With the spectre of climate change looming and a population predicted to reach almost 10 billion by 2050, developing a sustainable food system to cope with these challenges is imperative. Fortunately, there are promising solutions on the horizon. One in particular has big potential but is surprisingly small – microscopic, in fact.
In the past few years, research advances into various microbiomes – most recently defined as microbial communities made up of viruses, bacteria, archaea, eukaryotes and fungi that are characteristic of particular environments – have led to a better understanding of the crucial role they play in supporting nutrition, health and the environment. In the human gut, for example, the microbiota present help to metabolise nutrients, affecting everything from our immune system to our mood.
Understanding more keenly the function of these microorganisms, alongside developments in gene editing, microbial engineering and nanotechnologies, will allow scientists to improve the capabilities of related ecosystems and their interconnected role within our food system. The potential upsides are clear – the World Economic Forum, for instance, estimates that microbiome innovation in agriculture has the potential to increase production by up to 250 million tonnes, generating up to $100 billion in additional farmer income. But the gap between this promise and reality means that policymakers need to understand the opportunities, risks and current state of play in order to fully leverage these innovations.
Benefits to Our Food System
Improving crop productivity. We’re slowly learning more about the concept of the core microbiome of crops– the basic microbiota that plants have coevolved with. Harnessing this improved understanding of these microbiota, scientists are starting to develop products with enhanced functions – similar to the way in which people take probiotics to help boost their gut flora. For example, they are exploring how microbiota in the soil and in plants play a key role in producing nutrients, triggering growth and improving the resilience of plants to pathogens, insects and environmental stresses. In some species, bacteria trigger growth by converting nitrogen drawn from the atmosphere into compounds that the plants then use for biosynthetic processes. Other microbes support plant resilience through direct production of toxins or by stimulating resistance in the plant itself. So, utilising microbiota can help improve crop yields at scale without the need for harmful fertilisers.
Similarly, altering the microbiomes of certain insects can help reduce the costs that are incurred from the presence of pests in food production – again, without using chemical pesticides. Insect microbes have a symbiotic relationship with their hosts, directly impacting the expression of certain traits such as their colour, ability to digest nutrients, immunity, and behaviour. By tweaking the characteristics of the insects, their microbes or the crops they destroy, scientists have been able to develop several biopesticides that are less harmful to the environment and people. We’ve already seen this with the use of the Wolbachia bacterium in Aedes Aegypti mosquitoes, which are carriers of diseases such as dengue, to control their populations and their ability to spread illnesses.
Carbon sequestration. Soil and aquatic microbiomes also play essential roles in climate change thanks to their ability to capture and store carbon. Increasing this capacity could make a major difference in emissions. A recent study on farming practices suggests that different fertilisers, cropping systems, rotation, additives and crop breeds all impact the microbiomes that directly affect soil’s carbon-sequestration ability. The World Economic Forum estimates that a better understanding and application of microbiome innovation could reduce GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions by up to 30 million tonnes of C02 equivalent, the same as around 10 million tonnes of waste recycled instead of ending in landfill.
Enhancing livestock productivity. Microbial protein produced from waste streams offers a way to better manage waste while also doubling as a potential source of protein for animal feed. Microbial protein can additionally be generated via renewable energy or direct air capture of C02, thereby reducing the usage of land, water and pesticides when compared to the requirements of producing traditional feed. Through a better understanding of the microbiomes of livestock intestine and respiratory tracts, it is also proving possible to reduce antimicrobial use, which has downstream, damaging effects on humans.
Risks to Our Food System
Unintended consequences. The function of different microbiota in different environments and conditions can vary and, often, they can be both helpful and harmful. For example, the development of a probiotic to target a bacterium associated with stomach cancer may reduce rates of the disease but reduction of the bacterium is also associated with increased rates of oesophageal cancer. As microbiomes don’t live in isolation, microbes can also be transmitted between the environment, animals and people. Small changes in one part of the food chain can lead to drastic alterations downstream, as we’ve seen with the impact of antibiotics in livestock on humans. Similarly, microbial protein produced from certain microbes may suit the nutritional profiles of livestock, however, may be unsuitable or even toxic to humans.
Knock-on effects. Policymakers need to be aware of the second- and third-order effects of microbiome-based interventions in the food system. For example, if the development of microbial protein makes feed cheaper, land-use rates may decrease but could that also fuel more consumption of livestock? Microbial-protein production requires less land and water, but taking into account current electricity prices, the cost of energy is currently higher than more traditional methods – and while this is likely to change with the decreasing cost of renewables, how will it impact the environment if scaled up today? And how will policymakers support and retrain the workforce that may be displaced as a result of the adoption of these new techniques?
The Way Forward
Collaboration. In the private sphere, startups and established multinationals are already exploring the applications of microbiome innovations – not surprising, given the fact that agricultural microbial products is one of the fastest-growing industries globally, with a projected market value of approximately $12 billion by 2026. But due to the sheer diversity, number and complexity of microbiomes, it is a challenge to study and analyse them at scale. It’s clear that more research is needed and international collaboration required. Policymakers will need to align on terminology, agendas, knowledge-sharing and availability of data to develop consistent regulatory frameworks that are innovation-friendly. Treaties like the Nagoya Protocol, which clarifies regulations on access and benefits sharing in biological diversity, provide an example of a legal framework that could foster collaboration. And as the environment, animals and humans are so intricately linked in the food chain, a systems approach is needed to fully understand the potential impacts of any changes. This means that researchers also need to collaborate across disciplines, in fields such as genetics, microbiology, ecology and human health.
Centres of excellence. Given the complexity of microbiome research, policymakers will need the support of experts both globally and domestically to help set guidelines around research, regulation and how it fits into wider food-system reform. Some institutions have already begun to crop up but more centralised centres of excellence will ensure consistency of focus, training and safety. Furthermore, these centres could help drive awareness and acceptance of microbiome innovation among stakeholders through education and training programmes. Many agricultural communities may be keen to use these new tools but currently lack the knowledge to do so. These centres could work closely with stakeholders to help upskill and combine emerging tools with conventional farming to bridge the gap in the short term.
Investment. To support innovation, governments need to step up long-term investment in education, research, production infrastructure, data-management systems and biobanking. Government investment is essential to ensuring that research funds are extended to areas that may not have an immediate commercial value but have long-term implications for society. Several initiatives have already sprung up, for example, the European Union’s “Horizon 2020” is the biggest EU research and innovation programme ever with nearly €80 billion of funding available to action Food 2030, with the microbiome sector highlighted as one of ten pathways. Investment is also required to work towards the successful application of these innovations. According to Professor Brajesh Singh, who researches microbiology and farm productivity and is the director of the Global Centre for Land-Based Innovation at Western Sydney University, if we’re asking stakeholders like farmers, who have invested in traditional tools and are used to traditional practices, to change their approach for the benefit of society, then they shouldn’t bear the entire risk and cost and should be shared by all stakeholders.
Outline a unified strategy. There is an urgent need for a radical change on how we feed the world and microbiome innovation is just one of many exciting areas where technology can reshape the food system for the better. While the sharp rise in investment in revolutionary food technologies is helping to drive this transformation, tackling food security and sustainability must come from both the private and public sectors working together. And on the policy side, collaboration, creating centres of excellence and investment aren’t going to happen overnight. The most important step in the short term is for policymakers to start the conversation: ensuring that microbiome innovation is on the agenda at home and abroad. Only then can policymakers begin to outline a strategy that fits into a wider plan for a sustainable food system. We’re beginning to get a glimpse of a future where feeding the world doesn’t come at the expense of the environment. But we need a unified strategy to explore new areas of progress that will turn this future into a reality.