Nestled in Albany, California — a one square mile city a stone’s throw from Berkeley — lies the USDA’s Western Regional Research Center (USDA-ARS). Nondescript and tucked back from a main thoroughfare, you’d never know it was there unless you knew it was there. On a fogless day, you can see the coastline of San Francisco and Alcatraz glimmering in the bay from the roof.
Another little known fact: the group of buildings huddled on that small plot of land is the location for several historical synthetic biology milestones — arguably the first GMO wheat, in collaboration with UC Davis researchers, was grown there. The rooftop greenhouse also housed the Flavr Savr tomato at one point. Today, it houses lettuce modified to produce rubber and a cacophony of other genetically modified plants.
But perhaps even more exciting than all that are the number of labs distributed across several floors that are studying ways to make agriculture more sustainable — from repurposing almond shells to developing synthetic rubber. Leading the helm is William (Bill) Orts, the Bioproducts Research Leader at USDA-ARS. Words tumble out of his mouth seemingly faster than his brain can keep up, he’s so enthusiastic about the work his research teams are doing.
Orts is a veritable fountain of expertise when it comes to how to make the world a more sustainable place. But this is one subject on which his words are few: stay local, he says, matter-of-factly. “Locally produced, locally sourced, and reduce carbon miles — just keep those closed loops tighter.”
Make local global
Some of the groups under Orts’ leadership at ARS are thinking of novel, creative ways to repurpose agricultural waste and reduce carbon miles at the same time. One group, for example, is extracting sugar from almond hulls to use as food for locally wintering honey bees. Another is working on an alternative to the peat moss used to grow mushrooms, which typically travels 600-700 miles to the California organic mushroom growers that use it.
Such creative, outside-the-box solutions for agriculture are exactly the type of transformative ideas likely to cause real change when it comes to the fate of our planet. They aren’t easy to implement, but their potential for real change is high — and that’s exactly why investment firm Data Collective VC (DCVC) invests in companies leveraging such strategies.
“We like to see novel science that is driving either a new business, or [driving] a business in a completely different direction,” says Kiersten Stead, Managing Partner at DCVC Bio. Stead has been passionate about solving the world’s tough environmental problems since she started her career as a plant breeder and molecular biologist. “From a young age I felt ideologically driven to do something important from an environmental perspective,” she says, adding, “For me this meant working on uncoupling food production from increased use of resources.” She is bringing her expertise and passion to DCVC Bio where she focuses on supporting computationally enabled life science companies.
But efficient, evidence-based farming practices such as those being developed at ARS and the companies in the DCVC portfolio need to be adopted globally if we are to impact climate change and sustain population growth — a task that might be easier said than done.
“We know today that if we apply the farming system — the efficiency that North America, for example, has put in place — across the globe, we don’t need novel technology to sustain those populations … we need to apply existing practices judiciously across the globe. [But there are] places in the world that refuse to adopt existing biotechnology that’s been tested for decades for political reasons, because some NGOs are pushing false narratives down on people. We find these types of things just heartbreaking, and big challenges for us to solve,” says Stead.
Even so, things aren’t as dire as they seem. Agriculture has made huge strides in recent decades, says Stead, pointing to our ability to uncouple food production from land use and inputs as an example. Using advanced breeding alone, we have been increasing corn yields at a rate of about 1.2% every year for decades. Perhaps we just need to start thinking about the problem a bit differently.
What is sustainable?
Most people wouldn’t argue that reducing or eliminating land use is the best solution to more sustainably feed the planet. Animal agriculture especially is seen as a significant drain on Earth’s resources — and a considerable contributor to climate change. Yet consider this: only 9% of the U.S.’s greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to agriculture (compared to 30% from electricity, 26% from transportation, and 21% from industry) — and of that 9%, 5% is from crops while 4% is from animals.
And in many places of the world, including North America, cattle (which are incredibly efficient at converting resources into calories) are being grazed on marginal land that couldn’t be used for crops; in other words, animal agriculture is the only way to extract calories from that land. Is leaving such land fallow — especially in a world where our growing population demands more food each and every day — sustainable when thinking of it this way?
Sometimes the only way to “extract” calories from land is through animal agriculture. Image source: Flickr
The question isn’t straightforward, and there will be staunch supporters of both sides of the argument. But, realistically, Stead sees the future of more sustainable agriculture globally as a balancing act.
“After having been in agriculture a long time, the probable outcome [I see] is a balance of optimization,” says Stead. “The optimization curve will involve a number of solutions that will be adopted differently across different geographies, and people will have a choice as to how they want to balance those options, whether it’s reduced meat consumption, reduced milk consumption, [perhaps] balanced with occasional yellow pea-based and other meat alternatives. In all cases, adopting new advancements in breeding, automation, land management and consumption are required.”
Farmers as partners in sustainability
Looking ahead, Stead views some of the most promising technologies as those that prepare farmers for crises and help them save money during those crises. Take this year, for example: due to uncharacteristically wet weather in the corn and soy regions of the United States, only about 85% of the soybean crop is planted; typically at this time of year, 97% of the crop is planted. Elegant solutions that help farmers prepare for such crises are sorely needed, especially as strange weather patterns resulting from climate change show no signs of slowing down.
One of farmers’ biggest line items on their annual budgets is nitrogen — a critical component of the soil for crop health. Reducing the amount of money farmers have to spend on nitrogen will enable them to pocket more cash that can be saved for a — pun intended — rainy day. One of DCVC’s portfolio companies, Pivot Bio, is helping farmers reduce fertilization costs and increase crop yield through a nitrogen producing microbe that delivers nitrogen directly to crop roots, and is an excellent example of a company working directly with farmers to make agriculture more sustainable.
But the solution doesn’t always lie in synthetic biology, suggests Stead, referencing New Zealand-based company Halter.
“They’ve designed an intelligent system that automates the desired movement of individual animals. It’s a smart collar that understands and learns the behavior of each animal, and allows farmers to set the grazing and travel patterns of the herd in advance. It eliminates labor and also allows the farmer more efficient monitoring of feeding, illness, possible problems…. It helps farms remove line items from their budget, and replaces them with intelligent systems that give them information. This provides a benefit to the animals and farm operations,” explains Stead. “We have made additional investments where the company helps farms reduce labor reliance and closes the loop on farm practices with robotics.”
Orts points back to creative solutions for repurposing waste, which could also benefit farmers by maximizing the financial gain from a crop. He’s worked with groups that have explored converting almond shells and hulls into ethanol, biocoal, and fillers that make plastics stiffer and more heat stable.
More efficient use of food waste (Americans throw away 35 millions tons of food annually) can also make agriculture more sustainable. For example, in the early 2000s, Kevin Holtman, a USDA scientist working with the Salinas Valley Solid Waste Management Board, worked to convert food waste into energy — by autoclaving residential garbage. And while the process worked to produce ethanol, it had an unexpected perk.
“What ended up happening is the garbage ended up being very uniform — American garbage has a lot of fiber. And we could screen the garbage and take out the fiber that you could [then] turn into cardboard,” says Orts. The process was a three-for-one punch, essentially, reducing the amount of garbage traveling to the landfill while repurposing it for energy and materials.
Cleaned fibers resulting from autoclaved residential garbage. Image source: Bill Orts/USDA-ARS
It can be difficult to remain optimistic about the future of our environment when we are bombarded daily with more news about climate change, growing populations, and dwindling arable land. But if we focus more on the significant gains we’ve already made and remember that there are groups working tirelessly toward more creative, sustainable solutions — perhaps hidden out of site in our own backyards — we can share Orts and Stead’s vision for a bright future for agriculture and our environment.
Learn how companies like Pivot Bio and others are making agriculture more sustainable and cleaning up our environment at SynBioBeta 2019 October 1-3 in San Francisco, CA.3