Given the world's steadily growing human population, it will become harder and harder to find a way to feed everyone. That would be a challenge under the best of circumstances, but with climate change destabilizing the weather and the distribution of moisture, it's going to be that much more difficult. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), food production will need to increase by 70 percent by 2050, relative to a 2005 baseline. That presents a daunting challenge to food growers everywhere. But then we have to ask: How can it be done sustainably? Many of the agricultural techniques that we consider sustainable don’t necessarily lend themselves to the gargantuan scale of production that feeds the world today.
There will need to be lots of changes made, in every aspect of the food system, to be sure, and there won’t likely be any one single easy answer. Fortunately, much work is being done to help us transform our global food system into one that is both more sustainable and more productive.
One company that's done a lot of far-reaching work on the sustainability front is Denmark-based Novozymes. Using its knowledge of biological systems, the company has produced a number of enzymes and microbes that are being used throughout the world, with beneficial results. For example, enzymatic cleaners avoid the use of toxic solvents, and enzymes contained in laundry detergent allow clothes to be washed effectively in cold water, saving enormous amounts of energy. Recent developments in the area of food production appear to offer significant promise.
To that end, Novozymes' CEO Peder Holk Nielsen took some time recently to chat with TriplePundit about some of these latest developments. We discussed two solutions in particular.
The first is part of what Nielsen calls "the emergence of the biological agriculture sector, where we use microbes to enhance or increase the yield of some of the major row crops." The idea is that these microbes will help plants grow more efficiently, more resiliently, and hopefully with less need for chemical fertilizers and other agricultural chemicals. We are only just beginning to understand the complex interactions that occur between plants and living organisms in the soil, but it's clear to all who have studied this that there is a lot more to soil than just a "growing medium" in which you put plants to keep them from falling over. Novozymes has taken the latest knowledge, while combining it with thousands of their own experiments, to understand which microbes help which crops. The company now provides seed coatings containing live cultures that have been selected to help the productivity of the plant that will sprout from that seed.
"The fact that you can increase the concentration of [microbes] around the young plant has a meaningful effect on yield of the plant when you get to harvest," Nielsen says. "The result is that you get a much better root development [and] a much better uptake of nutrients from the young plant, which gives the plant a better start in life, but it also creates a more robust plant when the stresses of the summer months—which could be disease pressure or drought—kick in. All that translates into higher yields when compared to an untreated kernel."
Microbial assistants have been developed for both corn and soybeans, and substantial amounts of these are already being grown—roughly 60 percent of the U.S. soybean crop currently utilizes targeted microbes, and about 16 million acres—or about 18 percent of the U.S. corn crop—is about to be planted using this technology. Results so far show a consistent 3 percent improvement in areas with good soils (like the U.S.) with significantly larger improvements—as much as 20 percent—in areas with poor soil conditions, such as India.
The second area of innovation is in animal health. It is clearly understood that animal-based foods involve a great deal of resources and produce a lot of waste, including greenhouse gas emissions. While there are those who would have us stop producing and consuming animal protein entirely, that is unlikely to take place anytime soon. What is far more feasible would be some level of reduction in meat consumption, with preference given to less burdensome meats (e.g. chicken, pork and fish), accompanied by significant changes in the way that those meats are produced, shifting to more sustainable methods.
In this area, Novozymes has taken advantage of the tremendous amount of research that has recently made great strides in understanding the complexities of the gut microbiome in both humans and animals. The company is focused specifically on broiler chickens, for now, looking at their gut biome and finding ways to make the animals utilize feed more efficiently. "It is possible to make a genetic print of an entire chicken gut biome," Nielsen explains. That is something that would have been inconceivable just a few years ago.
It is now fairly well known which bacterial strains cause "a problematic gut," Nielsen continues. Given that, "you can start looking at how you can suppress them so that they don’t have the best living conditions in the gut. You could do that by putting other bacteria into the gut."
That's analogous to using probiotics as many people now do to improve their digestion. But Novozymes' solution has another element, which is to use an enzyme system to clear out large quantities of dead bacteria, which has been shown to be quite effective.
Among the challenges involved in producing this product was the need to find enzymes that would survive the passage through the stomach. Nielsen explains: "The chemical conditions in the stomach will try to denature these enzymes so that only enzymes produced by the animal itself will work in the intestine. So you have to try and trick the system by producing enzymes that are able to pass through the stomach and then act in the intestine."
This allows chickens to better absorb their food while keeping them healthier, which hopefully also means less use of antibiotics. The improvement in "feed conversion rate" is around 3 percent, Nielsen says. That may not sound like a lot, but considering that the 9 billion broiler chickens produced last year in the U.S. consumed some 1.2 billion bushels of corn, that reduction would eliminate the need for 36 million bushels. Not only does this help with farm economics, but it also reduces the environmental burden associated with growing feed.
The program is likely to expand to other species in the future.
RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, Grist, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering, Design News, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, Environmental Science, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Eniday, and engineering.com among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 53 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP was the winner of the 2015 Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week blogging competition. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org