The food biotech industry now has a market size of more than $23 billion USD, and it’s predicted to almost double by 2025. Increased food demand and the pressures on environmental resources, with the rumblings of climate change behind them, have strained agricultural production. Food biotech is emerging as one of the most promising mechanism we have to deal with some of the fundamental challenges to streamline food production, while minimizing the environmental impact.
Tools that are shaping the food of today and tomorrow
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One of the most encouraging sectors is cellular biology and genomics – with tools in development to allow production of robust and climate resilient crops. These include crops resistant to floods, droughts, and pests, as well as crops with improved nutritional value or shelf-life. Genetically edited (GE) and genetically modified (GM) crops are grown in at least 28 countries and on 179.7 million hectares, covering more than 10% of the world’s arable land, with the USA, Brazil and Argentina as lead producers. Similarly, production of “clean meat”, part of the emerging field of cellular agriculture, seeks to significantly reduce animal-based food production. With the livestock sector responsible for 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions and an expected doubling of the global demand for meat by 2050, traditional meat production is simply not sustainable.
But of course, new technologies don’t always emerge without controversy. The viability and the environmental and socio-economic impacts of food technologies have been widely debated. With the current priority on the climate agenda and environmental sustainability, it is likely that the opportunities and challenges offered by food biotech will need to take centre stage.
Take the example of genetically edited and modified crops for instance. Compared to the US where both GE and GM crops are grown, marketed, and consumed without stringent regulation requirements, the EU has strict measures in place where GE crops fall under GM legislation. Following Brexit, the UK government announced the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill in May 2022 which aims to introduce simpler regulatory measures to enable GE products to be brought to market more easily. A concerted effort on public engagement and acceptance may now be needed.
Politics and culture will dictate how we eat
It’s clear that complex and varied regulation across the food ecosystem globally is driven by political, cultural, and social values. And we need to consider the balance between safety, innovation, and shared interests when developing and updating regulations in emerging food tech, given the global intricacies of the sector.
Industry regulation is a key component of regulatory efforts in the food biotech landscape, particularly when it comes to patenting. Patents are a key factor in the commercialisation of food biotech research outputs as they provide a source of revenue and allow recouping some of the initial costs from the research and development process. But, patents can also create socio-economic challenges if they enable the monopolization of agricultural inputs and concentration of large corporations. For example, patenting of seeds can impact farmers by restricting access to key inputs for their livelihoods. The push to deregulate genome editing may present an opportunity for smaller biotech companies and seed producers to diversify revenue streams while being mindful that unchecked patenting of the sector will lead to inequities in the market, potentially driving up prices of GE and GM foods.
GM crops have been facing lack of public acceptance in many regions which, in turn, has precluded their widespread adoption. In a study commissioned by the UK Food Standards Agency on consumer acceptance of GE food, the findings showed that consumers tended to have very low awareness and knowledge of these foods. Interestingly, consumers were generally more accepting of GE food (rather than GM) and found both to be more acceptable when applied to plants rather than animals, due to safety and welfare concerns. Although there is wider acceptance of these products for use in livestock feed rather than human consumption, views and acceptance of GM crops appear to vary by location, considering the different levels of restrictions in place.
Similarly, there are consumer concerns on cultured meat which tend to be around uncertainty on safety and price, including perceptions of cultured meat as “fake” and being “unnatural”. The framing of cultured meat also impacts acceptance, for example, when cultured meat is framed as “high tech” consumer acceptance lowers.
A new frontier of exploration is afoot
The threats to global food security with links to climate change is a growing frontier of exploration, tied to development of technological solutions. In addition to considering climate change, the food system is reliant on many other factors; when considering food system resilience, it also raises questions on reliance on supply chains, access to natural resources, access to and development of technology and IP, etc. However, regulation of technologies that could be tested to address some of the challenges are often progressed with a unilateral view with limited cross-sector engagement and considerations. Separate attempts to address climate change impact on food systems, trade agreements, GE advancement and IP protection are a false economy and could fail to address the intricacies of the policy challenges that lay ahead.
These are global challenges which require a concerted effort to safely exploit technology to support the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As seen recently with Covid-19, it is possible for such large-scale collaboration efforts to respond to emergencies and to bring innovation for the benefit of wider society (e.g. rapid rollout of free vaccination programmes). Large-scale efforts also require consensus between the parties involved. Within the field of food biotech, substantial work needs to be done to reach an agreement across nations on the regulation of technologies such as GM and GE crops. This will be key to ensure coherence in the regulatory framework within which food biotech research and businesses operate, as well as to support innovation in a sustainable way. It is time for the public and policymakers to agree, even begrudgingly, on a coordinated and enhanced way to use technology to solve these global challenges.