained Casillas.

There are currently four insect species approved for human consumption, including Tenebrio molitor, the mealworms that Tebrio breeds and uses, plus several more for animal consumption. 

“We know that change is always hard and people question it. But progress has always come through change, sometime drastic ones. The problem we are facing in terms of food security is immense. And looking the other way, pretending like nothing is happening, isn’t an option. If we don’t do anything to change things, we know what will happen. In fact, it is already happening,” concluded the CEO of Tebrio.

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