• Tue. Apr 23rd, 2024

Bio-based technologies in climate adaptation: food, water, and feedstock

Bio-based technologies and materials are often seen as tools for climate mitigation – as strategies to avoid greenhouse gas emissions and limit global warming. 

However, biomaterials can also help in climate adaptation: strategies for adapting to extreme environmental changes that are already unavoidable. 

If 2023 is any indication, adaptation strategies will soon become much more discussed. Over the last six months, climate scientists have been shocked by data that appears to show the earth system veering off of a course of steady decline and onto a more volatile path. 

Antarctic ice sheet cover shrank at an extreme rate while global oceans have been warmer than ever recorded. A marine heatwave around the UK is threatening mass die-offs this summer. 

Many scientists have been sharing graphs online to communicate how serious these developments are. One is Brian McNoldy, climate researcher at the University of Miami. On 23 June, he posted the chart below showing the yawning gap between monthly sea surface temperatures in 2023 and those for every 30 year period since 1856. 

With these accelerations, 2024’s average temperature may be 1.5 degrees hotter than the pre-industrial average. The planet could be tipping into a new and more dangerous state, even if it does not mean we will permanently breach the 1.5 degree limit by next year.

Large-scale, abrupt, and irreversible changes in the climate system – tipping points – would be a global disaster that could surpass the 2019-2021 global pandemic for its health and economic impacts.

Bio-based food security 

How can bio-businesses help in a new climate regime? An important area of intervention for bio-based technologies is the food system, which is already being disrupted by climate change.

The Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit found that the effects of climate change drove a £170 increase in food shopping costs in 2022 for the average UK household. Driving this were extreme droughts in key agricultural export countries like Spain and India. Climate change will only pressure food production more and more. 

The central task for bio-based developers working on agtech is to help farmers produce more with fewer inputs and less damage to the land. This will not be easy – current crop yield increases suggest there will be a 40-70% food shortfall by 2050. By this year, not only will there be more people to feed, but feedstock for bio-based products will take up considerably more surface area than today.

Simply bringing more land under cultivation is not an option as this would further destroy the essential functions that natural landscapes provide, such as populations of pollinating insects. Neither will increasing chemical fertiliser help, since this is part of the problem. The artificial and excessive nutrients being pumped into the soil today are carbon intensive to make and damage soil fertility over the long run.

One way bio-innovations could help is by developing micro-organisms strains that maintain nitrogen levels in soils. This would get rid of the need to pump additional chemical fertiliser into the land. 

Nitrogen is the biggest limiting factor in crop production. The food system removes it from the soil in massive amounts when they harvest crops, making up the loss for the next planting by pumping chemical nitrogen back into it. 

A more sustainable approach uses microorganisms able to absorb nitrogen from the air and deliver it to crop roots: a process called nitrogen fixation. 

BioConsortia, a California-based startup that has so far raised $52 million in capital, has made interesting progress on nitrogen-fixed microbes. Their gene-edited, spore-forming, nitrogen-fixing organisms colonise the root system of crops and feed the plants with nitrogen they have taken from the atmosphere. 

Existing microbial soil conditioners also use live microbes but BioConsortia’s product is dormant in its package. This makes it a more commercially viable product. It remains stable for transportation, lengthens shelf life and reduces waste. 

BioConsortia’s microorganisms are applied to seeds as coating, only springing into action once it detects plant roots. Only then will it begin the process of converting nitrogen from the atmosphere into plant food.

2022 field trials on the technology preserved wheat fields even when nitrogen fertiliser levels were reduced 50%. Yields for potatoes, pepper and lettuce also improved. Over 2023 Bioconsotira will conduct more than 300 field tests across crops and products, aiming for a 2024 launch.

Global south bio-startups strengthen arguments for debt relief

Most of today’s industrialised nations have been responsible for 90% of all excess greenhouse gas emissions since 1850. Yet poorer populations are those who will suffer the effects of a warming planet most. It is essential therefore that developing regions are able to grow home-grown bio-based technologies that can support a transition towards a climate-resilient economy. 

In India, EF Polymer Private Limited produces a naturally biodegradable water retention polymer for soil conditioning. In a country where 60 percent of the population work in agriculture, maintaining yields without expensive soil inputs and more water is vital for building an economy resilient to climate impacts. Tens of millions of Indian farmers currently depend on Himalayan glacier melt to sustain their crops but with this freshwater source rapidly dwindling, moisture-preserving technologies will be particularly crucial. 

Access to efficient and cheap microbial fermentation platforms is also a way of shoring up economic resilience in a more resource-constrained world.

In Africa, startups are beginning to create solutions that turn waste into essential goods. Rwanda Bio Solution produces organic fertilisers using microbial technology and has worked with more than 100 farmers to bring the product into the field. 

In Kenya, Bio-Alkano gel is gaining national and global attention for their microbial fermentation process that turns fruit peel and eggshell waste into renewable fuels. 

Yet startups in developing regions often lack access to capital, a symptom of a wider problem hampering sustainable scaling around the world. Now, international calls are growing for richer countries to lift financial constraints that would allow developing nations to implement decarbonisation and adaptation policies in earnest. 

Debt relief and climate investment for the developing world are not optional extras in building global economies capable of withstanding new environmental pressures. Just as unequal access to vaccines worsened the effects of the COVID pandemic and accelerated viral mutations, unequal access to adaptation tech will hamper global efforts at buffering against extreme impacts. 

Nothing short of redirecting trillions in public money towards poorer regions will ensure home-grown solutions can live up to their promise.

Biomaterials for more localised supply chains

After the economic shocks of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, the EU has placed a much stronger emphasis on building local supply chains for essential goods like medicine, goods, and industrial raw materials. 

For the EU, a key pathway to more local and resilient supply chains are ones that are circular and biobased. Extracting industrial feedstock from urban and agricultural waste – which there are lots of – would reduce dependence on distant suppliers and far-flung trading routes vulnerable to climate shocks or conflict. 

To support its commitment to building bio-based circular supply chains, the European Green Deal set up a Circular Economy Action plan. The plan is especially interested in using organic materials to remove compounds like mineral nutrients from wastewater. By concentrating and then reselling nutrients that would otherwise become dispersed in the environment, it could support a more circular farming system.

Gen3Bio is a startup already stepping into the space. They take algae-based material that has already been used to purify wastewater and use patented enzyme technology to remove all the sugar, fats and proteins that it has collected. These chemicals can then be turned into products like agricultural fish food. 

This year, Pacques Biomaterials set up a demonstration plant in the Netherlands that uses bacteria to make 25 kilos of bioplastic a day from wastewater. The bacteria feast on the compounds in wastewater, which build up as polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) in their bodies. The PHA can be made into a biodegradable polymer which can, at the end of its life, be fed to microbes again to start the recycling process afresh.

Biomaterials for freshwater

Freshwater itself will become an increasingly valuable resource. Half of all cities around the world with more than 100, 000 residents are located in water-scarce basins. The biggest are Los Angeles, Moscow, Lahore Delhi, Bangalore and Beijing. Typically, agricultural water consumption in these regions accounts for the lions-share of water use, further constraining amounts available to households.

Aquaporin is a Danish startup that is developing biotechnology to replace traditional methods of water purification. Typically, water purification involves filtering wastewater through synthetic membranes. Instead, the company has built filters containing proteins – aquaporins – that filter water inside biological organisms, including human kdineys. One of their water-purifying units is able to produce drinking water from wastewater 50% faster than conventional units. 

People in the developed world take safe drinking water largely for granted. However, scientists in 2022 expressed concern that some samples from European taps contained harmful levels of forever chemicals – some of the approximately 4700 man-made chemicals used in manufacturing for over 60 years and which have found their way into the environment. They are typically resistant to conventional purification technologies. 

London-based Imperial College spin-off Puraffinity has developed a bio-based adsorbent capable of capturing some of these forever chemicals. As well as offering solutions that remediate industrial waste, their technology can also be applied to large volume drinking water treatment. 

Food production, water remediation, and more localised supply chains are the key areas where biomaterials can serve climate adaptation, an agenda that will become more prominent over the next decade.

Already, global temperatures have risen 1.2 degrees above the industrial average, warmer than any time in the last 11, 000 years. With no evidence that we will manage to halt warming 1.5 degrees by the end of the century – the goal of the 2015 Paris Agreement – policymakers and businesses must plan for how technologies based around biological resources can help sustain advanced human societies in a more hostile world.

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