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Future food: Transforming carbon dioxide into protein without using land, water or fertilizer

June 16, 2023
Food & Drink

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Novo Nordisk Foundation have joined forces to support a new consortium utilizing CO2 to produce proteins for food applications. They are targeting food insecurity and combating greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. The consortium is hailed as a step toward a novel bioeconomy providing a more sustainable, safe and stable food production while reducing the strain on nature’s resources.

The consortium combines expertise from Novozymes A/S and Topsoe A/S, two companies within biotechnology and chemical engineering, as well as Washington University in the US and the Novo Nordisk Foundation CO2 Research Center (CORC) at Aarhus University in Denmark.

Speaking to Food Ingredients First, Claus Felby, senior vice president, Biotech, Novo Nordisk Foundation, warns that our global food system is under pressure.

“Meeting both the present and future needs for food security, restoration of biodiversity and climate change mitigation is difficult, bordering on impossible, with how we produce food today. Our food system is also fragile, as we have seen with the outbreak of the war in Ukraine impacting food supplies globally.”

Discussing the companies involved in the consortium, Felby says that Topsoe A/S and Novozymes A/S represent “the best expertise in scaling and bulk production for CO2 conversion and fermentation to protein, and the companies have the relevant infrastructure for scaling the technologies at their disposal.”

“The consortium combines this expertise and infrastructure with knowledge from researchers within the field to rethink how we accelerate technology scaling,” he comments.

“The results of the work in the consortium will be generally available and be offered without royalties for use in low- and middle-income countries.”

An alternative to animal proteins
The basic idea is to provide a more sustainable way of producing proteins through fermentation – a way of making food we have been using for millennia.

Using biological and electrochemical processes, the consortium partners will process CO2 and turn it into acetate, which is vinegar – a substance already present in the metabolism of the microorganisms used for fermentation. The acetate can then produce proteins that can be used directly in human food.

By creating alternatives to animal proteins, the foundations believe they can reduce the need for meat and dairy production, which puts a significant strain on natural resources, by using land for the animals and growing crops to feed them.

In addition, using acetate derived from CO2 directly in the fermentation process will eliminate the need to use sugar, which is a big part of fermentation methods. This will free up substantial agricultural areas currently used for sugar production.

Converting CO2 into acetate and using it to produce proteins for food will enable the foundations to decouple part of our food production from land use and make room for biodiversity.

Enabling a cost-effective economy
Felby adds that when we talk about sustainability, the aim is to enable a functional and cost-effective economy for agriculture, reducing the strain on nature’s resources.

“To achieve this goal, we need to reduce our land use for food production and drastically reduce the emission of greenhouse gasses from our food system.”

At the same time, he flags that we need to establish a production of goods and services that is fundamental for a functional society where people have a job, a place to live and access to food.

Meanwhile, Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen, CEO at the Novo Nordisk Foundation, adds that by utilizing CO2 for food production without involving agricultural land use, this consortium addresses two of our biggest global challenges: supplying nutritious food to a growing world population and climate change mitigation.

“This has the potential to be the first step toward a novel bioeconomy providing a more sustainable, safe and stable food production, reducing the strain on nature’s resources in multiple ways,” Thomsen explains.

Use of existing production facilities
The first step for the consortium is to optimize and evaluate three potential production technologies and mature them. The goal is to lift all technologies to a demonstration scale within two years.

The consortium partners have several relevant production technologies and facilities at their disposal, enabling them to take advantage of existing infrastructure to verify and scale the new developments expected from the collaboration.

“The possibility to engineer biology to produce protein for human nutrition from simple raw materials efficiently has existed for some time. With this program, there is a possibility to develop a completely climate-neutral way of transforming CO2 into protein without using

land, water and fertilizer. I am excited that we can contribute with technology and know-how that makes this transformation possible – it holds tremendous potential for having biosolutions solve major world problems,” adds Claus Crone Fuglsang, chief science officer in Novozymes A/S.

A boost for low- and middle-income countries?
Once scaled up to production, the technologies developed by the consortium can represent a paradigm shift in our approach to food security, especially in low- and lower-middle-income countries.

The technologies are estimated to produce enough protein for more than one billion people yearly, creating a stable source of nutritious food for people living in areas with limited potential for conventional agriculture.

An important goal for the two foundations is to ensure that the technologies are disseminated globally and accessible at an affordable price in countries where they can be utilized.

“The technologies offer a big potential to provide food security globally, especially in low- and middle-income countries. Therefore, the technologies must be implemented in areas of the world where they can benefit the most at a fair cost. This is ensured with the setup of this consortium,” affirms Thomsen from Novo Nordisk Foundation.

A recent United Nations-led report revealed that more than 250 million people faced severe hunger during 2022, an increase of 65 million compared to the year before.

By Elizabeth Green


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