Sustainable agriculture, new food sources, protection against infectious diseases or waste reuse: this is how biotechnology contributes to the sustainability of the planet

Biotechnology provides solutions through plant genetic engineering, the revaluation of food industry by-products, new food sources and biofuels, among others. 

Rare diseases
Climate change
Food & feed

Over the last few decades we have witnessed significant climatic variations as a consequence of industrial development and population growth, the origin of global challenges such as global warming, environmental pollution and overexploitation of resources. In order to raise awareness of the importance and influence that climate has on our lives, March 26 was established as World Climate Day, declared by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992.

The picture we observe today reflects the need for urgent action to respond to the climate emergency. In this regard, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development stands out, which establishes a series of global goals with a comprehensive, universal and transformative vision. Humanity is at a critical moment for its future in which there is a need to promote more sustainable economic models that make it possible to respond to social and environmental challenges. Biotechnology is offering important solutions to these challenges.

The biotechnology industry works to achieve greater protection of societies against adverse climatic conditions through the development of vaccines and/or treatments for infectious diseases, for example. Biotechnology also contributes to mitigating the effects of climate change through the replacement of fossil fuels and materials with bio-based ones such as sustainable biofuels; the sustainable and efficient use of arable land; responding to the challenges posed by food in a context of demographic growth and scarcity of raw materials; enabling sustainable water management and developing solutions to preserve marine ecosystems. On the occasion of World Climate Day, Asebio delves into some of the innovative solutions that biotechnology companies are developing and implementing with the aim of improving the sustainability of the planet. 

Steady population growth and food: the value of NGTs

Today, around 8 billion people inhabit the planet. The FAO forecasts that by 2050 the figure will be close to 10 billion people. We are facing a situation of population growth which, if forecasts hold true, will require a 50% increase in food production on the same agricultural land we have today.

The European Commission's strategy, the Green Pact, which aims to be the first carbon neutral continent by 2050, and its strategies such as "from farm to fork" clearly indicate the need for innovation in the food production system and the role of biotechnology is fundamental to achieving the objectives.

"If we want to secure food for the entire population while mitigating the impacts of climate change we need innovation and technology. It is the only way to provide solutions to this great challenge," explains Richard Borreani, Public Affairs, Science & Sustainability Iberia at Bayer Crop Science.

"Genetic engineering, for example, currently allows us to work with seeds and new crop varieties that are more productive, more resistant to pests and diseases, as well as to periods of drought or extreme temperatures. In addition, these seeds in combination with digital tools allow us to reduce the carbon footprint by needing fewer machine passes." Beyond genetic engineering, biotechnological solutions in biostimulants and biofertilizers, "allow mitigating the effects of climate change, making better use of nutrients and allowing an increase in soil organic matter thanks to certain soil microorganisms".

In the last two decades, plant biotechnology has evolved significantly, rendering obsolete the European directive regulating genetically modified organisms. "New techniques such as targeted mutagenesis or cisgenesis make it possible to obtain plants with the desired traits more quickly and precisely. These techniques, called New Genomic Techniques (NGT), such as CRISPR, open up numerous possibilities to provide solutions to the great challenge of feeding a constantly growing population and mitigating the effects of climate change," he argues.

Contrary to transgenic plants in which a gene from another origin is introduced to provide the desired characteristic, plants obtained with NGT are developed with genomic editing, that is, "the DNA chain of the plant is edited to induce changes in the genomes of plants without inserting genetic material from another species and the result is a plant that could have been obtained through conventional breeding or spontaneously in nature itself", clarifies Borreani.

"The applications of New Genomic Techniques in agriculture create many opportunities to develop products that are essential to adapt to climate change, reduce dependence on limited resources, reduce inputs, improve biodiversity and that can greatly contribute to achieving global and European sustainability goals," he concludes.

The search for new power supplies

The demand for protein for human consumption will increase by 50% in the coming years, and the need for animal feed will double in just a few decades. A challenge to which Protiberia contributes to revolutionize the food industry with a sustainable and healthy protein, capable of feeding a growing human and animal population: the Tenebrio molitor.

Commonly known as the mealworm, it has been the subject of growing interest in the food biotechnology industry due to several reasons. As its CEO, Ana Isabel González, explains, "Tenebrio molitor is an excellent source of high quality protein. Its protein content can be as high as 60-70% of its dry weight, making it a promising source of protein for both human and animal feed."

González points out that insects, including this worm, "tend to be very efficient at converting food into protein.Compared to traditional farm animals, they require fewer resources such as water and feed to produce the same amount of protein, which makes them more environmentally sustainable". Proteins derived from Tenebrio molitor can be used in a wide range of applications, both in human and animal feed."They can be processed in the form of insect meal for the production of baked goods, energy bars, snacks, and even as protein supplements in food products.They can also be used in the formulation of feed for farm animals, improving their nutritional value."

Protiberia's CEO concludes by emphasizing the sustainability of insect farming, especially Tenebrio molitor: "They tend to require less land and water compared to traditional livestock farming.In addition, they emit less greenhouse gases and generate less polluting waste, making them a more sustainable option for protein production."

Revaluation of food industry by-products, an ally of sustainability

We find ourselves in a context of high demand for more sustainable and nutritious food, as a consequence of a highly polluting industrial model with a high negative impact on the environment. Biotechnology allows the revaluation of food industry by-products to obtain high value products.

Natac was founded in 2010 with a business model based on sustainability and circular bioeconomy. "As a company within the Nature-derived ingredients industry, we always had a focus on minimizing our environmental impact and taking full advantage of the resources the land offers us. Our direct collaboration with farmers and diverse operators in the agri-food industry is proof of this, as well as the results and the demand that the market has for Natac products, for both their healthy and sustainable characteristics. In this sense, Natac has been a pioneer, not only in Spain but also in the world, as evidenced by the European Union's recognition of the Sustainext project, led by Natac under the umbrella of a 15 million euro grant to become an example of global competitiveness for other European companies", the company points out.

The revaluation of by-products from the agri-food industry offers both environmental and economic advantages, while boosting innovation and improving the reputation of the companies that implement it. Natac highlights the complete use of materials that would otherwise be wasted with the consequent negative impact on environmental sustainability; the saving of environmental resources "since the need to use additional natural resources, such as water and energy, is reduced; the promotion of innovation, as we are witnessing in recent years with the search for creative ways to revalue by-products, promoting the development of more efficient and sustainable technologies and practices; and the latter is linked to the creation of quality employment, since the implementation of these innovative processes has a positive impact on the need to fill new positions with research and development personnel, management of materials derived from the agri-food industry, and the marketing of new products".

In this sense, they indicate that botanical extracts have a wide range of uses in various fields due to their beneficial properties and versatility. "In general, plant extracts offer a natural and sustainable alternative in a variety of applications. Their use is supported by their natural origin, their safety profile and their beneficial properties for health and the environment."

Health protection against infectious diseases

Up to 75% of the new diseases that have affected people in the last 10 years originated in animals; and around 2.2 million people die each year from zoonoses. Biotechnology is making important advances in the development of vaccines against infectious diseases.

Some of the most important aspects that biotechnology has to solve with respect to vaccines are speed in their development, production scaling and cost reduction so that they can reach countries with unfavorable economies. "The last pandemic has shown that it is possible to bring vaccines obtained by new technologies, such as those based on RNA or vectorized vaccines, to the market in one year, a record time considering the time usually needed. However, the production of protein-based vaccines, probably the most effective and safest, has not yet been sufficiently optimized and simplified, which implies higher cost and development time. The proven paradigm that a synthetic RNA molecule is sufficient to vaccinate has been a biotechnological breakthrough of undoubted value", argues José Escribano, General Manager & CSO of Algenex.

Algenex has significantly simplified the production of subunit vaccines based on protein-based antigens. The substitution of cells cultivated in complex bioreactors by a living organism, an insect, which can be mass-produced, reduces the complexity of the production processes, shortens the optimizations in the scaling-up process and reduces investment and operating costs, making it possible to serve any market. The vector that programs the insect (pupae of a lepidopteran) to produce the vaccines is an old acquaintance of the industry, a baculovirus. This vector is completely harmless to mammals, resulting in products with high safety standards. The proteins resemble those generated by a mammalian cell, so their function from an immunogenic point of view is perfectly preserved.

Its CrisBio® production platform has already been validated by the European Medicines Agency and by the British agency by approving a vaccine that is already on the market. "Recently the CEPI organization has considered this CrisBio platform, funding a project within the '100 days' program so that we can demonstrate the speed in the development of a pandemic vaccine using the influenza virus as a model. Algenex is currently developing other animal and human vaccines, some of them at an advanced stage, as well as a therapeutic molecule for use in humans."