Food security is a growing global concern. Providing nutrition for the increasing population is resource-intensive, and the amount of land available for agriculture is decreasing. The way we produce food at present has several disadvantages, including inefficiency and dependence on climate, which will make it difficult to meet the growing demand. To address these problems and work towards food security, we need to transform food production.
Currently, all food products are sourced either directly or indirectly from plants – we either eat the plants themselves or we eat meat from livestock fed on plants. The process of food production is therefore entirely reliant on photosynthesis. In order to meet the nutritional needs of the growing global population, we continue to increase the amount of land devoted to agriculture without addressing the problems within the process itself. The central limiting factor is that photosynthesis is not an efficient process. Chlorophyll in plants is only able to absorb a very small fraction of the sunlight spectrum and the remaining energy is simply converted to heat. Typical crop plant photosynthetic efficiencies range from about 0.2 – 0.5%, meaning that in most crops, more than 99% of the energy from sunlight is not converted into a useful product.
In addition, the photosynthetic enzyme RUBISCO, which converts CO2 into glucose, is inefficient and unselective, meaning it cannot differentiate between carbon dioxide and oxygen. As a result, around 20 – 25% of photosynthetic energy is wasted by processing oxygen, which does not produce useful carbohydrates. As a result of the inefficiencies of photosynthesis, large land areas and large quantities of water are required to produce a relatively small yield of crops. Meeting the food needs of the growing population with the land we have available will be increasingly difficult if food production continues to rely solely on this inefficient process.
Another disadvantage of the current means of food production is that crop yields are highly dependent on the weather, and must be grown in locations with an appropriate climate and sufficient access to fresh water. These limitations mean that food products must often travel hundreds or even thousands of miles before reaching consumers. Food miles contribute to around 10% of the total carbon footprint of food production and therefore have a significant negative impact on the environment. Minimising food miles is important in meeting greenhouse gas emissions targets, however it is difficult to achieve whilst food production is so reliant on specific conditions and water availability. In addition, this reliance means that crops are highly vulnerable to extreme weather events, which can hugely impact food supply. This is a problem that will only get worse with the increasing frequency and severity of such events caused by global warming.
From greenhouse gas to sustainable food
To continue meeting the needs of a growing population, food production should be transformed so it is no longer solely reliant on plants as primary producers. It is important to investigate alternative means of food production to increase efficiency and reduce dependence on climatic conditions. This would make it possible to produce food in almost any location and therefore reduce transport distances and the associated carbon emissions, whilst also ensuring consistent supply irrespective of extreme weather events.
In order to explore this concept, CPI has launched the Demonstration of Carbon dioxide Ferming (DECAF)project, which focuses on using renewable energy to convert CO2 into food products via fermentation. This aims to tackle the two prominent challenges of food security and global warming at the same time. The project is currently internal, benefitting from CPI’s fermentation facilities, where the process is being developed on a small scale. In future, CPI will look for partnerships to assist in scaling up the process, refining the food products and obtaining the required certification for commercialisation.
Under the DECAF project, fermentation will be used to convert carbon dioxide into food products. The process will use renewable energy, the majority of which will come from wind or solar power, to ensure sustainability and minimise emissions. The process of fermentation, once refined, will allow higher yields of glucose from CO2 than photosynthesis can provide. It will also be completely independent of climate, meaning that production can take place much closer to consumers, drastically reducing food miles. In addition, as a result of increased yields, a much smaller footprint will be required to produce the same output as crop plants, helping to tackle the problem of land shortages. By taking in CO2 from the air and using renewable energy to power the process, this means of producing food will avoid negative environmental consequences. An additional benefit of the process is its reduced freshwater requirements due to the closed system in which fermentation takes place. This allows the water used to be recycled, drastically reducing the amount needed and making the process viable even for areas with a low water supply.
CPI faces both technical and practical challenges in developing this process. From the biotechnology side, ensuring high fermentation yields is crucial in making fermentation an improvement on current methods. CPI is utilising standard optimisation techniques to address this challenge, including continuous mode fermentation, strain improvement and downstream processing optimisation to maximise efficiency. Practically, the costs of renewable energies pose a challenge to creating a cost-effective process. This matter is something that will become less prohibitive over time as renewable energy becomes cheaper and more widely adopted, but CPI is investigating collaborations with renewable energy companies to help facilitate this.
Global food security
The end goal of the DECAF project is to develop an efficient, sustainable means of food production, creating a process that will be feasible anywhere in the world. CPI anticipates that fermentation may be particularly beneficial in countries that face food security challenges due to their climate and water availability as the process will negate these issues and provide a reliable, local source of food.
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