Can carbon neutrality be achieved in food production?

Riina Brade


Riina Brade
M.Sc , Chem Eng. & MBA

In response to climate change, we must quickly decrease the amounts of fossil fuel and food production greenhouse emissions, while simultaneously promoting the sequestration of carbon dioxide in ecosystems. The development of biotechnology, automatic control systems and artificial intelligence accelerate the transition to more sustainable primary production of food when fields and productive livestock can be replaced with, for example, microbes and bioreactors. However, we also need approaches with a more immediate impact. Investments in renewable energy play a key role.

The climate has already warmed an average of 1.1 degrees Celsius since the pre-industrial era, and the temperature is still climbing year after year. Carbon dioxide has been calculated to have caused two thirds of the warming until now. In addition to warming, the entire climate system is undergoing changes and extreme weather is becoming more common: some places receive too much rain, while others suffer increasingly from drought. According to the Finnish Meteorological Institute, rain affects food production capacity and people’s living conditions more than the temperature alone: by 2100, the amount of rain will have increased a good 30% during winter in Finland and about 10% during the summer, when compared to the current day.

Globally, the greenhouse gas emissions of the food production systems of agriculture have increased by about a third over the last 20 years. Emissions are primarily a result of plant and animal production increase to meet the needs of a growing population, which in turn increases the use of fertilizers (nitrogen), the amounts of manure and pastures, the use of fuels in domestic animal production, and the production of gases from the digestive processes of ruminants.

Finland’s greenhouse gas emissions have started to decrease in accordance with targets, although they vary a little from year to year. The food industry in Finland causes relatively few direct emissions, as the biggest sources of emissions are made up of indirect sources – from primary production and energy production. The agriculture sector’s share of Finland’s total greenhouse gas emissions has been about 10–14% over the last few years.

Carbon Footprint Of Food Products
Carbon footprint of food products in Finland (Source: ETL)

Sustainable food production value chains are based on renewable energy

Different countries have mapped out different kinds of strategic paths for achieving carbon neutrality, but due to the diversity and dependencies of systems, reducing carbon emissions to a net zero remains challenging. In addition to radical changing in our eating habits and food waste amounts, we also need innovative new technologies and solutions based on multidisciplinary research.

One of the most important and efficient ways of achieving carbon neutrality is to make use of clean energy from renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind, and hydropower. All in all, new innovative technologies – which are designed to speed up the transition to carbon neutrality in different sectors – offer solutions for the restoration of forests and seas, the protection of ecosystems, carbon-neutral industrial production, and sustainable food production. This increases the sequestration of carbon in the soil as well as reduces carbon emissions.

Food production must be optimized in order to increase production efficiency and to reduce carbon emissions. This can be achieved through, among other things, new technologies developed for more sustainable production of fertilizers, solutions for precision agriculture, improved feeding, and the creation of carbon-neutral food production systems.

In addition to minimizing emissions and increasing efficiency, technologies and methods for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through industrial means, and sequestering carbon in soil and marine ecosystems (sequestration) are vital. Out of these developing NETs, that is, negative emissions technologies, the ones currently showing the most potential are bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), biochar (PyCCS, pyrogenic carbon capture and storage) and direct air carbon capture and storage (DACCS). In Finland, BECCS and biochar offer the most potential for negative emissions.

Reducing harm from farming with new technologies

Optimizing the use of fertilizers and water on arable land can significantly reduce the greenhouse gas emissions in crop farming systems with the help of digital, drone, and sensor technologies. In addition, new synthetic nitrogen fertilizers which release nutrients in a slow and controlled manner are being developed, as are new varieties which use nitrogen more effectively and have characteristics which inhibit emissions. As part of the solution, the production of biomass must be increased through the means of forestry, cultivation of meadows and carbon farming, among others. In addition, carbon dioxide must overall be removed and sequestered from the atmosphere through various methods and stored back in soil and marine ecosystems.

The manipulation of enteric fermentation in animal production is one of the key ways to reduce the methane emissions of ruminants. So-called methane inhibitors are being developed by affecting an animal’s metabolism through precise nutrients and more easily digestible kinds of feed. Also, new innovations and start-ups are popping up, such as Finnish Origin by Ocean. The company refines blue-green algae and bladderwrack into bio-based ingredient that is suitable, for example, for compound feed with significant lower animal emissions.

Manure processing practices could also significantly reduce indirect greenhouse gas emissions by optimizing the management of pastures and producing energy (biogas) and organic fertilizers at the farm, with low emission factors. According to the research of the Natural Resources Institute Finland (2020), among others, in the field use of recycled fertilizers, organic fertilizers have lower nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions when compared to the N2O emissions of mineral fertilizers.

One new technology is the vertical plant factory, that is, a vertical indoor cultivation system, which enables continuous food production throughout the year regardless of the season or weather. All environmental parameters, such as lighting level, temperature, humidity, and air composition, are controlled in a smart, closed system. New testing facilities verify the viability of mass production, and full-scale factories have been built for the commercial production of fruits, vegetables, and medicinal plants.

Vertical indoor cultivation systems can help achieve very high productivity and low greenhouse gas emissions with small changes in land use when compared to traditional production systems. The environmental impacts of operations can be minimized by using renewable energy to run the factory.

Transition to cellular agriculture leads to significant environmental benefits

There is demand for feeding a growing population with the help of innovative and low-emission technologies. The development of biotechnology, automatic control systems, and even artificial intelligence enables more sustainable primary production of food in a factory environment. This is cellular agriculture, where microbes and bioreactors replace fields and productive livestock.

According to the surveys of Boston Consulting Group, the transition to edible plant, microbe, and animal cell-based protein products instead of beef, pork, chicken, and egg alternatives will save more than one gigaton of CO2 equivalent by 2035, which is roughly equal to the annual emissions of Japan. In addition, there are potential savings in land use and water consumption: it is estimated that by 2035, they will equal the water consumption of London over a period of 40 years! This assumes that alternative proteins will represent an 11–22% share of the protein market in 2035, depending on the scenario.

Tempeh and tofu are traditional plant-based, meat-like proteins, which are made from soy, peas, and beans. During production, proteins are extracted and separated from the plants or fungus, which are then formulated and processed. The taste and structure of plant-based meat is improved through food additives and extrusion, as well as innovative technologies such as high-temperature shear cell technology and 3D printing.

Challenges in the further development of these protein products are caused by cultivar development with regards to taste and color, protein separation technologies, clear formulation, and expensive large-scale extrusion. There is also a need for efficiency when it comes to costs, as the prices of the products in question are nearly double that of traditional meat products.

Pioneers: nutrient protein can be produced from air

Bacteria, yeasts, molds, and single-celled algae also produce edible microbe-based proteins, as do certain aforementioned microbe populations, when proteins are fermented with cellular agriculture technology in a carbohydrate-rich solution. Depending on the method, the result is either a meat substitute – protein and biomass – or pure single-cell protein.

Quorn is one such microbe-based protein product, which was developed in England and has been commercially available since 1993. All in all, there is still plenty of development to be done with regards to these products. Their costs are three times that of traditional protein, particularly when it comes to the production of single-cell protein. Finding more cost-effective growth solutions and the development of separation technology are also highlighted in the further development of these protein products.

In addition, biotechnological pilot and demo facilities are already being built, where nutrient protein will be produced with the help of microbes and even the direct capture of carbon dioxide from the air. One of the most famous projects is SolarFoods’ “Food without fields and food from thin air” project, which uses carbon dioxide as a raw material. The microbe is isolated from the sediment of Western Finland’s seashore, which produces a soy protein-like powder for food products and nutrient supplements. All that is needed is electricity, carbon dioxide, and a source of nitrogen. According to the company, the pilot phase has shown that environmental impacts remain well under 10 per cent of that of traditionally produced plant or animal protein.

A third alternative source of protein is animal and crustacean cell-based protein products, which are produced by directly growing animal cells in a nutrient-rich solution in tanks. According to surveys by the Boston Consulting Group, the development of these alternative proteins will still take time in order for growing proteins to become efficient, as well as for the taste and structure to match traditionally produced alternatives in the volumes needed for global consumption.

Developing innovations for waste and packaging challenges as well

Solutions are also being created for the global waste problem. The thermochemical transformation of solid organic waste into porous biochar (300°C–900°C anaerobically) is part of circular economy and mitigating climate change, in addition to sequestering carbon. In soil improvement and composting use, biochar has been shown to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Biochar is a natural adsorbent which binds free carbon and nitrogen compounds to itself, as well as different kinds of impurities. In addition, biochar has been shown to slow down and prevent erosion and even reduce the formation of methane in ruminants as part of animal feed.

For an interesting case of current development investments, I highlight the production of products and raw materials of fossil origin using bio-based and renewable materials. For example, bacteria can use organic materials as a source of nutrients and change fatty acids, sugars, and proteins, among others, into different kinds of monomers and materials suitable for the production of biopolymers. These can be used as ingredients in food products, in packaging materials and, more broadly, in the industrial production of plastics, bio-based fuels, lubricants, medical equipment, and other valuable goods.

Target of 75% reduction in greenhouse emissions

In the roadmap created by the Finnish Food and Drink Industries’ Federation and coordinated by the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment in 2020, the readiness of the food production sector for carbon neutrality was mapped out. According to the surveys, Finland is well equipped to pursue carbon neutrality. National legislation, funding and incentive systems, and a high level of technology enable the majority of the viable technologies determined by the EU (BAT conclusions of the industrial emissions directive) to already be extensively in use in the businesses of the food industry, according to the roadmap work.

The roadmap’s survey of the current situation ensures a clear basis for systematic and long-term work to promote the climate measures of the food industry by 2035. The aim of the roadmap is thus to achieve a 75% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in proportion to sales at the industry level. In 2035, low-carbon solutions should be widely in use in the food production sector and climate impacts should be under control in the sector’s value chain.

What does this mean in practice? The starting point for success is cooperation with other operators, such as primary production, logistics, and the energy and construction industries. In this value chain, the role of the food industry is:

  1. to invest further in increasing energy efficiency (10–30% savings in energy consumption in several businesses are possible)
  2. to look into and implement switching the mode of production of delivered energy to an alternative with lower emissions and/or plan the electrification of operations
  3. to develop raw materials and packaging to reduce fossil emissions
  4. to reduce loss and waste and use the side streams of own operations and value chain more efficiently.

In order for these objectives and measures to be fulfilled, more open sharing of information in cooperation with other operators in the value chain is necessary for the identification of key impacts on a value chain and product basis. In addition, the availability of carbon-neutral energy, the development of technologies and expertise, and sufficient forms of support and funding from the government in a predictable operating environment must be ensured. This in turn enables the necessary investments in the sector for carbon neutrality.

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