How Can Synthetic Biology help in Ending Global Food Shortage?
Many demographers and scientists predicted during much of the 20th century that food would become scarce in the near future due to the exponential increase in the world’s population. Although demographic forecasts have been fulfilled, these pessimistic expectations regarding access to food do not seem to have arrived yet.
Of course, we are talking about a global food shortage. To speak in these terms is somewhat unfair, as there are regions that are completely food insufficient compared to first world countries. Even in rich countries, there are areas where people have difficulty accessing food on equal terms. These impoverished redoubts are gradually but surely beginning to emerge as a constant threat that the privileged sometimes forget. However, the unjust future of the world can only be avoided with human progress, or at least that is what history seems to show.
What is food?
This question seems rather silly, but it is important to define concepts to understand the issues. The problem is food shortages. The solution is to produce more of it. How to do this? The answer is quite simple to state but difficult to carry out: maximize their production.
Food is an organic substance that stores a lot of chemical energy in the bonds of the compounds that compose it, and that can be easily assimilated by a living being to obtain energy and nutrients. Food is fruit and other plant tissues produced in agriculture, animal tissues are grown in animal husbandry, or the plectenchymal thalli of fungi, but biomass or polymers based on carbon chemistry produced or artificially synthesized could also fall under this definition. With this concept, you can begin to understand how to increase the production yield.
How can we produce it to a greater extent?
There are many ways to increase production. Before listing them, it is worth noting that there is enough food produced in the world today to feed all humans. However, there are many people dying of malnutrition due to a poor distribution of resources among humans. This would be the fundamental pillar to avoid food shortages throughout the planet, although it is practically unfeasible if we continue with our current model. For example, food waste and overfeeding are commonplace in the first world. A fairer model could solve many of the problems of the future, although not all of them.
Having made the above point, we must now understand the potential of biotechnology to increase the net amount of feed produced per year. Most arable territories have not reached even an average potential efficiency in these terms, most of these countries and territories being poor; which translates as a dual problem: lack of investment in technology that would already be available in richer countries and the biological impossibility of increasing their yield (unfavorable climatic conditions, drought or others). It is precisely in the latter case that biotechnology can work miracles.
Transgenic, for example, has already succeeded in implementing cold resistance genes found in arctic bacteria. However, to prevent a crop from dying it is sometimes not enough to add a gene. It is necessary to establish a whole genomic regulation and a posteriori selection processes that make it possible to establish a synthetic variety that is truly tenacious to the conditions for which it has been designed. This design must take into account, for example, the pathogens and endemic herbivores that cause millions of tons of food to be lost each year. For example, plants communicate with other plants and insects through VOCs. This aromatic volatiles typically attracts herbivores that transmit pathogens such as the tobacco mosaic virus. Changing the emission pattern would avoid this problem.
Avoiding losses is not the only thing synthetic biology can do. The main course is reserved for what many physiologists have been investigating for two decades: the possibility of modifying photosynthesis, a process supposedly optimized over millions of years for the production of carbonaceous skeletons from environmental CO2. This would have a double effect: on the one hand, it would increase the biomass produced by plants, and on the other, it would remove a greater tonnage of CO2 from the atmosphere. For these reasons, it has been considered one of the greatest hopes for this field of research. But is it even possible to achieve such a feat? Many advances have been made, such as achieving rice with C4 plant structures (more efficient because it avoids photorespiration). Carboxisomes, tilacoid engineering, or metabolic restitution of the Calvin cycle, among others, are being studied.
Current Research & Start-ups
Most of the private initiatives that have emerged and established themselves are food-tech companies such as Too Good To Go, which are more focused on fulfilling the fundamental pillar we were talking about. However, biotech companies are also beginning to flourish and are destined to play a major role in the food transition to less polluting and more productive – or fair – forms of food. Orbillion Bio is doing research with cell lines to establish a good cultured meat product. Protera is trying another approach with artificial intelligence, a technology they call Natural Inteligenia, to synthesize functional proteins that fulfill a wide range of possibilities in the industry. Productivity can also be associated with the reuse of waste from the food industry, as this lowers production costs. In this area, we have StenCo and Tait Labs.
Profound advances in biotechnology are still to come, but if we were to implement all the technology that is available today we could solve a good part of our future problems. Therefore, we can only wait and keep working, each one of us, for a brighter world. Human ingenuity can turn almost any crooked situation around. Let us not deprive our planet of seeing the best human inventions.