Combatting climate change and meeting the nutritional needs of a growing population without exhausting our planet’s resources are two of the biggest challenges of our time. Biotechnology holds solutions to both, but we are far from fully realising its potential to deliver on the green transition.

Global food systems account for more than a third of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and with a global population that now counts more than 8 billion people, we must look to new solutions to be able to feed the world in a sustainable way. We urgently need sustainable technologies and methods to improve our current food systems and use of land for agriculture.

As a consequence of world population growth, the imbalance in the food systems will increase, straining the planetary boundaries further and putting even more people at risk of lacking access to safe and nutritious food, which in many cases will lead to fatal malnourishment. Some of the challenges of the food system are closely linked to our dietary choices, which ultimately is leading to a discrepancy between land resources, dietary preferences for livestock-based food and associated GHG emissions.

Transitioning to a sustainable and resilient agri-food system capable of adapting and mitigating climate change may look like mission impossible, but in fact there is good news. The latest IPPC report clearly demonstrates that the agriculture and food systems have a significant mitigation potential, and what’s even better, there are numerous solutions ready and available for deployment: plug and play. For example, a recent report shows that biosolutions, including full-scale utilisation of biofertilisers, biopesticides and probiotic feed additives can help reduce 8% of global GHG emissions towards 2030.

Biotechnology's role in sustainable food systems

Biotechnology holds part of the key to enabling a transformation of our economy and our food systems. While in the past, we have mainly focused on offering farmers sustainable alternatives to chemical pesticides and food waste reduction, for instance by extending the shelf-life of products, the current innovative biotechnological solutions are offering society at large the possibility to shift to a more sustainable diet by providing plant-based proteins as an alternative to animal-based ones.

The American start-up BIOMILQ has developed the first lab-grown infant milk derived from mammary cells, while Roslin Tech, an Edinburgh-based food and agri-tech company, produces meat cultivated directly from animal cells but without the use of animals. In addition, Novozymes produces biotech solutions for the food, beverage and plant based industry enabling sustainable nutrition for the world.

If we replace meat-based proteins with alternative proteins, we can drastically reduce global warming, water use and land use by over 80% in Europe alone. To this end, the Novo Nordisk Foundation recently launched the Plant2Food initiative, an international innovation platform aimed at supporting open, IP-free research projects on plant-based and microbial food co-created and co-executed by academic and industry partners. We find that the key to accelerating the dietary transition is to develop greater selections of tasty, nutritious, and sustainable plant-based food products that are also affordable to consumers.

How close are we to harnessing biotechnology's potential?

In Europe, both public and private investments in research and innovation have led to the discoveries of new sustainable solutions with great potential for accelerating the green transition in the agri-food system. Unfortunately, these scientific discoveries often get lost in translation, due to obstacles that prevent new innovations from leaving the lab and reaching the market in time to make a difference.

Meat alternatives are a good example of this. Despite growing public interest and emerging companies in this field, the lengthy pre-market authorisation process has led to a situation where no companies have applied for cultivated meat products approval in Europe.

The situation is different in the US, where the Food and Drug Administration recently approved the use of cultivated meat produced from chickens’ living cells for human consumption, paving the way to a new environmentally friendly diet. In this regard, the US follows the example of Singapore, which was the first country in the world to introduce cultivated meat to consumers. Unfortunately, Europe is still a few years away from seeing such sustainable alternatives to meat being offered in the supermarkets.

Annual alternative protein investment trend (2010–2021). Source: GFI analysis of data from PitchBook.

Annual alternative protein investment trend (2010–2021). Source: GFI analysis of data from PitchBook.

For this to change and to exploit the full research capacity in Europe, policy changes are essential and the following four areas need consideration: first, increase private and public investments in research and innovation; second, de-risk investments in new technologies, especially for small and medium enterprises, e.g. by public-private funding of scale-up facilities; third, reduce the market approval process time for new biological sustainable solutions; and fourth, incentivise the application of innovative and sustainable solutions across the whole agri-food value chain, e.g. by establishing markets for carbon pricing.

Without a high level of ambition and trust in science, we will not be able to achieve our European and international climate objectives, which will have dire consequences for people and the planet.

We are already seeing the devastating impacts of climate change, and it will prove fatal to ignore the available solutions like those offered by biotechnology. The decisions we make now, whether through policy-making, business or in society at large, will drastically impact our future and the world in which we live. It will not be easy, but we must try much harder.