KAMPALA — There is something that the National Agricultural research organizations on the continent, including Uganda’s National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) should look into; the concept of “precision fermentation” and whether it can improve on food security.
During the COP 27 climate summit held in Egypt last year, RePlanet, a network of grassroots citizen organizations driven by science-based solutions to climate change launched a campaign which asserted that the use of “precision fermentation” could help stop the damage to the climate as a result of proteins we consume from meat and dairy products.
They hypothesize that if we replace the protein we derive from these foods with an alternative made from microorganisms, for example yeast, we can reduce greenhouse gasses agriculture releases to the environment.
Personally, I don’t think this is a realistic alternative and could pose other risks to the environment.
Most people reading this article have no understanding of this concept of precision fermentation, so it would be proper for me to first go into definitions and long illustrations, so that you can conceptualize it first. Let’s start with the concept of fermentation, which most of us are conversant with. It has been used to make things like wine, beer, bread and yoghurt.
Fermentation has been with us since 600 BC. At the center of this fermentation process is a living micro-organism which breaks down starches, often but not all the time these are yeasts, fungi or a bacterium.
As this micro-organism breaks down the starches or sugars it also gets the energy to reproduce.
Since 600 BC, this fermentation process has been used for preserving food or to change its texture to make it more appealing.
Now the question you must be asking and rightly so, is how the old process of fermentation we all know has been developed into “precision fermentation.”
Precision fermentation just doesnt preserve food or change its texture. It’s simply the use of fermentation to create food. Micro-organisms are, instead, used as a factory to produce ingredients we normally get from a plant material or an animal based ingredient. Yeast that has been used for the fermentation process might not create new ingredients. Therefore, in the precision fermentation, the genetic code of yeast is altered, so that when exposed certain conditions it can produce something new, not what it always produces when it breaks down starches. It can for instance be made to produce protein we find in meat and dairy products.
This technology has been in use for over 30 years in pharmaceuticals so it’s not entirely new. More than 80 companies are making components of food using this process. As of last year, $1.5 billion was invested in the technology that under pins it.
One of the advantages of precision fermentation is that it can reduce the pressure on the planet’s resources and its highly scalable from a commercial perspective. As a result, it can reduce the greenhouse gases released in the environment as a result of usual meat production. Livestock alone produces 18% of all global greenhouse gases. The UN estimates that between 2013 to 2019, and area of tropical forest the size of Norway was cleared for agriculture.
However, I don’t think Africans should embrace this technology without scrutiny. Developing micro-organisms, often ones that have been genetically modified, at scale, brings unknown threats to the broader environment eco system.
When genetically modified microbes pass on their genes to the wider eco-system there are unintended consequences that could spell a bigger environmental disaster we don’t yet know.
Most of these “precision fermentation” products have been approved for sale mostly in the U.S. However, E.U Regulators are very reluctant to approve products as a result of a genetic code engineering process. I read an academic research paper by Muhumuza JR, Kimbugwe A, Wanyama G, Babirye K, Serunkuma B done for the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) in Uganda. It concludes, and rightly so, that much as there is progress in biotech research, the establishment of biosafety regulations remains sluggish and arriving at commercialization decisions remains difficult.
It’s safe to conclude that Uganda just isn’t ready for precision fermentation.
The writer, Samuel Obedgiu is Agricultural Scientist and Enviromental Activist