Force of Nature: Biology holds the solutions to the climate and sustainability crisis
How can biology improve sustainability and provide solutions to today's climate challenges? Banner Image: Shutterstock/rkl_foto
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Biology can provide powerful solutions to many of today’s climate and sustainability challenges, but implementing them comes with its own set of issues. Regulatory frameworks and approval processes need to catch up with the new biological possibilities—and we are in a hurry.
Imagine if we could replace the use of harmful chemicals for crop protection in our food production with biological alternatives that do not harm biodiversity. Or if we could use biology to reduce the levels of CO2 in our atmosphere and turn it into valuable raw materials, thereby reducing industry reliance on fossil fuels.
Today, tremendous strides are being made towards harnessing the powers of biology to create sustainable solutions that benefit the climate and the environment. At the Novo Nordisk Foundation and our investment company, Novo Holdings, we have embarked on a journey to make biotechnology a spearhead for the green transformation of industry and agriculture. We do so by supporting the entire value chain of innovation, from scientific research to the commercialisation of novel solutions and products.
Solving global challenges through research and investments
Among our initiatives is the extensive Novo Nordisk Foundation Challenge Programme, where experienced researchers are asked to address specific societal challenges. One such challenge is “Proteins for Tomorrow’s Food”, where the aim is to develop solutions to an urgent global challenge: providing enough food for a growing world population.
The need to look into alternative food sources as well as alternative agricultural methods is also reflected in Novo Holdings’ investments. Our portfolio includes companies that focus on developing sustainable alternatives to the crop protection methods used in agriculture today. These companies make use of biological components such as pheromones and naturally occurring peptides to protect crops from harmful attacks from fungi and pests—without harming biodiversity.
Read more on the Forum Network: COP26 has a virus to deal with. The virus is called Homo sapiens., by Dr Pasi Vainikka, Chief Executive Officer & Co-Founder, Solar Foods
Another global challenge we must address is one of the main causes of man-made climate change: the rising amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. Seriously curbing the rise in global temperatures requires more than reducing emissions of CO2. We must also extract CO2 from the atmosphere and recycle it into products that are currently based on carbon extracted from fossil fuels, such as oil and coal.
To reach this ambitious goal, the Foundation has awarded a major grant to establish the Novo Nordisk Foundation CO2 Research Center—the world’s first interdisciplinary and international research center dedicated to developing knowledge and technology for CO2 capture and recycling. The center will explore the interface between biology and chemistry with the ultimate aim of reducing societal reliance on fossil fuels and achieving negative CO2 emissions.
Recycling of CO2 and other sources of pollution is also a focus for several of the companies in Novo Holdings’ portfolio. One company uses bacteria to convert waste carbon into fuels and chemicals, while another company uses microorganisms to convert CO2 and hydrogen into high-value animal feed.
Can we speed up the sustainable transformation?
These examples show that researchers as well as companies are already building up knowledge and products that can aid us in the green transformation. So, what is the issue then? You can argue that if we just keep supporting this research and investing in these companies, we will end up with an array of green solutions that can help mitigate the climate crisis. Maybe, if time was not an issue. But it is.
There are many bumps on the road that can slow down the important use and scaling of bioindustrial applications. One important obstacle is that today’s regulatory approval processes are not well suited to handle promising new, biologically based solutions. Take for example the biological, non-toxic insecticides mentioned earlier. Such products are categorised as chemicals alongside conventional synthetic pesticides and face the same long approval processes before they can be released on the market; as a result, developing new and more sustainable products becomes less attractive. Instead, we need fast-track approval processes for biotechnological solutions that contribute to the green transformation.
Read more on the Forum Network: From Sanbox to Toolbox: Philanthropy and transformative climate action, by Benjamin Bellegy, Executive Director, WINGS
Also, when it comes to recycling waste products such as carbon emissions from industry—for instance into fuels and chemicals—we need legislation that encourages a circular carbon economy. This will be an important step towards ensuring that the new knowledge and solutions developed in this area can be deployed at industrial scale.
Science and the use of biotechnology will be the most important drivers of the sustainable transformation of our society. We need to ensure that new solutions can be brought to market without being unnecessarily delayed by regulatory approval regimes designed for products with different properties. For this to happen, legislators need to understand and adapt to a new generation of biotechnological solutions, while still ensuring that legislation safeguards the environment and human health. This will require a renewed conversation between governments, industry and research so we don’t leave out major biotechnological tools in the effort to solve the climate crisis and build a sustainable society.
Read the OECD report Enhancing Climate Change Mitigation through Agriculture, which discusses the need to design climate change mitigating agricultural policies.
Check out the OECD COP26 Virtual Pavilion, which brings together leading thinkers and policy experts who will share insights and data on accelerating climate action to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement
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