Opinion
Food and Water

Why CO2 could be an unlikely ally in future food production

Global food and agriculture sectors account for more than one-third of greenhouse gas emissions.

Global food and agriculture sectors account for more than one-third of greenhouse gas emissions. Image: Unsplash

Ester Baiget
President and Chief Executive Officer, Novonesis
Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen
Chief Executive Officer, Novo Nordisk Foundation
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Food Security

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • Food insecurity is already a major global problem, with more than 250 million people across the world facing severe hunger in 2023 alone.
  • Population growth will further drive the need for protein, with global food production accounting for one-third of emissions.
  • CO₂ could prove an invaluable raw material for future food production, but biotechnology faces regulatory hurdles which need to be overcome.

Global food systems are under severe pressure. Food insecurity is a rising global problem: Last year, more than 250 million people faced severe hunger, and as populations continue to grow, the global need for protein is expected to double by 2050.

At the same time, global food and agriculture sectors account for more than one-third of greenhouse gas emissions.

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To feed growing populations, we must find alternatives to supplement what we can produce through agriculture while making our agricultural practices more sustainable.

How CO₂ could transform food production

An unlikely ally is CO₂. With the right tools, this problematic gas can be turned into a valuable and sustainable raw material in our future food production. The tool in question is biotechnology which, in our view, holds the key to transforming our food production and agriculture.

Novozymes and the Novo Nordisk Foundation are part of an international consortium, which is co-funded by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The consortium aims to use CO₂ to produce proteins for human consumption without using agricultural land.

The basic idea is to produce protein via fermentation, a technique that has been used to produce food for millennia. Captured CO₂ can be converted to acetate that is used to feed microbes, which in turn produce protein.

By doing so, we can supply nutritious food to a growing population within the boundaries of our planet while turning CO₂ into a raw material and thus contributing to mitigating climate change. This can be an important step towards a novel bioeconomy with sustainable, safe and stable food production.

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When scaled up, the technologies developed by the consortium hold the potential to produce enough protein for more than 1 billion people every year. This would be enough to feed populations in areas with limited potential for conventional agriculture.

Topsoe A/S, Washington University in St Louis, and The Novo Nordisk Foundation CO₂ Research Center at Aarhus University are also part of the consortium.

While still in the early stages, this is a specific example of how we can use nature’s own technologies to ensure food for growing populations while safeguarding our planet and nature. However, to bring this innovation to market, the consortium faces a hurdle that might prove bigger than the innovation process: market approvals.

Regulatory hurdles to food innovation

Regulatory approval of novel foods – that is, food products that were not on the market in 1997 – remains a lengthy and complex matter in the European Union (EU). The result is a significant delay to the green transition that our world needs the most. In the EU, it takes up to three years to get approval, while in Singapore, it takes less than a year, and in the US just a couple of months.

This delay extends well beyond novel foods. Another example is biocontrols, which support farmers in reducing dependency on chemical pesticides. Biocontrols provide robust protection against various plant diseases.

The solutions consist of microbes that target disease and keep crops healthy. These agriculture biosolutions not only support the shift away from the fossil fuels that are used to produce chemicals but also support a healthier nature.

However, in the EU, it takes up to eight years to obtain market approval for the solution, because current EU regulation classifies biosolutions as chemicals. If we turn to the US, the approval time is two years. Introduction to the market in the US requires a significantly shorter approval time for biological pest control.

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What is the World Economic Forum doing to help ensure global food security?

These examples clearly illustrate that while global issues such as food insecurity and climate change are accelerating, regulation is slowing down our response.

We have a clear message to policymakers: If we are to succeed in transitioning global food and agricultural sectors, we must have regulatory and approval processes that support the transition. Your decisions now will shape our shared future.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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