Synthetic Biology Vs. Paris – The Race to Reduce Agriculture’s Emissions
1.3 billion US dollars – according to CB Insights that was the sum of money invested into synthetic biology (synbio) start-ups in 2016, pioneering an array of new biological systems that are revolutionising food, agriculture, health, industrials and more. From cultures and microbes that produce cow-less milk, cattle-less meat and grape-less wine, to microbiomes and organism engineering designed to attack or cure specific types of cancers or diseases, synthetic biology has got you covered. With stats like this it’s fair to say that synthetic biology and biotech are poised to revolutionise pastoral agriculture, among other fields.
Granted this 1.3 billion was spread across a range of sectors – not just food and agriculture. But when combined as one, the food and beverages and agricultural categories took the lion’s share of 2016 synbio investment. AgFunder’s AgTech Investing Report also recently identified biotech (defined as on-farm inputs for crop & animal agriculture including genetics, microbiome, breeding) as the second favourite agtech investment category in 2016. Receiving 22% of the agtech funding pie and a whopping 150% year on year growth since 2014.
Perhaps the most interesting stat out of all of this though, was that of all the 84 agriculture focused biotech deals AgFunder tracked, only 21 of these technologies – a mere one quarter – were focused on farm animal agriculture. One can only hazard a guess where the rest of the funding is being channelled. Ag2.0 – ie next generation farming – protein without the animal, controlled environment farming (indoor and high rise ag), microbiome seed and crop technology is where I’d be safely placing my bets.
Even the White House is sitting up and taking notice, recently commissioning the American National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to produce a report Preparing for Future Products of Biotechnology to identify the impact of and products likely to be produced using biotechnology in the next 10 years. Clean meat and cellular agriculture products (wine, meat, dairy, microbiomes et al) were signposted as areas of high growth potential. No surprises there. The report even went so far as to recommend regulatory agencies develop “single point of entry” to streamline the regulatory approval process for the imminent entry of synbio products onto the market – a concerning thought if you’re in pastoral farming.
Pastoral Agriculture – a Flawed Business Model
But why the big hoopla with synbio? And why are copious amounts of venture funding getting funnelled into this space? Well, without going into too much detail, conventional agriculture – pastoral agriculture in particular – is a totally flawed business model – environmentally, financially and ethically. And one which synthetic biology is more than capable of (some would argue beneficially) disrupting.
To begin, from its land, water and agrochemical use, to energy intensity and carbon emissions profile, the environmental impacts of conventional farming are devastating. According to the World Bank global agriculture contributes 18% of global greenhouse gases. Over 40% more than all-global transport emissions combined including planes, trucks, cars, shipping etc . Not to mention agriculture’s dubious food safety record (think salmonella, bacteria and foot and mouth), shameful animal ethics (or lack thereof) and the scary use of antibiotics – a leading cause of widespread antibiotic resistance and mega bugs.
Financially, conventional agriculture is also just as dire. It is hugely weather dependent, constrained by slow time to market cycles dependent on animal gestational terms and crop seasons, as well as being marred by ludicrous transportation logistics (think fossil fuel driven food miles far away from urban centres) – all making price volatility – especially for growers – a big thing for conventional agriculture. The business model really couldn’t get any more impractical. Bruce Friedrich, Executive Director of The Good Food Institute and cellular agriculture focused investment capital firm New Crop Capital agrees. “If you were looking for a way to create food you really couldn’t do much worse than growing crops to feed them to animals so the animals convert them into meat”.
Synthetic Biology – a Green House Gas Emissions Panacea?
By contrast, the benefits of synbio enabled food and agricultural production are aplenty. Companies such as Geltor, Clara Foods, Memphis Meats, Perfect Day, and IndigoAg and Caribou Biosciences are leading the pack in the world of agriculture and food by using cellular replication, fermentation and microbiome to produce nutritionally superior crops, protein and animal products without the devastation of the environment, factory farming and the cruelty of slaughterhouses. Imminently more energy efficient, cellular ag emits a fraction of the GHGs associated with conventional animal ag (up to 90%!). With the potential to mitigate climate change, it may be our panacea to sustainably scale for a wildly growing human population projected to be 9.6 billion by 2050.
Preliminary studies commissioned by Perfect Day, show its animal free cultured milk requires 91% less land, 98% less water and 65% less energy consumption when compared to milk from cows. Equating to 84% less greenhouse gas emissions. Similar stats hold true for Memphis Meats and SuperMeat (Israeli cellular chicken start up) with CEO and Founder Uma Valeti regularly stating that the company’s method of pork, chicken and duck production requires approximately 99% less land, 96% less water and 90% less greenhouse gas emissions than conventional animal farming. Friedrich says the least emissions intensive meat is chicken and yet, on a per protein calorie basis, chicken produces 40% times as many emissions as legumes like peas, soy which are two of the primary plant based substitutes for meats.
Net Zero Carbon Emissions for Agriculture
Which brings me to the topic of New Zealand’s agricultural emissions. Pastoral agriculture is the country’s single largest contributor to climate change – contributing to almost half of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas
In March this year, Vivid Economics released Net Zero In New Zealand, a report laying out the possible pathways for New Zealand to meet its Paris Agreement commitments of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Naturally, with a vested interest in entrenching the long-term competitiveness of New Zealand’s agriculture and food sectors, I was interested in how the report proposed to deal with the nation’s poor pastoral agricultural emissions track record. And indeed, whether synthetic biology’s impact on reducing the energy and GHG intensity of carbon was even remotely considered in the analysis and potential path ahead for New Zealand. Alas, it was not.
Three scenarios for exploring strategic options (applicable to New Zealand’s key land, industrial processes and waste sectors) to meet NZ’s Paris commitments were presented in the report: Off Track NZ, Resourceful NZ and Innovative NZ. Each scenario involving increasing levels of GHG reductions: 10-25%, 60- 75% and 70-80% respectively, and significant departure from the technologies and practices commonplace in New Zealand today, which is to be commended.
From an Off Track to an Innovative NZ
The first scenario, Off Track, assumes that the pastoral agriculture sector will reduce its emissions levels by just 16% by 2050 compared to 2014. A concerningly slow percentage reduction given the sector actually makes up the lion’s share of national emissions. Reductions are achieved – not by reducing dairy cows (of which many would argue there are already too many) or livestock (cattle, beef and lamb), but by maintaining the current animal stock with a portfolio of uncommercialised and unproven emissions inhibiting technologies and practices. Many of which are still in R&D phase and are not even expected to reach the market until some time in the 2020s! Proposed technologies include novel methane inhibiting vaccines and inhibitors, DCD inhibitors (reducing nitrogen emissions from fertiliser use), as well as animal breeding solutions. This, instead of tackling the root of the cause – our obsession with growing increasingly unsustainable amounts of animals and dairy cows. In my opinion a scenario that is woefully staring down the barrel of the wrong gun.
The Resourceful New Zealand scenario goes some way to better improve emissions reductions of the pastoral agriculture sector – 28% from 2014 levels – by reducing livestock numbers below today’s levels. A 10% drop in dairy cows, 18% in beef and 25% in lamb. This is a good start, but these reductions are not nearly large enough to make a real impact on addressing emissions, not to mention maintain or even return the environmental integrity of our waterways and farmland. This scenario also relies on similar aforementioned (yet unproven) technological breakthroughs and a significant conversion of land use to forestry – 1.6 million hectares more than today.
Innovative New Zealand is perhaps the most aspirational of the three scenarios. It paints a future of 38% less pastoral GHGs by proposing a 20% drop in the national cowherd as well as a 33% and 30% drop in sheep and beef respectively. All the while increasing the productivity of milk production (which leads into another environmental debate to be had for another time). It also assumes a large transition to horticulture and even more techno developments and farming practices above those in Off Track, including accelerated and precision farming, the use of genetically modified rye grass, animal housing stand off pads, as well as increasing brassicas and fat content in herd diets.
Vivid – Just Shifting Chairs in the Titanic?
The Vivid Report – particularly Innovative NZ scenario – is encouraging in that it acknowledges that a reduction in New Zealand pastoral GHG emissions requires both a radical adoption of new technologies and science and a reduction in dairy and stock numbers. Especially with the latter being a contentious and highly political issue that the agricultural sector – dairy in particular – is reluctant to hear. But it falls short in several key areas.
Let’s start with the largest elephant in the room. The report does not seem to have taken into consideration the potentially huge impact that other forms of technological development (i.e. those completely unrelated to the farm and animal itself) will have on the demand for pastoral agriculture in the future, and, by extension, on New Zealand’s pastoral agricultural emissions. By focusing on pastoral technology as a way to tackle New Zealand’s agricultural emissions, without any consideration for cellular agriculture’s potential to impact on the sector’s emissions, the report is just shifting the chairs on the Titanic. What we really need is a new boat!
Synthetic biology’s emissions-friendly cellular agriculture and plant microbiome solutions are only just at the beginning of their journey to revolutionise food and agriculture. When they scale up and compete on price, which is forecast to be well before 2050, the demand for farm reared dairy and animal protein, and thus on farm GHGs emissions, will significantly diminish. US based Food Innovation Consultant to NZ Beef and Lamb, Mike Lee, says plant based and cellular agriculture technologies have the potential to scale within 10 years and they’ll be 80% there in terms of taste and costs within 5 years. Memphis Meats and Impossible Foods are already on track for reaching this timeline.
Significant investment into a suite of yet to be proven, possible on-farm technological “breakthroughs” discussed in the Vivid Report could, in essence, become a redundant, futile and expensive funding effort. Especially if clean meat technologies hit mass market before those technologies outlined in the report.
Not only that, but cellular agriculture is no longer a nice-to-have, but rather a must-have to reach Paris obligations – despite what the conservative farming community thinks. ‘We just can’t feed 9.7 billion by 2050 with the inefficiencies of animal ag. And we’re not going to be able to meet our Paris agreement obligations” says Friedrich. “According to Chatham House, one of the world’s foremost think tanks, it’s a literal and scientific impossibility that we keep climate change under 2 degrees Celsius by 2050 unless meat consumption goes down – and right now it’s going up”.
A Few More Oversights
But even if cellular agriculture doesn’t come to the party in time for Paris , relying on a suite of “emerging” technologies that still require significant R&D, field trials and applied science to tackle on-farm emissions and expecting every Kiwi dairy farmer to adopt these within limited timeframes, is a huge gamble. Recommended solutions such as CH4 inhibitors and vaccines are not expected to hit the market until some time in the 2020s, and even then the report suggests that the dairy sector will be the only one adopting it in time for 2050. The beef and sheep sectors will simply carry on BAU.
Other recommended technologies suggested rely on our herd and dairy stock consuming genetically engineered pasture and feed as a way of reducing ruminant GHGs. How will that stack up with a premium value added, pure organic non GMO positioning that we desperately need to move the industry toward if we have any hope of pulling ourselves out of the commodity cave New Zealand currently operates in? And if we do successfully transition some of our pastoral productivity towards horticulture (which the Innovative New Zealand scenario suggests we do), there seems to be no insight as to how the horticultural sector would in turn reduce its own GHGs, especially as the sector’s production intensity increases.
Ed Butler, Partnership Manager at New Zealand based Pastoral Genomics, says the organisation is developing technology that could be used to better enable other plant-based options to mitigate emissions. However, so blinded by the cow, the Vivid Report appears to have overlooked alternative high value agricultural opportunities.
My Ten Cents
In my mind, we would be better off focusing on significantly reducing our dairy and herd stock to the tune of 50% (or more!) and moving this production to a premium high value export offering, while converting remaining land to other more value added, less emissions intensive use like horticulture and plant based solutions and nutraceuticals. Or, dare I say it, focus on backing an entirely new animal-less high value sector all together (sorry, farmers).
The Synbio led tsunami that is currently gathering momentum has the potential to crash hard into conventional agriculture’s paddock – and probably sooner than we think. Investing in a GHG technological trajectory that locks us into to a cattle led farming future, with no consideration for the alternatives, is akin to investing in clean diesel – a charade at best that may end up being a very expensive game of techno roulette with potentially more pollution as a by-product.