Worldwatch 2008 State of the World Report

by Janet Raloff, Worldwatch Institute – “Can Meat and Fish Consumption Be Sustainable?” That’s the provocative title of a press release just sent to us by the Worldwatch Institute, a small but venerable think tank that focuses on natural resource issues.

It’s also the theme of a chapter in Worldwatch’s 2008 State of the World report, its 25th annual book-length analysis of resource trends and economics. Here, its analysts take on the substantial—and often hidden—costs of producing animal protein to satisfy human hunger.

In 2006, “farmers produced an estimated 276 million tons of chicken, pork, beef, and other meat—four times as much as in 1961,” Worldwatch has just reported. As for fish, some 140 million tons were hauled in globally during 2005, the most recent year for which data are available. “That was eight times as much as in 1950,” note Brian Halweil and Danielle Nierenberg, the chapter’s authors.

Part of the growth in production reflects a growing demand, fueled by world population and increasing wealth that allows increased consumption of animal protein, even within formerly impoverished nations. For meat, it has doubled over the past 45 years; fish consumption quadrupled over a 55-year span.

Bottom line: “Meat and seafood are the two most rapidly growing ingredients in the global diet,” Halweil and Nierenberg find, and “two of the most costly.” Demand for both are slated to go the way of oil—up, up, up, with prices following—as incomes in China, India, and hosts of developing countries rise.

Industrial meat production and fish harvests have dropped the economic cost of animal proteins in recent decades. But much of that fiscal savings has come at the expense of the environment. Wastes are not captured and destroyed or recycled. They’re allowed to run into the ground or waterways, degrading ecosystems all along the way. These are costs that are not captured in traditional accounting.

Anyone who has tried fishing in the Gulf of Mexico’s annual dead zone has experienced one cost of allowing livestock wastes from the upper Midwest to flow through the ground and into waters that feed the mighty Mississippi—and Gulf of Mexico. Anyone who lives with the pervasive stench downwind of animal feedlots knows there’s a cost that they’re being asked to subsidize with their discomfort—and perhaps health.

Fishers, in recent years, have been mining the ocean’s top and middle predators, substantially distorting the balance of ecosystems . The net primary productivity of the oceans probably hasn’t changed much: that is to say, about the same mass of living cells probably inhabits it. However, instead of tuna, cod, sharks, and trout, the bulk of the mass may be shifting to alewives, smelt, jellyfish, and algae. One solution, fish farming, has proven moderately successful—but can also prove harmful to nonfarmed species and the environment generally.

“Part of the reason that livestock and fish farms have become ecological disasters is that they have moved away from mimicking the environment in which animals exist naturally,” the Worldwatch report maintains.

There’s another problem as well. People the world over want to eat the same few species—cows, pigs, and lambs, salmon, tuna, and trout—even if their own environment cannot support the production of these animals. Moreover, as relatively large and high-in-the-food-chain animals, these species grow at the expense of hosts of plants, animals, and other energy inputs. The land and energy needed to produce 1,000 calories of grain, legumes (like soy), or algae is a fraction of what it takes to produce 1,000 calories of beef or catfish.

Many people don’t want to eat just greens, grains, and pulses (like beans). In truth, I don’t.

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BETTER THAN BEEF? This smorgasbord offers ant pupae and yellow bamboo caterpillars around a pile of ordinary scrambled eggs. Meyer-Rochow photographed this platter of appetizers during his foreign travels. He and other researchers have shown such bugs to be nutritious. Many researchers argue that their harvesting can also be better for the environment than is the production of conventional meat animals.
Meyer-Rochow

However, there is another source of animal protein that may prove dramatically more sustainable than fish and hoofed livestock: Insects.

All right, it may take a bit of work to wrap your head around this idea—especially if you grew up in the U.S.A. We’re talking ants, grasshoppers, and beetles.

There was a time and place where the arrival of hordes of locusts blackening the skies was a period for rejoicing. Hungry farmers would see this as a smorgasbord of animal protein that could be gathered by the bucketsful. Eaten raw, fried with onion and chilies, or roasted for consumption throughout the months ahead, this was nutritionally high-quality animal protein. And you didn’t have to chase it. It came to you.

Those old enough to remember shipments of food aid to starving masses in Ethiopia and Somalia during the ’70s and ’80s may also remember scandals describing hundreds if not thousands of tons of wheat flour that arrived at its destinations spoiled by infestations of beetles, notes Victor B. Meyer-Rochow of Jacobs University in Bremen, Germany. “But that’s really nonsense,” he argues, “because those beetles were nutritionally more valuable than [the grain] that people were trying to protect.”

Bottom line, diets throughout the globe have been changing. And if we all want reliable access to animal protein, we may have to embrace mini-livestock—the six-legged kinds.

You’ll be able to read more about this topic—a serious one—soon in the pages of Science News and at Science News for Kids, our online sister publication. So stay tuned.

And who knows, one day we may read that termites, popular for millennia in nations throughout the world, have become a growth industry for New Orleans. It’s home to permanent hordes of the Formosan variety —insects that weathered Hurricane Katrina far better than did the region’s taxpayers.

March 26, 2008, FORBES.com – In 2007, ethanol fuel production rose more than 34% in the United States, reaching a record-high of 6.5 billion barrels. Industry groups expect similar growth rates for this year. The ethanol industry should savor the time, however–this could be as good as it gets.

A handful of small companies, including Pasadena, Calif.-based start-up Gevo, are scrambling to commercialize second-generation biofuels such as butanol that they believe will be cheap and clean enough to put ethanol out of business. These new fuels are even designed to be produced by the same refineries that are cranking out ethanol now.

“If we want to get off petroleum, we’re going to have to accept that bio-based liquid fuels are the only way to do it,” said Gevo Chief Executive Pat Gruber, who holds a doctorate degree in biochemistry. “Once we’ve accepted that, the question we should be asking is ‘how do we make those fuels better?'”

Gevo is betting that butanol and isobutanol are the best near-term substitutes for ethanol. Although several companies–including industrial powerhouses BP and DuPont–are commercializing butanol, only Gevo is developing isobutanol. The company received $10 million in new funding from Richard Branson’s Virgin Fuels group, which it plans to use to open a pilot plant in June. Gruber expects to be producing between 25 and 50 million gallons annually within two years– and believes Gevo will be able to scale up production very quickly.

“Because we intend to collaborate with and retrofit an ethanol producer, our capital cost will be low and our timeline will be fast,” he says.

Gevo got its start with help from funding by venture capitalist and Sun Microsystems co-founder Vinod Khosla and Richard Branson of Virgin Air, who together founded the firm in 2005 with biofuels pioneer Frances Arnold. Arnold teaches chemical engineering and biochemistry at California Institute of Technology.

Gruber earned his spurs at Cargill, and later helped found a Cargill joint venture company, NatureWorks, that makes biopolymers from renewable resources. As chief technology officer for NatureWorks, Gruber helped develop and commercialized cutting-edge materials, like biodegradable plastics and high-performance synthetic fibers, from renewable resources. He joined Gevo in mid-2007.

Gruber approaches the challenges of bringing better biofuels to market the way soldiers are trained to approach enemy-held hills: Start at the top and work down to the bottom one step at a time. “Innovation starts with a vision for solving a problem in the marketplace,” said Gruber. “In our case, we want to make a renewable-resource-based fuel that has a higher energy content, smaller environmental footprint and lower vapor pressure and can be used as a blend feedstock. Isobutanol fits that vision.”

In December 2007, Gevo acquired an exclusive license to a genetically-modified strain of the E. coli bacteria developed by James Liao, a chemical engineering professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. The bacteria converts sugar into isobutanol.

“We already have a bug that we believe in,” said Gruber. “It’s an organism that eats sugar and produces isobutanol.”

Gevo, which has 40 employees, is now developing the technology and the production processes needed to do commercial scale manufacturing of isobutanol.

In the laboratory, isobutanol’s characteristics look promising: Gruber estimates that a gallon of isobutanol requires less energy to produce and yields nearly 50% more energy for end users than a gallon of ethanol.

“There are several more ‘bangs for your buck,'” asserts Gruber.

Since isobutanol does not mix with water, it can be transported through existing pipelines, which means it has modest distribution costs. In addition, it does not need to be blended with gasoline to be burned by existing automobile engines.

Taking advantage of the existing fuel infrastructure in the U.S. is the backbone of Gevo’s strategy for bringing second-generation biofuels to market, Gruber says. Energy sources incompatible with the current infrastructure would require major capital investments to achieve any meaningful penetration of the market.

“An ethanol pipeline from Iowa to New York would cost about $3 billion,” says Gruber. “We already have pipelines all over this country, so we need resources that are compatible with existing infrastructure. We designed a technology at Gevo that will do that.”

Although Gruber believes that isobutanol can be produced cheaper than ethanol, it is still a pricey fuel, and will only be price-competitive with gasoline when gas prices are high–probably something above $70 a barrel, he says.

Surging commodity prices could also derail isobutanol and Gevo. Like ethanol, isobutanol relies on fermentable sugars as raw materials; that makes Gevo dependent on crops like corn and sorghum. As a result, high grain prices could easily blunt Gevo’s competitive edge.

Although isobutanol has a smaller environmental footprint than ethanol, it’s unclear how much better it fares on at least one key metric: water usage. If an ethanol facility aims to produce 50 million gallons of ethanol a year, they would use at least 150 million gallons of water in the process. Multiply that by hundreds of facilities, and the environmental benefits of ethanol get diluted. Gevo claims isobutanol production requires less water than ethanol production, but won’t specify by how much.

Ultimately, Gruber believes isobutanol and butanol are only first steps toward developing a rich portfolio of biofuels.

“We have a vision of the future that we want to achieve,” said Gruber. “The question is, how do we start walking down the path [of] learning, adjusting and changing, while [also] being consistent, focused and relentless.”

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One approach to solving the corn-derived ethanol problem is to make ethanol from cellulosic material–the junk scraps of plants. Cellulosic ethanol can be made from non-food sources, from agricultural to municipal waste, and in addition to being cheap would impart environmental benefits far beyond those of corn-based ethanol. The problem is that it’s difficult and costly to break down cellulose and transform it into ethanol.

Enter the microbes. Various enzymes and microbes found in nature already do these sorts of jobs, so innovative biofuel companies want to harness their powers, turning microbes into miniature biofuel factories. Some researchers are getting even more ambitious, turning ordinary microbes into superbugs: microbes that have been genetically enhanced to perform certain functions, like breaking down cellulose, extracting its sugars and fermenting the sugar into ethanol.

By tweaking the genetic makeup of the microbes and turning them into superbugs, researchers can cut down on the number of steps involved in the conversion process while increasing efficiency.

According to Lee Lynd, a professor of engineering and biology at Dartmouth College, by using microbes, 96% of the energy in sugar can be converted to ethanol, at least in theory. “Real processes achieve slightly less than theoretical yields and some energy inputs are also required, but generally speaking microbiological conversion is highly efficient,” he says.

This isn’t a huge surprise, because microbes already do so much in nature to regulate the environment–they are a natural choice for environmental technology and with advances in synthetic biology, optimizing nature’s designs is becoming increasingly feasible. Says Lynd, “Worldwide, I think it is very likely that microbially produced fuels will be significant players. However, whether a particular country will use microbial fuels depends a lot on the resources available.”

The cellulosic ethanol approach is being touted by the U.S. Department of Energy. Just listen to these remarks from the DOE, “Research, development and demonstration efforts focus on hastening the emergence of an advanced cellulosic biofuels industry, which will use primarily agricultural wastes, forest residues and energy crops (hemp and switchgrass, for example) not competing with food. The department has announced more than $1 billion of investment over the past year.”

This support is good news for companies like Coskata and SunEthanol. Coskata is using patented microbes, bioreactor designs and a unique three-step conversion process to produce ethanol from cellulosic material, with a goal of reducing production costs to less than $1 per gallon by as early as 2010. Coskata’s microbes are impressively energy efficient, producing more than 100 gallons of ethanol per ton of dry cellulosic material. Together the process and the resulting fuel can cut carbon emissions by as much as 84% compared with gasoline, according to an analysis by Argonne National Laboratory.

In February, Warrenville, Ill.-based Coskata partnered up with General Motors “to promote a unique process for turning biomass into ethanol”–not a bad start for a company that’s a little over a year old. The goal of the partnership is to find ways to produce ethanol not only from plant waste but from everything from garbage to old tires.

GM is scheduled to receive its first round of ethanol from Coskata’s pilot plant in the fourth quarter of this year to be used in vehicle testing at GM’s Milford Proving Grounds. GM now produces more than 1 million “flexfuel” vehicles. These hybrids run on a mixture of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline. The ailing automaker is committed to rendering half of its vehicle production flex-fuel capable by 2012.

Coskata’s current small-scale production capabilities aren’t going to cut it, so earlier this month, Coskata teamed up with Kansas-based company ICM to design and construct an ethanol plant expected to open in late 2010 and to produce 50 to 100 million gallons of ethanol. Coskata isn’t the only company looking to ICM to scale up their production capacity.

Cellulosic biofuel producer SunEthanol–founded in 2006 and based in Amherst, Mass.–is also working with ICM, targeting a pilot plant scheduled to be in operation by 2009. At the heart of SunEthanol’s operation is a naturally occurring microbe, which they call “the Q microbe technology.” In early March, the company was one of four companies awarded a total of $114 million over four years by the DOE for small-scale biorefinery projects with the goal of making cellulosic ethanol cost competitive in five years.

Cambridge, Mass.-based Mascoma is looking to move from microbes to superbugs. Co-founded by Dartmouth’s Lynd, Mascoma designs and licenses novel enzymes and genetically modified bacteria to make cellulosic ethanol from things like wood chips.

In November, Mascoma acquired Indiana-based Celsys Biofuels, a company commercializing cellulosic ethanol production based on technology developed at Purdue University. The acquisition strengthens Mascoma’s biomass processing capabilities as well as its IP portfolio. Now they are busy trying to get production plants up and running, with plans for a pilot plant in New York state, another in Tennessee and a large-scale commercial facility in Michigan. The multiple locales allow Mascoma to take advantage of a variety of local feedstocks as well as various state subsidies and tax breaks.

The state of New York is reportedly putting up $14.8 million, half the total cost, to build the pilot plant, while Tennessee is footing a reported $41 million. It will take a few years before these plants are in full operation, but Mascoma says it will have some of its technology on the market next year. Ethanol, however, is not necessarily the ideal fuel: It contains 30% less energy than gasoline and isn’t compatible with existing infrastructure, like pipelines and car engines.

The ultimate goal, then, is to create microbes that can turn cellulosic biomass into hydrocarbon-based fuels, rather than those like ethanol, which are alcohol-based. No microbe found in nature can do that, though, so it’s going to require cleverly designed superbugs.

Amyris Biotechnologies, an Emeryville, Calif., company that is developing anti-malarial drugs and alternative fuels, is trying to do just that, using synthetic biology to design microbes capable of churning out hydrocarbon fuels that are cheaper and cleaner than gasoline while being more energy efficient than ethanol. During its nonprofit collaboration with the University of California and OneWorld Health to fight malaria, Amyris realized that its synthetic biology techniques could be used to engineer microbes capable of producing biofuels, specifically a gasoline substitute and a diesel substitute.

In 2006, the company completed their first round of financing, raising $20 million from investors including Kleiner Perkins, Caufield & Byers, Khosla Ventures and TPG Ventures, and last September it secured $70 million in the start of a Series B round led by DuffAckerman & Goodrich Ventures. With that money in hand, it’s now looking to build a pilot plant in its hometown of Emeryville, with a goal of getting its biofuels to market by 2010.

In December, the company appointed Jeff Lievense, a chemical engineer with the know-how for bioprocessing and scaling up fermentation processes, as senior VP of process development and manufacturing in their effort to take Amyris from the lab to commercial production.

Amyris’s biggest competition is California-based LS9–a company that’s also genetically engineering designer superbugs for nonethanol hydrocarbon biofuels that are compatible with today’s pipelines and engines. The start-up was founded in 2005 by scientists from Harvard, including George Church and Stanford, including plant biologist Chris Somerville. Initial financing came from VC firm Flagship Ventures.

So far LS9 has attracted $20 million from investors. The company has found a way to take existing bacteria, like E. coli, and genetically tweak it to create diesel-producing strains. Whereas Amyris is focused on tweaking metabolic pathways that produce isoprenoids, LS9 works with those that produce fatty acids, which happens to be similar to diesel fuel, molecularly speaking.

It is also developing a bacterium that produces crude oil, which it calls “biocrude,” that can be sent to refineries and turned into any petroleum product–because it’s made from renewable feedstocks whose carbon was recently in the atmosphere; and rather than fossilized carbon, there’s no net greenhouse gas emission. LS9 intends to open a pilot plant in California this year with the hope of having large-scale commercial manufacturing under way within the next four years. In the meantime, according to Church, the company should have some of its green products on the market within a year.

Tweaking existing microbes and altering their metabolic pathways so that they make the products you want them to make sounds fantastic–but not quite as fantastic as the idea of building a microbe-powered energy factory from scratch, customized to your exact specifications. That’s exactly what the ever-ambitious Craig Venter has set his sights on: designing superbugs from scratch that can do everything from turning cellulosic biomass into ethanol to producing hydrogen fuel from sunlight, to sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

To accomplish this, he and Nobel laureate Hamilton Smith co-founded Synthetic Genomics in 2005. In addition to working in the lab designing genomes intended to code for new types of cells that can carry out whatever functions the designers want, the company has also been voyaging around the world searching for undiscovered microbes with novel metabolic pathways.

This idea of creating new life from scratch may sound like science fiction, but it’s not. Venter’s Synthetic Genomics got a huge boost recently after his team successfully created the largest man-made strand of DNA ever, synthesizing a 582,970 base pair genome modeled on the bacterium M. genitalium. Venter & Co. created a genome from scratch, but not life itself.

The next step is to insert his new genome into a cell and see if the life form “boots up.” Though M. genitalium itself is not suitable for industrial manufacturing, the synthesis is a landmark technological achievement and an important proof of principle for Venter’s Synthetic Genomics.

Moving forward, the company still needs faster, cheaper genome construction technology. A final product–an entirely man-made superbug working as the ideal energy biofactory–is coming, but not anytime soon. Companies working with existing genomes are likely to produce useful fuels faster.

There’s one more segment of the superbug industry: the companies that provide basic genetic engineering services. Whether you’re tweaking an existing microbial genome or building a superbug from scratch, you’re going to need synthetic DNA and genetic engineering devices. That’s where a company like Codon Devices comes in.

Codon, founded in 2004 in Cambridge, Mass., by Church and Keasling as well as Drew Endy and Joseph Jacboson (both of MIT), produces the BioFAB production platform, production technology for synthesizing DNA. With solid investor backing and a strong IP portfolio, Codon is poised to play a significant role in the superbug business. According to The New York Times, gene synthesis industry sales are already about $50 million a year and growing rapidly.

Others in this segment include Blue Heron Biotechnology, a Washington-based company founded in 1999. Blue Heron’s core technology is the GeneMaker, a proprietary high-throughput design and synthesis platform for synthesizing DNA sequences. With Blue Heron, Invitrogen is the co-exclusive worldwide distributor of GeneMaker. Blue Heron provided more than 80% of the DNA Venter’s team used in creating its synthetic version of Mycoplasma genitalium, and already works with hundreds of life sciences and pharmaceutical companies, so for them the superbug biofuel business is just gravy.

In March, however, Codon filed a lawsuit against Blue Heron for alleged infringement of five patents related to the preparation and manufacture of nucleic acids. Blue Heron is fighting back and at this point its hard to say what the effects of the suit may be–but worth keeping an eye on.

Companies that provided DNA synthesis for Venter’s team are DNA 2.0 and GeneArt. DNA 2.0 has synthesized more than 20 million base pairs for thousands of customers and opened a European branch in Basel, Switzerland, earlier this month in order to reach out to international markets. GeneArt, headquartered in Regensburg, Germany, and traded on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, reported a 59% increase in sales earlier this month and projects increases in sales to reach 16.5 to 18 million euros this year.

Designer microbes have to be used for biofuel production, in order for biofuels to be a competitive and viable source of energy. Now the challenge is to take these processes from the lab to large scale commercial applications. There are lots of start-ups but don’t count out the incumbents. Harvard University geneticist George Church mentions DuPont. “DuPont routinely uses 2.4 million liter batches of E. coli to make propanediol.” Church is referring to DuPont’s work with Genecor, modifying E. coli bacteria so that they turn glucose into propanediol to make stain-resistant fabrics.