New biochemical techniques could transform land usage

18th August, 2014 by Fiona Harvey

So-called 'agricultural biologicals' could be used to dramatically improve resource efficiency, converting fibres that are currently wasted into liquid biofuels and increasing crop yields.

Wood is tough stuff, as any lumberjack will tell you. All that lignin makes for a fibre that takes years to break down under natural processes – one of the reasons why fallen trees are such hotspots for biodiversity.

Achieving just that has been a key goal for research scientists for decades, as it would open up ways of converting fibres currently wasted into valuable liquid biofuels. In the last few years, discoveries of enzymes that can be used to catalyse the process have spurred forward the industry.

The world of resource efficiency aided by the development of enzymes and other novel biochemical techniques, such as microbial-based products, is moving fast. Making the most of agricultural residues is a key plank of sustainability: not only can it be a form of clean energy and a store of carbon but it also avoids methane emissions from the uncontrolled breakdown of organic matter. And this is only the beginning of what is possible. Researchers are now also hard at work developing ways of using enzymes, plant proteins and organic acids to increase the productivity of the plants themselves – that is, to encourage them to grow faster, or bigger, or to emphasise certain traits, such as their crop yield.

While advanced biofuels have taken a long time to come to any commercial production, the market for these other applications of agricultural biology appears to be taking off. So-called agricultural biologicals are currently worth about $3 billion a year globally, according to a report from the investment house Piper Jaffray, and will likely double within five years. Much of the growth is likely to come from pest control.

Companies with existing expertise are fast taking up the challenge. Novozymes is a Danish company that has been working on enzymes for use in medicine, detergents and food for decades, then turned to second-generation biofuels a decade ago, and now has its sights set on an even more ambitious goal. The company is working to raise crop yields by using naturally occurring plant components in attacking pests, tackling diseases and enhancing plants’ ability to uptake nutrients. For instance, this can involve developing fungi that discourage pests and weeds, or harnessing the parts of a plant that aid in the absorption of phosphate and nitrogen. Novozymes is working with Monsanto on some of these projects, through a joint venture that kicked off last year. The biotech giant Syngenta is also getting in on the act, seeing this as a potential growth area.

Already, though, there are signs that using novel development along such lines may not be straightforward. Currently, the key to agricultural biologicals is that they are based on plants’ own naturally occurring processes and chemicals, and discovering natural processes such as the way some fungi discourage pests or diseases. Agricen, for instance, boasts of using its fermentation process to generate a “diverse community of microorganisms and their biochemical byproducts”, such as enzymes and organic acids, which interact with the soil system to increase the availability and uptake of nutrients from fertilisers. Another company, Arzeda, uses powerful software to design and evaluate new enzymes.

There are also potential risks in this area, however: generating biofuels from wood is one thing, but utilising one microorganism to wipe out another as a form of biocontrol could have unintended consequences.

And what if it were found to be easier to directly manipulate some of the plant genetics to achieve the same goals? What happens if a

lab-grown genetically modified (GM) fungus or bacteria is proven effective in controlling a destructive crop disease such as wheat stem rust? Agricultural biologicals are another form of biotechnology: different in detail, but not so far from other forms of biotech in research terms – as the involvement of Monsanto and Syngenta points up.

That could prove controversial. Ecover has long been held in high regard by the environmental movement, a much-praised champion of sustainable goals. So when the company was pilloried recently on the internet over its use of GM technology, it came as a shock. The company was found to have used GM algae, which some activists took issue with.

Ecover defended its use, saying that there was no “synthetic biology” involved in the making of the algae, which it is developing as an alternative to palm oil. “The genetic modification process used by the supplier of our algal oil employs the natural mutation process of algae. No human-made DNA is inserted into the algae”, the company said.

The public treatment of Ecover, despite its algae using the natural processes of the algae itself, shows the potential for controversy in agricultural biologicals. Some people who are unhappy with the idea of GM may find the notion of designing enzymes and manipulating plant and soil processes uncomfortably close to it. Others will argue that it is much closer to traditional agricultural methods, such as breeding plants to enhance certain traits.

To increase the productivity of our crops. To combat infectious crop diseases and pests. To reduce the current massive waste of agricultural residues. These are all important goals, and so there’s a logic to making the best use of enzymes and harnessing other natural processes to achieve them.

Anna Warrington, who works on innovation in business at Forum for the Future, agrees: “Synthetic biology and GM are here, whether we like it or not. There are legitimate concerns, including the potential impact of ‘terminator’ seeds [ones that don’t reproduce] on smallholder farmers’ livelihoods, or the affordability of seeds under patent. However, it’s important to explore what would need to be true for synthetic biology to help us move towards a sustainable future - especially given the challenge of meeting basic needs for both accessible nutrition and warmth for an expanding global population.”

If agricultural biology can be just as effective without GM, then we’re already on the way to a scalable solution. However, if GM could make it faster or cheaper for us to solve the crucial issues facing farmers and value chain managers, then any environmental objectors will have to ask themselves if this is so unthinkably far from the green enhancements known as agricultural biology.

Fiona Harvey is the Guardian’s environment correspondent.

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