söndag 4 maj 2008

Innovative farming to combat climate change and soaring food prices

With food and crops prices soaring causing world-wide protest, the biofuel industry has come under heavy fire. In particular, biodiesel and ethanol production from corn, wheat, soy beans and other is questioned, but also biofuel production from other sources ; considering that the land could be used for food crops.
Biogas, should of course not course not be questioned in this way, as its relation to food prices is still very distant, and it is by far the most climate friendly biofuel.
The demand for crops is fueled by laws demanding a certain share of renewable energy (such as the
proposed EU-wide target of 10 percent by 2020) or subsidy programs (such as ethanol subsidies).

Other factors are even more important for crops prices, such as increased meat and bread consumption in China and India. Further on, some claim that the situation is worsened beceause of market inefficiency as a result of faulty goverment policies such as trade barriers and agricultural subsidies.

There are few reasons to believe that the situation is going to improve in a near future. Although it would be possible to improve efficiency, farming methods and logistics in some parts of the world, growing global demands for a higher living standard (including more meat) and for biofuels will keep increasing the prices.
In the medium term however, there are several interesting technologies that may not only increase productivity, but also decrease the need of farm land and replace some agricultural products entirely. They may seem rather un-orthodox, and perhaps even appalling to some. Still they may contribute to reduce the crops and food prices. How about:

In vitro meat
The livestock meat industry is very inefficient from an energy and nutritional point of view: 75% to 95% of what is used to feed the animal is lost through metabolism or transformed into inedible structures. Meat production needs up to ten times more energy per edible ton compared to grain production. In vitro meatis meat grown in laboratories, with ambitions to scale up the production to industrial scale in a near future. Basically, the meat is grown using stem cells or satellite cells, focusing on producing muscle fibers and fats. Hopefully, this could mean cheap meat with less animal suffering, less areal needed for grain production, less energy use and less methane emissions from livestock herds.

Chemical-free seed treatment
Although in vitro meat may raise some eye brows, most people would probably find the endeavors of Swedish-Dutch company Seedgard praiseworthy.
Crop diseases is a serious problem in several parts of the world, with recent outbursts of for instance black stem rust almost creating a disastrous famine. Traditionally, the seeds for sowing corn have been treated in chemical-intensive methods, to kill fungi and disease-generating organisms.
In the developing countries, not even the dirty methods are available to most farmers in the developing countries. Seedgard has developed a method for treating the seeds using hot air instead of chemicals, being no less efficient than traditional methods, and in some cases even more efficient.

Genetic engineering for better biofuel crops
From an environmental point of view, there are several reasons to be suspicious about genetically modified crops, which makes the use of modified crops for improved biofuel production a ”green dilemma”. Still, this branch of biotechnology could be an important part of the effort to reduce world hunger. During the last few years, research has been increasingly aimed at improving seeds and crops for biofuel production, in particular ethanol and biodiesel.
There are countless efforts in this field, with the variation of the type of research being great. Among the modifications are corn varieties that contain enzymes that otherwise would be needed to add later in the ethanol production, corn with a higher fermentable starch content (increasing the ethanol production with 2%-5%) to designing new biofuels from scratch. All of these efforts could be melted down to one desired result: more litres per acre.

Farm sky scrapers
If farms could be vertical rather than horizontal, less land would be needed for agriculture. This is something to have in mind when reading about projects as SkyFarm, a Toronto real estate project where food will produced in a 58-floor building. There are other projects under planning as well. Among the benefits growing vegetables and crops in an artificial environment in skyscraper like buildings: producing the food in urban areas, closer to the consumers reduces transport costs (and thereby emissions), protect the crops from pollution and unpredictable weather and against diseases.

Time will tell, which of these concepts will make a real difference in the quest for cheaper food and more biofuel. From an investor point of view, it is interesting to follow a few related companies closely, in particular gene-tech and seed companies such as Ceres, Syngenta and Targeted Growth.

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