Modern humanity could not exist without biotechnology.
The fact is that we all eat genetically-engineered foods. It's just the reality of modern life. There may be a very small number of people that have been 100% organic for their entire life, but I’m willing to bet that most have eaten soy products, wheat products and corn that have been genetically engineered. These staple foods are mass-produced globally, and it feeds us.
For some time, a majority of innovation has been focused on the development of pest, infection and drought-resistant crops. Despite these efforts, headlines were made this year by Copenhagen-based TheWorldCounts, a group of scientists who have calculated that the world will run out of food in a little more than 27 years. The fact that there is a growing supply and demand problem for feeding the planet isn’t new, but it wasn’t until recently that consumers started to understand the scope of the problem.
We have a meat problem
Currently, 52 billion pounds of meat and 200 billion pounds of milk are produced per year in the U.S. alone. Globally, food production is the source of 25% of the greenhouse gas emissions on our planet, and it takes up 50% of Earth’s habitable surface area. Meat and dairy specifically account for around 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).
As a meat-dominant western diet becomes more popular around the world, it is clear that our planet cannot sustain the needs of its 8 billion inhabitants with animal-based foods. The truth is, animal agriculture has become a sunset industry. The dairy industry is starting to go bankrupt because these low margin products are expensive — and inefficient — to produce. Razor thin margins are already being eaten by plant-based milks, and it's only going to increase now that we have recombinant protein products that are taking market share. Eventually, we'll have a full-on bio-identical replacement of milk that will be made by cell-based milk companies.
Everything that nature can create is built by biology. I view biology as next-generation, sustainable bio-manufacturing: Everything from the food that we eat, to the clothing that we wear, to the construction materials that we build with, all the way through to the medicines that we take, and eventually, the organs that get replaced in our bodies as they fail.
In fact, the Schmidt Futures foundation, founded by billionaire and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, predicts in their recent Bioeconomy report that the value of the future global bioeconomy will be worth $4 trillion to $30 trillion dollars. The future of manufacturing is the future of biotechnology.
Related: Sustainable Food-Supply Businesses Thrived During Covid-19. What Does That Mean for the Future of Food?
Do we really want to use biotechnology for food?
Biotechnology is enabling us to change the way we make food and is the reason we can feed billions of people. Take cheese, for example.
For over a century, humans mass-produced cheese using the stomach linings of baby cows, called rennet. It was only about 20 years ago that genetic engineers at Pfizer (yes, that Pfizer) gave us vegetarian cheese when they figured out how to isolate the rennet gene, insert this gene into either bacteria or yeast and simply brew it, producing recombinant chymosin, or fermentation-produced chymosin (FPC). Then they could just add FPC into milk, and voilà — you’ve made cheese incredibly efficiently, and without contributing to horrible pollution and inhumane conditions for the animals.
Today, FPC is considered a miracle of biotechnology. It makes up the vast majority of cheese consumed in North America and Europe, and it paved the way for a colossal disruption of the meat and dairy industry.
Who is dominating the food startup industry using biotech?
With some hugely successful pioneers in the biotech food space, like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, it’s time that we recognize how biotechnology is already feeding us, and reward food startups that are leaning into it.
Pay attention to recombinant foods. For example, Perfect Day is a recombinant food company that’s making ice cream using real whey protein — but it’s made efficiently, sustainably and without the cow, using biotechnology.
If you look at the space, there are companies diving into the world of biotechnology with the same mission in mind: find solutions to today’s climate, health and sustainability challenges. These companies all see not only the value in this journey but also know it’s critical for our planet and its inhabitants.