Biotechnology in Agrifood: How Biotechnology is Transforming Food Security and Sustainability

by May 16, 2024Food Innovation, Climate Impact0 comments

Composite graphic of four Gogettaz Agripreneurs who working on biotechnology innovations

From enhancing crop resilience to creating novel foods, biotechnology innovations are transforming food security and sustainability in Africa.

Technology in the food system is a gamechanger. That is why it is one of the important impact areas judges and evaluators look for in the GoGettaz Agripreneur Prize Competition. A particularly exciting development in agrifood technology is the use of biological processes and techniques to solve some of the biggest problems in the food system. In this article we look at biotechnology in agrifood and how agripreneurs and organisations throughout the continent are using it to build a healthier future.

In recent decades, biotechnology has revolutionized the landscape of our food system, offering innovative solutions to address pressing challenges such as food security, environmental sustainability, and nutritional quality. By harnessing the power of genetic engineering, tissue culture, molecular biology, and other cutting-edge techniques, biotechnology has enabled the development of crops with enhanced resistance to pests and diseases, improved nutritional profiles, and increased yields, transforming the way we produce, distribute, and consume food on a global scale. As we navigate the complexities of feeding a growing population amidst environmental constraints, understanding the role and potential of biotechnology in shaping the future of our food supply is more crucial than ever.

Biofortification: Biotechnology for better nutrition

Excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is making plants less nutrient-dense. While industrial fortification adds micronutrients and vitamins during food processing, many subsistence farmers, who live off the staple crops they grow, do not get the benefit. This causes “hidden hunger” where people get enough calories, but they don’t get essential vitamins and minerals. Hidden hunger weakens immune systems, leading to health complications such as stunting, anaemia, and poor pregnancy outcomes.

Organisations like HarvestPlus, working with CGAIR, are using biofortification to tackle hidden hunger. Instead of adding vitamins and mineral during processing, biofortification crossbreeds widely grown crop varieties with carefully selected seeds from genebanks that have naturally higher levels of iron, zinc, or vitamin A. Biofortified staple crops offer a practical and cost-effective solution, providing familiar and nutritious options for smallholder farming families who rely on what they grow themselves.

As Miranda Lipton of The Guardian reports “HarvestPlus has already released 400 varieties of staple crop; none of them are patented,” so farmers can grow and share seeds freely. Biofortification is not a perfect solution, because “it focuses on one or possibly two nutrients per plant, whereas nutrient decline tends to affect many nutrients simultaneously,” says Donald Davis of the University of Texas in their interview.

Crescentia Mushobozi co founder of Viable Tanzania

Crescentia Mushobozi of Viable Tanzania tracking the progress of their potatoes in the field.

In Tanzania, one young agripreneur is breeding new, disease-resistant and high-yielding potato strains using tissue culture. Tissue culture involves growing plants from cells or tissues in a controlled environment to produce disease-free and uniform plantlets. Crescentia Mushobozi of Tanzania Vijana Agribusiness Enterprises (a.k.a Viable) won a GoGettaz Impact Award for their work. Viable is a dynamic, youth-led startup that focuses on providing disease-free, high-quality potato seedlings through innovative tissue culture technology.

Their work is not just about producing potato crops; it’s about significantly impacting the health and well-being of Tanzanians. However, the initiative extends beyond agriculture by creating a ripple effect of positive change. By offering training programs that empower farmers with modern techniques, Tanzania Viable contributes to job creation and economic growth. This empowerment transcends individual farmers and benefits families, communities, and the larger economy. The strategic use of technology amplifies their impact by ensuring robust seedling quality and aligning with global trends toward sustainable farming practices. Because their innovative biotechnology approach minimizes the need for pesticides and increases yields, Viable is contributing to both food security and environmental preservation.

Biotechnology for drought resistance

Six years of drought in Morocco has left countless wheat and barley farms barren. In Marchouch, however, the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) “achieved a yield of four tonnes per hectare with just 200 millimetres of rainfall” reports Kaouthar Oudrhiri of ICARDA’s adapted genotypes of wild wheat bred with different ancestor strains achieved remarkable harvests when combined with strategic irrigation and innovative planting techniques. It demonstrates the potential of biotechnology to create disease-free and climate-resistant crops.

In a brand new discovery that might lead to more climate resistant crops, Susan Elizabeth Turek of The Cool Down reports that scientists have made a significant breakthrough in plant growth manipulation by using the medication mebendazole (MBZ), typically used for treating parasites. Through experimentation, they found that MBZ caused plants to develop shallower roots, leading to the identification of hormone pathways that can be manipulated to help plants grow deeper roots. This discovery, detailed in the journal Cell Reports earlier this year and led by Wolfgang Busch of the Harnessing Plants Initiative at the Salk Institute, suggests potential for engineering climate-resilient crops. As extreme weather events increase due to global warming, deeper-rooted plants offer resilience against drought and locks carbon deeper in the soil. This biotechnology may even be useful in flood-prone areas where deep roots can prevent erosion.

Biotechnology for food preservation

Pelkin Ajanoh Presenting Cassvita at TEDx MIT

Pelkins Ajanoh presenting Cassvita’s revolutionary microbe baths at TEDx MIT.

Biotechnology for food preservation is advancing rapidly, offering innovative alternatives to traditional chemical-based methods. Researchers from various institutions have made significant strides in developing bioprocesses for producing valuable compounds such as L-alanine using metabolically engineered microorganisms, highlighting the potential for biotechnological synthesis to replace chemical methods in food and pharmaceutical industries. Studies have also shown that reducing fungicide use combined with proper handling can maintain fruit quality while minimizing waste and costs. Additionally, natural antimicrobial compounds and lactic acid bacteria are being explored as biopreservatives, with promising results in controlling harmful microorganisms and extending the shelf life of fresh produce. These advancements not only enhance food safety but also contribute to sustainability by reducing reliance on chemical preservatives and decreasing food waste.

Pelkins Ajanoh, Co-Founder and CEO of CassVita, exemplifies the impact of biotechnology on food preservation with his innovative approach to extending the shelf life of cassava. Recognizing the crucial role of cassava in ensuring food security amidst climate change, Ajanoh’s company has developed proprietary post-harvest processing techniques that can extend cassava’s shelf life from three days to an impressive eighteen months. This breakthrough is particularly significant for rural farmers, allowing them to derive greater value from their crops by reducing spoilage and waste. CassVita’s climate-resilient cassava not only helps to stabilize food supply chains but also empowers farmers by enhancing their economic opportunities and resilience in the face of environmental challenges.

Biotechnology for new food and feeds of the future

Dr Leah Bessa of DeNovo Foodlabs with her dog and office mascot Frankie

Dr. Leah Bessa is Chief Science Officer and Co-Founder of DeNovo Foodlabs with office mascot Frankie.

One of the most fascinating fields in biotechnology is the creation novel foods. Companies like De Novo Foodlabs in South Africa leading the way. Co-Founded by Leah Bessa, an inspirational finalist in the first year of the GoGettaz Agripreneur Prize competition, the company was initially known as Gourmet Grubb and gained attention in 2019 for making ice cream from insect milk. Now, De Novo Foodlabs focuses on creating advanced nutritional solutions using precision fermentation technology. This method allows them to produce valuable compounds and nutrients, like rare proteins and peptides, without traditional animal farming.

One of their innovative products is NanoFerrin™, an animal-free lactoferrin protein. Lactoferrin, found in cow’s colostrum, has antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties that support gut health, boost the immune system, and improve nutrient absorption. Using precision fermentation, De Novo Foodlabs can produce 100 times more protein with 90 times less land and eight times less water than conventional methods. Their mission is to develop essential nutrients and promote a healthier, more sustainable future for both people and the planet. De Novo Foodlabs shows how biotechnology can create eco-friendly nutritional solutions that improve human health.

In recent biotechnology breakthroughs, Erin Feiger reports, that researchers have discovered that cyanobacteria, commonly known as blue-green algae, can be engineered to produce proteins that form fibrous strands similar to meat fibres. This innovative approach involves inserting foreign genes into the cyanobacteria, enabling them to produce protein nanofibers, which could be utilized in plant-based meat, cheese, or other foods that require specific textures.

This development is particularly exciting because cyanobacteria are not only highly sustainable but also rich in proteins and fatty acids. Unlike traditional agriculture, they do not require large tracts of land or extensive resources to cultivate, thriving on water, atmospheric CO2, and sunlight. This makes them an ideal candidate for reducing the environmental impact of food production. By providing a more meat-like texture and reducing the need for extensive processing, these cyanobacteria-based proteins could encourage more people to adopt plant-based diets, contributing to a significant reduction in planet-warming pollution from animal agriculture. As research progresses, this promising technology could revolutionize our food systems, making plant-based diets more accessible and environmentally friendly.

Diana Orembe checking on the progress of their NovFeed tanks

Diana Orembe checking on the progress of their NovFeed tanks

Novel foods are not just for people. NovFeed in Tanzania uses microbes to create fish and animal feed. Founded by microbiologist Diana Orembe and co-founder Otaigo Elisha in 2020, NovFeed uses natural microbes and industrial biotech to turn organic waste into highly concentrated protein products. This process results in nutritious, customizable inputs for the food system, especially benefiting the meat and aquaculture sectors. With aquaculture being the fastest-growing food sector globally, the demand for sustainable fish feed is critical. Traditional fish feeds rely on wild-caught forage fish, a practice that is unsustainable and expensive. NovFeed addresses this issue by transforming organic waste into high-quality protein, making fish food 30% cheaper and more sustainable.

Their innovative approach won them a GoGettaz Impact Award in 2021, and their products, NovFeed Protein and EcoVita, are making a significant impact. NovFeed Protein is a natural, sustainable, and traceable feed ingredient with 70% crude protein, produced via natural fermentation. It boasts a 97% fish survival rate, is highly digestible, and supports gut health. EcoVita, the microbial liquid by-product of their process, is a valuable organic soil conditioner high in nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. It enhances plant nutrient absorption, improves soil microflora, and boosts the yield and health of vegetables and fruit trees. NovFeed’s scalable biotechnology has the potential to transform the global food system, making it more sustainable and efficient.

Biotechnology in agrifood is transforming the future of food production by offering innovative solutions to some of the most pressing challenges in the food system. From enhancing crop resilience and nutritional quality to pioneering sustainable food preservation techniques, biotechnology is driving significant advancements. Companies like NovFeed in Tanzania are leading the way by using natural microbes to convert organic waste into high-quality proteins, providing affordable and sustainable feed for the rapidly growing aquaculture sector. Their innovative approach not only addresses the critical issue of unsustainable fish feed practices but also promotes environmental preservation and economic growth.

As biotechnology continues to evolve, its potential to create novel foods and improve food security is more crucial than ever, paving the way for a healthier and more sustainable future. That is where you come in. If you are an agrifood entrepreneur with an innovative biotech solution that can help us build climate resilience or create new food sources to nourish Africa, enter the GoGettaz Agripreneur Prize Competition.