According to the World Food Program (WFP), more than 345 million people worldwide face acute food insecurity. While the causes of food insecurity are man, the current biggest contributors include an unstable supply chain and extreme weather and sanctions imposed because of the Russia-Ukraine War. This food crisis is a significant issue, but new research suggests that biotechnology can alleviate food insecurity through industrial biofertilizers and fermentation.
Russia’s war on Ukraine has disrupted not only food security but the supply of industry-standard chemical fertilizers. In the face of delays and high costs, underprivileged farmers are going without or substituting with cheaper, less-effective fertilizers. Smaller harvests in the upcoming seasons could decrease food production.
While using chemical fertilizer may be the standard practice, its excessive use has downsides. According to a 2022 article by Current Research in Microbial Sciences, these fertilizers can contain pollutants that harm soil quality. Living or latent plant microbes in biofertilizers, on the other hand, can naturally improve plant growth, improve soil fertility, enhance nutrient absorption and increase crop yield. That is because these microorganisms, like fungi, can be beneficial bacteria.
A research team at the University of Córdoba in Spain recently confirmed that a specific strain of fungus stimulated cucumber plants’ response to iron deficiency. This resulted in an increase in and overall growth of the plants in iron-deficient soil. Additionally, countries such as the Philippines will soon offer biofertilizers to local farmers to decrease dependence on the importation of chemical or non-organic fertilizers.
While biofertilizers are not at the stage to replace chemical fertilizers completely, mixing in and substituting with chemical fertilizers is possible, depending on the specific needs. Based on estimates, the value of the biofertilizer market could grow to $3.9 billion in 2025. However, there is a need for further promotion and development to facilitate the distribution of affordable biofertilizers on a large scale for this biotechnology to alleviate food insecurity.
The world population is expected to grow an additional 2 billion by 2050 and meat consumption will likely increase by more than 70%. Lab-grown protein or protein made from precision fermentation could help meet this new demand and feed millions. Precision fermentation, a bio-process for producing protein, uses only a fraction of the land required by the most efficient agricultural means to produce protein. The interest in this new, adaptable process to create alternative proteins is evident in the 136 companies (up 12%) in 2022 that invested in fermentation.
Start-ups such as Solar Food make novel protein powders with a 65-70% protein makeup using this method. The process involves fermenting a microbe in a bioreactor by feeding it nutrients in the air. A thicker substance forms and is later dried and turned into a powder. Solar Food, based in Finland, claims its sustainable process is 20% more efficient than photosynthesis. With one hundred times more efficient in converting energy to calories (compared to animals), it can be an endless food supply. Production will begin in 2024, with every step of the process said to be scalable.
The First Hybrid Center
The first-ever “hybrid meat innovation” center will open in Singapore later in 2023, offering a mix of animal cells, plant-based meat and fermented microbes. Meanwhile, the National University of Singapore achieved high-precision 3-D printing of edible, cell-based meat using plant proteins commonly found in barley, corn and rye flour. This process lowers production costs and is more sustainable than prior versions that used synthetic polymers. Additionally, India, home to the world’s largest cow population, will have the first government initiative to produce lab-grown meat, with the government designating more than $160 billion to the program. Sourcing meat from cow cells rather than animals will likely reduce land use for beef production by up to 95%.
The Future of Biotechnology
As ideal as biotechnology endeavors sound, there is still room for much work with respect to alleviating food insecurity. Some hurdles to overcome include decreasing production costs, ensuring the use of renewable energy and educating farmers. And incentivizing farmers to use biofertilizers and guaranteeing alternative proteins are available to vulnerable populations could be a vital step. If seen not as a novelty trend but as a versatile resource, biotechnology has the potential to eradicate food insecurity in affected areas.
– Clare Calzada