Subscribe on YouTube and never miss an interview!
Dr. Steven Webb
Executive Director and CEO - Global Institute for Food Security (GIFS)

Engineering Biology in Agri-Food: Protecting Food Security and Sequestering Carbon

Published on

Takeaways

  1. Bioengineering and biomanufacturing applications are critical to the development of value-added food products produced widely throughout Canada.   
  2. Biomanufacturing processes provide big opportunities for the sequestration of carbon and the capability to reuse it to enrich soils.
  3. Engineering biology is a disruptive and transformative technology that is being widely invested in by many G20 countries.

Action

A national strategy will help Canada capitalize on bioengineering and biomanufacturing technologies, creating additional value for the economy. Partnerships between industry and government will allow for more robust collaborations on innovation.


What are bioengineering and biomanufacturing, and how can they be seen as a technology platform? 

In layman’s terms, bioengineering, biomanufacturing, and engineering biology use natural biological processes to make useful products, tools and technologies. It is applying what nature does and making it even better. When it is referred to as a platform technology, it is not just the biology. Engineering biology and biomanufacturing integrate automation and miniaturization with biology and computational technologies like machine learning and artificial intelligence. Think about the platform as integrating A, B, and C, to accelerate the rate at which we develop new products and support products in the marketplace. What is interesting is the engineering biology platform is agnostic to the industry segment that it would be applied to. At GIFS, our engineering biology platform is focused on agriculture and food, but because it relies on the same automation, biology, and computational tools, we could redeploy against targets of health interest, targets related to biomaterials, or any other industry segment. 


How do bioengineering and biomanufacturing intersect with agrifood innovation, and how can their application expand Canada’s status as an agricultural innovator? 

First of all, biomanufacturing and bioengineering have been the cornerstones of our entire agriculture and food systems since mankind first started to farm. Things like fermentation for making cheeses, yogurts, bread, and beers are a part of that bioengineering and biomanufacturing process. When you think about agriculture as it relates to products in the field, the use of biological inoculants to help plants better convert atmospheric nitrogen into usable nitrogen is an example of a technology we have used for a long time. 

“Biomanufacturing and bioengineering have been the cornerstones of our entire agriculture and food systems since mankind first started to farm.” 

The application of an engineering biology platform to agri-food and the ability to link automation with biology and computation accelerates our learning cycle—the design, build, test, and learn cycle, which allows us to go faster and integrate knowledge that we accumulated over the last 30 to 40 years into new applications for agri-food. Examples of products that are on the market today that engineering biology has helped make better and more available to people would be natural products like spinosad and spinetoram, which are derived from microbial systems and help with strain improvement.  

Examples that we have heard from other major players in the industry relate to enzymes for helping to convert milk into cheeses more efficiently and uniformly. One of the more relevant examples for us in Western Canada is we produce a lot of peas for plant-based proteins and meat alternatives, and two key ingredients that make pea proteins taste like meat are myoglobin and hemoglobin, which are produced using engineering biology techniques so that we can have plant-based meats that taste like food.  

“Agriculture is a huge asset for Canada to help meet its climate change targets by looking at carbon sequestration in Western Canadian farmland as a major natural sink for greenhouse gases.” 

One of the applications that we are particularly interested in here at GIFS are the big challenges that we see facing agriculture: carbon sequestration and climate change. We see how we build more resiliency into the agriculture and agri-food system as part of food security, so how we make plants more adaptable and resilient in the face of biotic and antibiotic stresses. The other area that we are interested in is the nutritional qualities and food applications as well. We are very keen on how to make healthier food, more of it, and with a lower environmental footprint, how to adapt and overcome climate change, and how to deal with the opportunities that agriculture represents for Canada related to climate change. Agriculture is a huge asset for Canada to help meet its climate change targets by looking at carbon sequestration in Western Canadian farmland as a major natural sink for greenhouse gases. 


What are Canada’s biggest opportunities in using biomanufacturing and bioengineering in agrifood production? 

The big opportunities in agriculture relate to ensuring that we have a safe, reliable, and robust supply of food, not just for Canada but to help feed the world. How can we take advantage of the unfair advantage we have here in Canada to do it in a more environmentally friendly way than in other parts of the world where they have more challenges related to water and soil health?  

“The big opportunities in agriculture relate to ensuring that we have a safe, reliable, and robust supply of food, not just for Canada but to help feed the world.” 

I see the opportunities in agriculture and food based on the three pillars that I mentioned: carbon sequestration and climate change, improved nutritional quality of materials not just in terms of the bulk grain we export but also the value addition, and the resiliency and decision-making tools that engineering biology can help develop. One of the applications that we see for engineering biology is the construction of biosensors to help us better measure carbon sequestration and other nutrient use efficiency issues that the farming system has in real-time and in the field. I see biological engineering being able to build tools and sensors to help us throughout the entire value chain of the agriculture and food systems. We can monitor not only what is happening on the field but also post-harvest to ensure that we do not lose the product we produced on the farm between the farm gate and the consumer’s plate. That is a real challenge and COVID-19 has shown how disruption of the supply chain has led to the paradox of unpicked fruit, spoilage of product at the farm, and absence on the grocery shelf.  

We see the development of tools, sensors, technology, further digitization, and the application of biological sensors. We see accelerated plant breeding to build more resiliency into plants, and we see the real opportunity that engineering biology has shown both on the food ingredients side and also on the production of natural products to use naturally derived products as better, safer, and more efficacious pesticides. We are going to need to control diseases, weeds, and insects, but we need to do it smarter and we need new tools and technologies that are more efficacious, environmentally friendly, and safer for its users. 


Are bioengineering and biomanufacturing the underpinning of the evolution of agriculture and other sectors?  

One of the things that we have to realize is that investments in bioengineering have been made in many of our G20 counterparts. In the UK, for example, they are probably number two or number three in terms of total investment into this space. They see biomanufacturing as the fourth industrial revolution, so this is certainly transformative. When people use the phrase, “This is the fourth industrial revolution,” it is transformative. 

What is interesting about it is that it impacts not just agriculture and food, but cuts across almost every business segment we have in Canada. One of the exciting things about this technology and the opportunity related to climate change and carbon sequestration is building plants that are more efficient at harvesting sunlight. They can sequester even more greenhouse gas and put it into the soil where organic matter in the soil helps with plant nutrition, water retention, and other good things. 

“One of the exciting things about this technology and the opportunity related to climate change and carbon sequestration is building plants that are more efficient at harvesting sunlight.” 

This technology platform is incredibly disruptive and we are seeing many other countries around the world make strategic investments in this space. That is an opportunity for us here in Canada. I am happy to be part of the national steering committee for the engineering biology roadmap, and in Canada, we need to have a national-level strategy because it is so transformative. One of the low-hanging fruits of shovel-ready opportunities are the agriculture and agri-food space. It is a critical asset in what we can do for Canada not just in terms of making agriculture and food more efficient and robust for our supply domestically, but it helps us worldwide with trade and it helps us drive economic recovery from the COVID-19 crisis. We have an unfair advantage here in Canada compared to the rest of the world, and we should take advantage of that opportunity because we are blessed to be in this country. 


What is that unfair advantage? 

One of the biggest unfair advantages we have is where we produce. We produce all across the country, but 40% of the cropland in Canada is in Saskatchewan. Saskatchewan is a low-density population space with a high degree of capacity to capture sunlight and convert atmospheric carbon dioxide into fixed carbon. That is a huge opportunity for us here in Western Canada.  

“Organic matter content is going up in our soils in Western Canada because of the adoption of no-till agriculture back in the late 1990s.” 

There have been a number of reports and op-ed articles over the last year and half of that organic matter content is going up in our soils in Western Canada because of the adoption of no-till agriculture back in the late 1990s. The opportunity that engineering biology brings is to be able to have better measurements in real-time to enable a carbon trade. It also enables us to make better plants that are even more efficient at carbon sequestration. We have a massive landmass here which allows us to harvest a lot of sun energy and convert gas carbon dioxide (CO2) into fixed CO2 for food, feedstocks, further bioconversion, and to lock it away in the soil to enrich the farmland we already have. This is a wonderful opportunity that we have here in Western Canada. 


Who and what would you pitch about improving Canada’s leadership in bioengineering and biomanufacturing?  

I would love the opportunity to speak with the Prime Minister. I would let the Prime Minister know how transformative and disruptive this technology can be both for our existing businesses but also in the opportunity the technology has to create and add additional value to the Canadian economy in terms of economic growth, environmental sustainability, and the social acceptance of new tools and technologies. I would also share that industry has invested a lot into this technology space and we need cohesive public leadership to partner with industry to create that team approach to how we can address these challenges. We have witnessed the opportunity that biomanufacturing and bioengineering have created, where governments have worked with industries through Operation Warpspeed to create a vaccine for the COVID-19 pandemic. It is the most illustrative value to the government of why this is a capability that is needed and how it can transform how we do things, not just in agriculture and food, but across the Canadian economy.  

Dr. Steven Webb
Executive Director and CEO - Global Institute for Food Security (GIFS)

Bio: Steven Webb is the Executive Director and CEO at the Global Institute for Food Security. Before this, he was with Corteva Agriscience for 23 years, most recently as their Research and Development Director of External Technology. He was also part of Dow AgroSciences Canada as a Research Scientist in Field Research and Development. He has a doctorate in immunochemistry and a Master’s degree in biochemistry from the University of Guelph  

 

Organization Profile: The Global Institute for Food Security (GIFS) is a research and development institution founded in a partnership between Nutrien, the Government of Saskatchewan, and the University of SaskatchewanThey work with a diverse range of partners to discover, develop and deliver innovative solutions for the production of globally sustainable food. They also invest in relevant technology platforms.