The Consequences of Intensification

FOLIUM Science’s third article on the role of bioscience in the food supply chain examines the characteristics of today’s global food systems, the consequential pressure placed on public health, the interventions that have been developed and the opportunities for future technology.

We asked FOLIUM Science’s in-house experts to reflect on the role that bioscience plays in the food supply chain and draw on their own personal experiences to consider how the future might look.

FOLIUM Science Chief Scientific Officer, Professor Martin Woodward describes some of the macro challenges within the global food supply chain.

“The first thing we have to recognise is that over the last 75 years, we have moved from largely local production of food to highly intensified production for a global market. We are moving foodstuffs around the world at an unprecedented rate with much of this being consumed by the wealthier developed economies”

This growth in intensification has consequences. Animals and crops are reared and grown in close proximity which increases the ability of diseases to spread.

“The additional impact of these monoculture systems where everything is identical is that if an infection does occur, it will infect the whole crop, flock or herd. Genetic diversity is reduced which can mean an entire production system can be wiped out if a single infection occurs. This has been seen for example with Xylella infections in fruit crops and Vibrio parahaemolyticus in shrimp production in parts of South America. One of the things we need to think about is the genetic diversity of what we are growing. Classic breeding selection and more recently genetic modification is used to generate crops and animals that show greater natural resistance to infections as well as drought resistance in crops for example”

One of the other known outcomes of expanding monoculture systems is their impact on the natural environment and on the reduction in natural ecosystems. Martin reflects on how zoonosis, the transmission of an animal disease to humans, can occur.

“This reduction in natural habitats has had a big impact on how diseases move from wild animal species to domesticated or farmed species and subsequently into man. SARS, MERS, Ebola and the new Corona virus are all examples of viruses that have found new hosts in new species. So, because of these big changes in natural environments, what was once contained in nature is now being exposed to human populations”

So how can these risks be managed and how can science combat the challenges to the food supply chain that they represent? Martin remains positive that there are systems in place that can work.

“Fortunately, there is a well-developed global infrastructure around food safety intelligence. Good data exists on what illnesses are occurring and where they are located. The next level down from the data are the diagnostics and bioinformatic analyses that help to identify what’s out there and the extent of the risk. These systems have matured considerably in recent years with good levels of international collaboration. For example, data is published internationally on notifiable diseases such as Salmonella, with export restrictions in place for countries with a high incidence of Salmonella in poultry.”

Metadata analyses, epidemiology, risk analysis and bioinformatics are an increasingly essential part of food safety, particularly as food supply chains become more complex.

“It is vital to know where in the supply chain an issue such as infection or contamination may exist and where it may be disseminated across the global market. Traceability is key from point of origin all the way through the distribution system, so that once a problem is detected, it can be safely contained.”

But in order to carry out the diagnostics and analysis, Martin is very clear that effective testing regimes also need to be in place.

“It is important that testing can be carried out in real time so that issues can be detected where they exist, not after the event. This becomes even more important as food production systems intensify as there is a greater likelihood of a problem becoming concentrated through a single pipeline. Diagnostic testing pre-production is also required so that problems in the environment can be detected early.”

This leads on to the importance of epidemiology and the way in which this aspect of bioscience supports a safe food supply chain.

“Once we know where the producers are and can detect and diagnose a problem, it is crucial to know how and where it will spread. This is the science of epidemiology. In many parts of the world, chickens and pigs live in and amongst houses, often in the back yard or as part of a small holding. A major concern is that this is where new zoonoses may emerge with for example avian influenza starting in a back yard. It then becomes important to understand the migratory paths that infected birds will take and how the infection could spread. Again, this is often linked to manmade changes in the natural environment and the reducing diversity of landscapes, forcing disease into farmed animals and on to humans”.

The food supply system understands the challenges of food safety and has worked with solutions and interventions for years. One of the most important interventions, in Martin’s view is simple biosecurity.

“Biosecurity is well established, especially in developed countries. There are many procedures in place to prevent the spread of infection through a monoculture of chickens, for example. Foot dips, limiting the number of people on site, concrete floor curtains around the barn, reducing wild bird and rodent entry, cleansing and disinfection regimes are standard measures. Where poultry is housed outside, it is harder to control infection that may be carried by birds flying in. Managing the spread of infection in crops is also harder as it can be wind borne.”

One of the most obvious direct interventions in the farmed animal and poultry population is vaccination. Typically, in the UK every chicken is now vaccinated with at least seven vaccines. But developing vaccines is extremely costly and rarely 100% effective although Martin points to some important recent developments in vaccine technology.

“The emergence of synthetic biology and techniques that can stitch together the relevant components into a vaccine that gives a protective immune response is a real breakthrough in modern science. However, we will need to bring public opinion with us as historically the concept of synthetic biology has encountered resistance with consumers because it is viewed as unnatural. It may take a pandemic to change people’s opinion but it’s likely that they will be shouting from the rooftops in support of a synthetic vaccine if it provides immunity to Covid-19.”

The other much used intervention is the use of antibiotics in farmed animals. Whilst these are used therapeutically to treat disease, they are still used as growth promoters. Fortunately, in many parts of the world, there are an increasing number of countries where their use is restricted to the treatment of infected animals or birds. Consumers, particularly in the US and the Europe are influencing reduced and prudent use driven by the emergence of resistant superbugs that cannot be treated in human infections.

“The concept of No Antibiotics Ever (NAE) is gaining traction amongst consumers although this is having an impact on producer’s profitability. The whole industry is having to bear a loss in productivity. This is driving a need for alternatives to the antibiotics that have in the past been so effective.”

Farmers and producers are therefore in desperate need of alternative interventions to vaccines and antibiotics that maintain the balance of good health in farmed animals and in crops. Martin shares some thoughts on the options currently available.

“Beyond the need for good biosecurity, it then becomes a matter of what can be sprayed on crops or fed to animals. Prebiotics and probiotics are well established as feed additives and whilst they will help support animal health, they are unable to effectively control disease. Bacteriophages, originally explored as an option many decades ago are of interest but they too drive selection of bacteria resistant to being killed by them. To overcome this, an extremely wide diversity of bacteriophages is needed; this limits their practicality. So there is currently a huge search for alternative approaches or technologies that can be an effective support for animal or plant health and reduce the risk of infection. Our Guided Biotics® platform is designed to address this”

(Download our technical guide to find out more

One of the challenges associated with any new technology designed to tackle infectious disease is how to get it to reach its target. Martin explains why this is important and why this represents an opportunity area for future investment.

“Much of the new biotechnology that is in development across the world is reliant on having an effective targeting and delivery system as part of its application. Many technologies will operate in a small window of opportunity within the target environment so the technology must either be very effective within that window or have a very efficient delivery system. The big opportunity areas for the future are therefore in the biotechnology associated with delivery systems as well as the technology that can selectively remove an unwanted pathogen”.

Martin has given us much to think about. The effects of monoculture food systems and of a worldwide reduction in genetic biodiversity can be seen at a local level in the increased risk of infectious diseases that we are all living with today. However, the global data surveillance and bioinformatic systems that exist will allow for accurate monitoring, risk analysis and modelling such that, in most cases, the appropriate interventions can be put in place.

Beyond biosecurity, interventions include vaccines and antibiotics but the growth in synthetic biology, using pre-existing biological components creates opportunities for new technologies that can be designed to be highly specific and targeted.

To address the systemic challenges of modern agriculture and to continue to produce safe food, the door to new technologies must be opened. Without doubt, bioscience holds the key.


Embracing Innovation in BioScience

In the second of our series of articles, FOLIUM Science considers some of the big challenges in the food supply chain, how attitudes to bioscience and new technologies differ across the world, how funding of new research needs to be managed and where the investment opportunities in bioscience will be.

We asked FOLIUM Science’s in-house experts to reflect on the role that bioscience plays in the food supply chain and draw on their own personal experiences to consider how the future might look.

FOLIUM Science Chief Development Officer, Dr Simon Warner shares some thoughts on how technological change is adopted.

“The last ten years has seen a very different response to new technology depending on where you are in the world.  The US, China and Brazil have embraced new technology much faster than Europe. The focus in Europe has been more orientated towards biological solutions and pesticide reduction, for example, neither of which are bad options but some of the new potent technologies have not fared so well as a result.”

This could be due to inherent beliefs and behaviours that are ingrained within respective societies, as well as the different rates of agricultural and economic growth across the different regions. But it will also be a function of the perceived future and the skills that the next generation will require.

Simon believes that education in the sciences may well be one of the driving factors that impacts the level of adoption of new technologies.

“Developing countries are trying really hard to ensure the next generation benefits from as good a scientific education as possible, whereas in Europe we value other things. The UK in particular is more focussed on finance and other services, and core agriculture in Europe is very small with only a few farmers per head of population. This means that many European consumers have lost touch with agriculture so, although we have seen some great new technologies being developed, their deployment and public acceptance is different around the world”

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are an example of this. First developed in the 1970s and developed through second generation technology in subsequent decades, today’s synthetic biology techniques are taking it through a third evolution with the advent of CRISPR technology.

This type of bioscience has the ability to quicken the pace of agricultural growth. The modern strains of wheat and barley were developed using selective breeding of the desired genetic traits; synthetic biology, such as CRISPR can play an important role in this process.

In previous roles, Simon’s experience has been with viral diseases such as Malaria, Zika and Dengue fever.

“Malaria still kills up to three million people a year, with children disproportionately affected. These diseases are mosquito-based and as yet there has been no vaccine developed that is really effective, so the only current route is to manage the insect population”

Simon believes that lessons can be learnt from the way in which these projects were funded. Much of the work on mosquito borne diseases was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, but the Covid-19 pandemic poses a question about whether we will see greater collaboration between scientists or a more siloed, competitive approach.

“Innovate UK has announced a £20m Covid-19-related competition for UK businesses with maximum grants of £50,000 per business. This encourages competition but not collaboration. It is therefore up for debate whether many small laboratories with small amounts of money will deliver a better solution than a bigger collaborative consortium with say a minimum of £1m. Different countries will take different approaches, but it would be good to see the scientific community working together on this challenge”

When it comes to protecting consumers from ongoing food safety risks, it is a matter of making sure that the public do not take food safety for granted and realise that without good science, this will become even more of an issue.

“We could say that banning the use of antibiotics as a growth promoter for livestock production is a sensible policy and to reserve the  use of antibiotics only as veterinary medicines, but the consequences of this could also inadvertently cause contamination in the food supply chain with pathogens and unwanted bacteria such as Salmonella. Therefore by reducing the use of antibiotics to address the issue of antimicrobial resistance, other risks can occur. So we need alternatives that will support animal wellbeing and reduce the risk of infection. Our Guided Biotics® platform is designed to address this”

(Download our technical guide to find out more

Simon is clear that science will play a big part in a sustainable and secure food supply. With an ever-growing world population, there are some big risks and challenges ahead.

“We all forget, as complacent Europeans, that the world will not have enough food by 2030, so there is a big risk staring us in the face. There won’t be enough food or enough animal protein. This is because of productivity gaps and behavioural changes. China is demanding more meat and the consumption of meat in the western world will not be sustainable as crop acreage and water supply become limiting factors. Science has a role to play in supporting increased productivity from the existing agricultural acreage to combat the issues caused by climate change, changes in rainfall patterns and water scarcity”.

Biotechnology has solved issues of food preservation before.  The use of fermented foods and drinks to combat dirty food and water by developing beers and breads is an example of how biotechnology has always played a role in the safety of our food.

So, in the long term what does this all mean for investors and where should they look to support biotechnology in the future? Simon is clear that technology to drive productivity and efficiency will be key.

“In the long term, the problems that face us will be how to increase crop yield in a world where fewer new crop protection products  are being registered . Finding ways to protect plants and crops is therefore becoming more challenging. The opportunities lie in technology that can enhance productivity and efficiency in a world where resources are becoming increasingly stretched. And, in recognition of the differing public attitudes towards new technology, biological solutions can only improve the rate at which it will be adopted”.

To conclude, new biotechnologies for the food supply chain are vital but the rate of adoption will depend in part on how local populations perceive the science. Implementation is more likely in countries that have historically been more receptive to new technology such as the US, Asia and South America or where a science-based decision-making process is regarded as important.

The optimisation of funding models for research and development will play a part in the success of new initiatives, including finding treatments for global pandemics. It remains to be seen whether a competition-driven or collaboration within larger consortia approaches are more effective.

Finally, the opportunities for investment in biotechnology will be in technologies that deliver production efficiencies, higher yields and that can protect public health from unwanted pathogens.


BioScience Keeps Us Safe

Never has there been a greater focus on the role of science in keeping us all safe and how the understanding of bioscience and genetics can deliver breakthroughs that can transform our future. Not just in protecting our health from the threats of viral pandemics and antimicrobial resistance (AMR) but across the food supply chain. More than ever, the food industry is reliant on good science; for example to support productivity, to protect animal and human health from disease, to improve crop yields and ultimately to deliver enough safe food to feed an increasingly hungry world.

In this series of articles, FOLIUM Science’s in-house experts reflect on the role that bioscience plays in the food supply chain and draw on their own personal experiences to consider how the future might look.

FOLIUM Science’s Chief Technical Officer, Dr Hadden Graham shares his thoughts on some of the bigger breakthroughs in bioscience.

“Biotechnology has been important for thousands of years. Even as far back as Egyptian times when fermentation was used to preserve food. Selective plant breeding has been carried out for centuries, but the big breakthroughs came when there was a greater understanding of how to speed up the process and how to deliver predictable outcomes based on an understanding of the genetic make-up of an organism”

Genetics sits at the core of much of the science that is applicable in the food supply chain. The improvement in breeding stock amongst poultry producers is a good example

“These breeders aren’t using GM to improve their stock. They are selecting based on performance and using big data to identify and produce the desired genetic traits in the next generation. And it’s not just about performance. Genetic selection will support better animal health and welfare by selecting for leg strength or bone strength for example. We now understand so much more about animal genetics, but we still need to learn more about how to feed the genetics to help control the diseases”

But delivering the breakthrough bioscience and innovation to market has its challenges. Particularly, in Hadden’s view when it comes to consumers.

“Some people think it is the regulatory authorities that present the greatest barrier to bioscience innovation, but a bigger problem can be the way that consumers perceive it. Consumers often fear the unknown and, on the whole, don’t understand science. This isn’t necessarily their fault as science is getting pretty complex and not as easy to understand as it might have been 20 years ago but the degree of consumer resistance to some aspects of bioscience has limited some applications, even though the regulatory authorities have the appropriate systems and processes in place”

With scientific experts in the headlines every day, one outcome of the corona virus pandemic could be a greater trust in science amongst consumers alongside a more intense focus on where our food comes from.

“Governments across the world are now realising the importance of listening to experts. They need the scientists to tell them what to do as there is no other way to deal with the problems we have to face in the world today. This applies to the long-term provision of our food as well as to the combatting of diseases. For consumers, the key question will be around trust. Will science regain the trust of consumers that has eroded in recent years?. At the very least we should expect a shift in attitudes towards those with genuine expertise and experience. It’s an important time for the biotechnology industry; we are on the cusp of finding solutions to some of today’s big health issues including many cancers and diseases. Our CRISPR based Guided Biotics® technology is a part of this”

(Download our technical guide to find out more

Hadden’s first-hand experience in delivering breakthrough bioscience to market for the food supply chain was demonstrated in the late 1980’s when feed enzymes were first launched by the pioneering feed additive producer, Finnfeeds. Although enzymes had unwittingly been used for centuries in beer and cheese production and had been studied in animal performance trials as far back as the 1920’s it wasn’t until the right market opportunity presented itself that this billion-dollar industry was born.

“ Although the actions of enzymes in animal feeds was understood, the catalyst and commercial breakthrough was the impact that feeding enzymes had on barley fed poultry. Domestically grown barley was significantly cheaper than imported wheat but had historically created problems with litter when fed to birds. The addition of enzymes into the feed transformed this and the rest, as they say is history. This was an example of where good science reacted to the market opportunity and was rapidly developed by commercially astute scientists into a commercial application“

So what lessons can we learn from these reflections?

Firstly, although bioscience has played a role in the production of safe food for centuries, the importance of delivering science-based solutions for the food supply chain has never been greater. Population growth and changing consumer consumption patterns means that efficiency of production will rely on a deep understanding of the drivers of greater productivity. And beyond these ongoing pressures, the current threats to human health posed by AMR or viral pandemics are very real and can only be solved by a commitment to invest in the research and innovation required.

Secondly, we should expect to see science as the hero in our future stories and a return of a world where science trumps politics. Or at least that’s what we should hope for.

And finally, there are enormous commercial opportunities for investors in biotechnology and for science driven organisations that can not only develop products that improve the productivity of food producers and support the production of safe food but that can put the commercial operations in place to move swiftly to market.