Can biotech break the interdependence between food production and fossil fuels?

Food systems simultaneously depend on and affect climate change. Currently accounting for more than one-third of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, food production may be the key to keeping global warming under 1.5°C (2.7°F).

A new report published by the Global Alliance for the Future of Food (GAFF) ahead of the UN COP28 climate conference explains how food production is dependent on fossil fuels – and why it’s time to wean that dependence.

The food and energy systems are highly interdependent as food production and processing are very energy-intensive making fossil fuels a crucial part of the supply chain – from land use to retail.

Breaking the chain of interdependence between food systems and fossil fuels

If ultra-processed and packaged foods require the most energy to be produced, then shouldn’t the solution be simple – make less of it?

Short answer – no.

Shifting towards whole foods would certainly have its benefits. However, agriculture still relies heavily on conventional fertilizers, such as synthetic nitrogen. This stage is the most energy-intensive and fossil fuel–dependent, as it requires high temperatures and pressures, GAFF explains in its report.

Nitrogen fertilizers are based on ammonia (NH₃), which releases an estimated 450 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) annually, according to the Centre for International Environment Information (CIEL).

Additionally, the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts that with growing population and food demand, ammonia production could surge by nearly 40% by 2050.

Fertilizer solutions with synthetic biology.

One way we can make a change is to turn to bio-based solutions, such as bio-fertilizers and alternative pest-control practices, like the peptide insecticide developed by Vestaron, a member of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO).

A recent episode of the I am BIO Podcast explores how synthetic biology can be used to answer the growing demand more sustainably. Combining machine learning and AI with what biology already does naturally, synbio can be applied in developing advanced biofuels, bio-products, renewable chemicals, and bio-based specialty chemicals (pharmaceutical intermediates, fine chemicals, food ingredients).

Using waste to our advantage

In the United States alone, almost 30% of produced food goes to waste, per the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The agency estimated that in 2018, 20.3 tons, or nearly 81%, of the food that families discarded was, disposed of in landfills or burned – further contributing to GHG emissions.

According to researchers, food waste can successfully be converted to usable energy – like biofuels made using hydrothermal liquefaction (HTL). This solution is both cost-effective and sustainable.

Unnecessary food waste can also be prevented by developing genetically modified crops and produce.

As Bio.News previously reported, estimates show that some 7% of food waste occurs on farms as imperfect produce and crops are being thrown away before they even reach stores. The biotech industry is seeking to rectify the food waste problem by editing the genes of produce to make them last longer and look better.

Another example of using emissions to our advantage is LanzaTech’s innovation for carbon capture and transformation using biobased solutions and synthetic biology.

LanzaTech’s carbon capture technology recycles carbon waste through its carbon fermentation process, transforming it into a range of products “fabrics and foam for shoes, cleaners, and detergents, as well as the packaging around some of those products, like plastic bottles,” Tom Dower, VP of Public Policy for LanzaTech told a BIO webinar.

Beyond jet fuels, LanzaTech “can accelerate progress on the many chemicals that can be produced via gas fermentation,” Dower noted.

But while biotech works on innovations, governments of wealthy countries should take a more proactive approach and a role of leadership, moving away from heavily processed and unhealthy food products, which not only exacerbate GHG emissions but also bring hidden health costs.

“Plant-rich diets that are minimally processed are not only healthier for communities, but also climate-friendly,” Global Alliance’s Fong concluded.

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