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Pressure to Reduce Wasteful Production of Animal Products Creates Opportunities for Efficient Ag Chem
Posted on May 25th, 2017 by Christina Valimaki in Chemical R&D
One third of all food produced for human consumption worldwide – an amount ranging between 1.3 and 2.1 billion tons – is wasted or lost annually. The majority of these losses are a result of over-consumption, consumer waste and production inefficiencies. In aggregate, the costs of food waste total more than $680 billion in industrialized nations and over $310 billion in developing countries.
While fruits, vegetables, roots and tubers have the highest rates of waste among food products, a recent study at the University of Edinburgh has found that livestock production is by far the least efficient agricultural sector. Losses of meat, milk and eggs reach as high as 78 percent, or 840 million tons. More than 1.08 billion tons of vegetables and grains are used to feed livestock every year, and researchers say this amount alone accounts for over 40 percent of all harvested crop waste worldwide.
The world’s food system already faces significant strain, in need of a 50 percent increase in production within the next 30 years to keep up with a growing population. Increasing demand for meat and dairy products is putting further pressure on the global supply chain, which in turn could lead to food shortages. Many large livestock facilities also generate significant greenhouse gas emissions, deplete water supplies, and replace natural ecosystems with a few specifically chosen plant varieties, threatening biodiversity.
In light of these concerns, researchers recommend encouraging consumers to replace animal products in their diets with plant products that generate less waste. In the coming years, it’s likely that more consumers will recognize the dangers of over-consumption of animal products and will seek out plant-based replacements.
This shift promises major opportunities for agricultural R&D chemists who can help increase crop yields to meet the ever-increasing food demands of a skyrocketing world population.
Pesticides and fungicides have long been the two chief methods of increasing crop yields, preventing insects and other organisms from causing damage to crops as they grow. However, regulatory bodies have cracked down on many common pesticides and fungicides over the past decades, tightening restrictions even further over the last ten years.
For example, legislators have severely limited the use of the once-popular class of insecticides known as neonicotinoids since 2012. The European Union currently intends to restrict the use of 77 other pesticides, with France calling for a 50 percent cut in overall pesticide use by 2025.
Consumer chemophobia has driven much of this legal action. Activists in Europe and the US have campaigned against the herbicide glyphosphate (sold as “Roundup” by Monsanto), as well as other common herbicides such as 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D), pyrethroids and pyrethrins. Some of these compounds have, indeed, been linked to health risks, while others are still poorly understood.
Meanwhile, consumers and legislators alike have harshly criticized many fertilizers used to boost crop yields. The latest research suggests that high nitrate levels in crop soil may pollute drinking water for decades. Even so, all plants require some form of nitrogen fertilization to grow. This essential fact has spurred the development of biological solutions, such as bacterial symbionts that convert atmospheric nitrogen into fertilizer for their hosts.
The perils of the ever-changing regulatory system demand rapid adaptation on the part of agricultural R&D chemists. A compound that was market-viable a week ago may suddenly have no value, requiring process and engineering teams to pivot to an entirely different set of synthesis pathways. Teams with access to a centralized system of the latest reactivity data will be much better equipped to avoid the costly pitfalls of dead-end research.
Biological evolution never stops. Some common agricultural pests have already evolved resistance to popular pesticides and herbicides. For example, some worm populations have developed the ability to remain unharmed by glyphosate and Bt toxin. At least 15 varieties of weeds have also developed resistance to glyphosphate, and it’s only a matter of time before some varieties become resistant to more recently developed herbicides such as 2,4-D and 3,6-dichloro-2-methoxybenzoic acid (dicamba). As resistance evolves, farmers face an ongoing battery of new threats to their crop yields.
Many agricultural R&D chemists have responded by working to develop more targeted pesticides, which bind only to receptor sites on specific organisms, offering other organisms fewer chances to evolve resistance. Meanwhile, other research teams use high-throughput screening to discover “multi-target” pesticides that bind to multiple sites in the target organism, reducing the chance of that specific organism evolving resistance. In both of these cases, teams of chemical engineers and process chemists need access to a centralized database of the latest pesticide and herbicide data, in order to avoid working on compounds to which resistance has already evolved.
In addition to natural selection, gene-editing has begun to play a role in agricultural evolution. Geneticists are using tools like CRISPR to induce yield-boosting mutations in wild or semi-domesticated grains, such as amaranth and quinoa. Researchers hope these new crops, which can grow in poorer, saltier soils than traditional grains such as wheat and rice, may also help meet the world’s growing demand for food.
Over the next decade, these new crops are likely to enter the world’s agricultural system on a large scale. These changes create a clear need for safe pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers to address unique nutrient needs, pests, and metabolic processes. Chemical R&D teams that continue to focus solely on synthetic pesticides and fertilizers for traditional crops will be leaving significant profit – and market share – on the table.
As these cases make clear, a traditional R&D pipeline is no longer sufficient to meet the rapidly shifting regulatory demands – and growing biological and ecological diversity – of the world’s agricultural industry. Lack of access to crucial data at any step of the synthesis or evaluation process can result in costly delays. Teams that base their research on a centralized, streamlined platform, on the other hand, will be well equipped to bring yield-boosting compounds to market first, helping meet the growing food demands of the coming decades.
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