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Slaves to Nitrogen

The world demand for protein is growing fantastically even as the world food chain is being depleted. The solution is a new green revolution to get nitrogen into the food system faster.

The NYTimes story about forced labor on fishing boats in Asia opens eyes to how drastically the sourcing of food on our plate has changed. Promised a job, men work onboard ships, where they are put on duty 24/7, can get beaten, and maybe just as bad, are often not paid at all for their work.

As the reporter talks to one of the shipmasters, one phrase caught my eye:

The boat’s Thai crew master, Tang … ticked off a list of the pressures on deep-sea captains. Fuel costs eat up about 60 percent of a vessel’s earnings, double what they did two decades ago. Once fish are caught, storing them in melting ice is a race against the clock. As fish thaw, their protein content falls, dropping their sale price … boats work on commission, “Crews only get paid if we catch enough.”

This is an awful job; Tang has very little reason to be doing this either. What Tang is selling is not fish by weight but the weight of protein in the fish. That protein is used as feed for fish farms and pets, its not seen on the dining table, feeding the fish we farm and our pets is getting harder to do. Tang is an operative of the world Nitrogen economy, a shadow market that will dictate how 9 billion people will eat in the next 30 years.

Protein is Life and It’s Limited by Nitrogen

If DNA is the program of life, proteins are life itself. Protein is a chain of amino acids assembled according to the information stored in the genome. Proteins transform what we eat into vitamins, fats and amino acids. Proteins transform energy into motion, thought, impulses and desire. Proteins are made primarily of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen.

Nitrogen is all around us — Nitrogen gas makes up 78% of Earth’s atmosphere, but its so inert that only microorganisms a few feet under the soil or water surface can convert them into bio-available forms of nitrogen that living things can use. Nitrogen conversion by these microorganisms is slow in the ecosystem and since protein is most of the weight of a cell after water, a lack of available nitrogen will limit the growth of limiting things.

This Fertilizer plant really produces people.

Before the 20th century, lack of protein could prevent crops and animals from growing and made famine a common experience. For human beings the Haber-Bosch process ended that.

Producing bio-available nitrogen from nitrogen gas from air and natural gas, Haber-Bosch was the first modern short cut in the world Nitrogen cycle.

Industrial fertilizers allowed the human population to grow beyond about 2 billion for the first time in history. Today, artificial fertilizers consume ~4% of natural gas worldwide and about half of the nitrogen fixed in the world every year is produced by industrial processes descended from Haber-Bosch.

We need a Nitrogen Revolution which reroutes the world Protein Network

Now the World Nitrogen Economy has a different problem. Nitrogen from our waste streams and agricultural runoff are causing algal blooms and red tides and even so, it looks as if there might not be enough food for humanity in 20 years.

Ever smaller fish are being collected faster than they can reproduce for cheap protein move nitrogen up the food chain so we can eat it. There is simply not enough time for the protein to get into larger fish or animals to meet demand. Over a third of the humanity eats fish as a major protein source and 98% of fisheries in the world are fully or over exploited and smaller and smaller fish are now being collected by boats like Tang’s.

The solution is to replumb the world nitrogen cycle to move protein up the food chain to the table using technology, leave some fish for the 22nd century and avoid famine.

Here are examples of Nitrogen Economy shortcuts for the 21st century.

  1. Meat without the animals. Expensive protein sources like meat can be replaced with plant products. Cutting animals out of the food chain eliminates the need to feed the animal, raise it up, just to eat it. There are quite a few companies doing this already. Some are making meat-like foods out of plant proteins (I call this Mock Duck Tech): Impossible Foods, Hampton Creek, and Ripple Foods are examples.
  2. Microbial Food. Beyond that, its possible to take nitrogen entirely from nitrogen salts (fertilizer) and Agricultural byproduct (like starch from leaves) to make food directly. Companies like Memphis Meats and Modern Meadow grow their meat directly from cells, Clara Foods brews egg whites from yeast.
  3. Agtech. GMO plants produce more, taste better, last longer, are more nutritious, resist fungal, front and insect attacks. Properly planned genetically modified organisms are the products of tools and can really add to the value of the foods we have.
  4. Reuse / Recycle. About 30% of all food grown is wasted. Although we want to overlook it, human waste accounts for a large percentage of nitrogen leaving the economy. Rather than overload and imbalance the environment, it would be very efficient to get it back into food form faster. Can we grow cheap protein for feed applications from sterilized waste streams?
  5. Alternative protein sources. Faster growing, protein rich crops can add to the modern diet and create protein efficiently. Quinoa is a popular new protein source, but the land where quinoa can be grown is running out. For world scale protein food markets, insects like crickets and mealworms, duckweed, and algae are being seriously considered as sources for protein that can be harvested much more frequently than conventional crops.
  6. Farm Tech. Using automation, data and enclosed greenhouses can reduce agricultural runoff and make more efficient use of water and nitrogen nutrients. Hydroponic and aeroponic agriculture technologies get nitrogen and other nutrients into the plant more efficiently, so that crops can be harvested in a fraction of the time and year round.

When it comes to feeding everyone good food, no single solution is going to feed the world. A whole new generation of companies and programs are working on different parts of the protein problem. Even biotech heavy solutions are enhancing the efficiency of our conventional Agriculture, using Ag products for their nutrient sources. While lots of people will continue to eat only organic food, looking at the system as a whole will be necessary to feed all of us with the greatest possible quality and safety.

Originally published Aug 12, 2015 on Medium. by Ron Shigeta, Life Science VC interested in the Future of Food

Ron Shigeta

Ron Shigeta PhD, CSO IndieBio. Ron did his academic training at Princeton, Stanford and Harvard Medical School and is a 15 year veteran of Biotech in the Bay Area, working at Affymetrix and as a serial biotech startup entrepreneur. Being an early adopter and scientific advisor to the Do-it-Yourself Bio (DIYBio) movement has influenced the flavor of lean startup models being created at IndieBio.

Ron is a veteran of the biotechnology industry in the San Francisco Bay Area and has built several startups during his industry career as employee, consultant and principal. Ron was a Scientist for Affymetrix, a bioinformatician, biohacker (at BioCurious) and co-founder of Berkeley BioLabs. He can troubleshoot or build anything in the lab, from cells to robotics! Ron received his PhD in Chemistry from Princeton University focusing in biophysics.

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Ron Shigeta

Ron Shigeta

Ron Shigeta PhD, CSO IndieBio. Ron did his academic training at Princeton, Stanford and Harvard Medical School and is a 15 year veteran of Biotech in the Bay Area, working at Affymetrix and as a serial biotech startup entrepreneur. Being an early adopter and scientific advisor to the Do-it-Yourself Bio (DIYBio) movement has influenced the flavor of lean startup models being created at IndieBio.

Ron is a veteran of the biotechnology industry in the San Francisco Bay Area and has built several startups during his industry career as employee, consultant and principal. Ron was a Scientist for Affymetrix, a bioinformatician, biohacker (at BioCurious) and co-founder of Berkeley BioLabs. He can troubleshoot or build anything in the lab, from cells to robotics! Ron received his PhD in Chemistry from Princeton University focusing in biophysics.

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