More than a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, forestry and land use change. If action is not taken immediately, emissions from this sector are likely to increase as more people inhabit the Earth and the need for food continues to grow. In India, the agricultural sector accounts for 19.6% of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions, preceded by the energy sector, including electricity and heat production (44%) and manufacturing industries and construction sectors combined (18%).
Agricultural emissions in India are mainly from the livestock sector (54.6%) in the form of methane emissions due to intestinal fermentation and the use of nitrogen fertilizers in agricultural soils (19%), which emit nitrogen oxides; Growing rice (18.5 per cent) under anaerobic conditions is a major part of agricultural emissions, followed by livestock (6.9 per cent) and stubble burning (2.1 per cent). It is therefore imperative to speed up the implementation of low-carbon solutions in all supply chains.
Synthetic biology (synbio) is emerging as a fast-growing industry, with the global value of synbio technologies and products expected to reach $ 20 billion by 2024. With advances in synthetic biology, we already have many uses that we can apply in Agriculture.
Alt feed for animals and capture of methane emissions from manure
According to the 20th Livestock Census (2019), India has the largest cattle population in the world – 535.78 million. Livestock accounts for 78 percent of India’s 24 million tonnes of total methane emissions, according to available official figures. Fertilizing animal feed produces emissions of nitric oxide, which is 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. When animals eat this food and produce manure, it generates methane emissions that are 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.
The act of plowing lawns and forests to raise animal feed also releases carbon from the soil into the atmosphere. In contrast, alternative proteins produce less greenhouse gases and require less land. At String Bio, we have developed a high-quality methane-derived protein ingredient with high levels of essential amino acids to meet the growing demand for protein targeting the feed and food sectors. It is an excellent substitute for marine and animal protein and its use can free up land use for growing additional crops to address food security.
Reduction of nitrogen fertilizer application
Agriculture accounts for almost 80% of total nitrous oxide emissions, generated mainly by the application of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers and manure added to the soil or left on pastures. Reducing dependence on these synthetic fertilizers is an important area of concern and a matter of debate for experts around the world. Ag-biotech startups are working on solutions to replace these synthetic fertilizers with sustainable organic products that will not only help reduce emissions, but also support farmers’ productivity. String was the first company in the world to develop a microbial-based biostimulant called CleanRise and a biostimulant based on peptides called Impakt, which are derived from methane-free, chemical-free, natural biostimulants. Methane-derived biostimulants have a number of effects on plant growth, including improved vegetative growth and flowering, enhanced root development, better soil health, stress resistance and increased yields. They meet the growing need for sustainable agricultural production, increased productivity per decare and reduced greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.
Growing rice with less methane
The protection and maintenance of moist soils is essential to meet and sustain food production for future generations, as well as to protect habitats for endangered species of plants and wildlife. In Asia, wetlands have been used extensively for food production for thousands of years, with rice being the dominant cereal. It is the most important wetland food crop in the world and the pressure to grow more rice is growing every year. This is the only large cereal that is grown almost exclusively as food. In 30 years, the earth could be home to 10 billion people and the number expected to be consumers of rice (descendants of today’s rice consumers) could be equal to today’s total population of the earth and their nutrition will require a huge increase in global rice production.
More than 90 percent of the world’s 140 million hectares of rice are produced in Asia, which also means that the continent is responsible for large-scale methane emissions from crop production. Rice production contributes about 10-13% of annual methane emissions and its total greenhouse gas production puts it on par with international aviation. At String, one of our products, CleanRise demonstrates an increase in yield of up to 40 percent from recent field trials in various crops. Rice has even more noticeable and significant results: CleanRise not only shows a 33% increase in grain yield in treated crops, but also a reduction in methane and nitric oxide emissions of up to 60% and 40% respectively compared to untreated crops. Methane-based biostimulants provide a commercially ready solution for increasing yields, better return on investment for farmers and, at the same time, environmental benefits.
It is time to look at carbon not as our enemy, but as our ally as agriculture, which can provide more opportunities to reduce the carbon footprint than, say, sectors such as transport, industry and infrastructure. We need to implement and support more agricultural biotechnology solutions that are not only sustainable but can help drastically in the fight against climate change.
(The writer is a co-founder and CEO, String Bio)