CO2 as a sustainable raw material in our future food production
In a new consortium, companies and university researchers will create a sustainable source of proteins for human food derived from CO2. The aim is to help fight the rising global problems with food insecurity and greenhouse-gas emissions from agriculture. Two leading foundations are supporting the initiative with up to DKK 200 million (US$29 million), which covers a two-year period.
Food insecurity is a rising global problem. A recent UN-led report shows that more than 250 million people faced severe hunger during 2022, which was an increase of 65 million compared to the year before.
To counteract this development, we need to establish a sustainable, safe and stable food production that can feed a growing world population.
With this aim in sight, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Novo Nordisk Foundation are funding a new consortium that will utilize CO2 to produce proteins for human food.
The consortium combines knowledge and expertise from Novozymes and Topsoe, two leading companies within biotechnology and chemical engineering, respectively, Washington University in St. Louis in the USA and the Novo Nordisk Foundation CO2 Research Center (CORC) at Aarhus University in Denmark.
"By utilizing CO2 for food production without involving agricultural land use, this ambitious consortium addresses two of our biggest global challenges: supplying nutritious food to a growing world population and mitigation of climate change," said Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen, CEO of the Novo Nordisk Foundation. "This has the potential to be the first step towards a novel bioeconomy providing a more sustainable, safe and stable food production, reducing the strain on nature's resources in multiple ways."
The basic idea is to provide a more sustainable way of producing proteins through fermentation – a way of producing food we have been using for millennia.
By using biological and electrochemical processes, the consortium partners will process CO2 and turn it into acetate, which is vinegar – a well-known substance already present in the metabolism of the microorganisms used for fermentation. The acetate can then be used to produce proteins that can be used directly in food for humans.
By creating alternatives to animal proteins, we can reduce the need for meat and dairy production, which puts a significant strain on our 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 processes. This will free up substantial agricultural areas currently used for sugar production.
Thus, converting CO2 into acetate and using it to produce proteins for food will enable us to decouple part of our food production from land use and make room for biodiversity. This will be a major contribution to a more sustainable society.
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 demonstration scale (TRL 6 or above) within two years.
The consortium partners have several relevant production technologies and facilities at their disposal, which enables them to take advantage of already existing infrastructure to verify and scale the new developments expected from the collaboration. This is a great opportunity to create synergy across the different technologies involved in the collaboration and makes it possible to speed up the upscaling process significantly.
"The possibility to engineer biology to efficiently produce protein for human nutrition from simple raw materials has been around for some time. With this programme, there is a possibility to develop a completely climate-neutral way of transforming CO2 into protein without the use of land, water, and fertilizer. I am excited and proud that we can contribute with technology and knowhow that makes this transformation possible – it holds tremendous potential for having biosolutions solve major world problems," added Claus Crone Fuglsang, Chief Science Officer at Novozymes.
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 be able to produce enough protein for more than 1 billion people every year, 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 make sure that the technologies are disseminated globally and are accessible at an affordable price in countries where they can be of greatest use. This will be ensured by global access agreements with the consortium partners.
"The technologies offer a big potential to provide food security globally, especially in low- and middle- income countries. It is therefore very important that the technologies can 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," concluded Thomsen.
If the work in the consortium is successful, it will be possible to continue the support for later stages of the project, where the technologies can be matured even further.
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