The Middle East was the birthplace of farming and agricultural settlements, the site of the first agricultural revolution.
Today, as the world struggles to feed a rapidly growing population while cutting farming emissions, the region can lead another revolution by pioneering a type of precision fermentation that converts energy
and a few ingredients into food. Middle East countries, particularly in the GCC, are well positioned to make this energy-to-food precision fermentation industry of the future.
The world urgently needs a better way to feed itself. The global population is projected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, 1.8 billion people more than today. Global agricultural production would have to grow by over 60 per cent by 2050 to feed everyone, which is daunting.
That would require cultivating an additional six million square kilometres of agricultural land – roughly the size of the Amazon – land which is not available. The planet is also short of fresh water. Agriculture’s carbon emissions, already some 25-33 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, would increase.
Farming would remain vulnerable to geopolitical risks and economic disruption. Worryingly, much of the food that would be produced, as today, would likely be low quality. Already, close to 40 per cent of the world’s population cannot afford a healthy diet, with many people subsisting on a diet of starchy foods.
Responding to the challenge
The Middle East, especially the GCC, can answer this challenge, and produce healthy, low-emission foods. GCC countries are rich in low-cost renewables and capital, and possess the necessary inputs to make energy-to-food precision fermentation commercially viable.
Energy-to-food uses energy, nitrogen, carbon, oxygen and organisms (or biochemically active substances derived from such organisms) to make proteins and other food substitutes. The energy-to-food process occurs in a bioreactor, which provides a uniform environment for the energy-intensive chemical reaction.
The eventual gains from energy-to-food will be considerable. We estimate that each kilogramme of protein from an energy-to-food bioreactor would create just 3 per cent of the emissions of a kilogramme of animal protein, use 0.5 per cent of the land needed for the same amount of animal protein, and require just 0.008 per cent of the water required for a kilogramme of animal protein.
Countries in the Middle East could produce food cheaply and efficiently from bioreactors because their renewable energy costs can be around 40 per cent lower than the global average.
Cheap renewables are vital as energy accounts for on average half the expense of energy-to-food proteins. Countries in the Middle East could therefore compete in the growing global alternative proteins market, which Credit Suisse estimates could be worth$1.4tn.
They could also reduce food imports, which currently fill 85 per cent of GCC domestic food needs.
To lead in this sector, GCC countries must surmount the three related obstacles of cost, consumer acceptance, and scale. The technology is in its infancy and so expensive. Food is emotive and highly regulated, which makes consumer acceptance vital.
Building scale quickly is critical to meeting demand and reducing the cost per kilogramme of proteins produced by precision fermentation. They can overcome these challenges through action in six areas: research and development (R&D), investment in infrastructure, value chain development, talent, regulation and policy, and consumer awareness.
First, governments should invest in R&D so the technology matures and energy-to-food proteins become cost competitive. That means more funds for early-stage and often high-risk innovations. The private sector can then commit its money and help the technology proliferate.
Second, there should be joint public and private sector investment in expensive infrastructure. For example, a commercial bioreactor with one million litres capacity can cost up to $500m. There are just 60 million litres of bioreactor capacity available at present.
For the world to be able to produce 2.5 per cent of all proteins through precision fermentation by 2030 would require 4 billion litres of bioreactor capacity, which would cost $2tn at current prices (although the unit cost could drop as the technology improves).
Third, governments in the Middle East should develop a complete energy-to-food value chain. That means ensuring private sector producers have access to the necessary raw materials and feedstock.
Fourth, energy-to-food demands a deep talent pool for R&D and commercialisation. That means leading experts in molecular biology, chemical engineering, strain engineering, data science, product development, and plant design – along with clinicians, nutritionists, and policy experts. Some talent will come from outside the Middle East; some can be developed regionally.
Fifth, regulation and policy should promote energy-to-food proteins and safeguard quality. Incentives can assist companies with the cost of investment in R&D and renewables.
Sixth, the public and private sectors should gain consumer acceptance through education and standards. Consumers will need to know that energy-to-food proteins are environmentally sound, healthy, nutritionally beneficial, halal (permissible) for Muslims, and acceptable in other cultural and religious contexts.
Creating food from energy and a small number of other ingredients will be a new agricultural revolution. GCC can be in the vanguard, feeding the world in a healthy and sustainable manner.
Dr Yahya Anouti and Dr Shihab Elborai are partners; Samer Al Chikhani is a principal, and Hammad Nawaz is a manager with Strategy& Middle East
Also read: How GCC countries can ensure their food security