One of the biggest sources of greenhouse gases – animal agriculture – is a huge problem to solve, and one bioengineering start-up thinks it has the answer.  Drew Turney reports from WA.

Considering the problems associated with some large-scale agribusiness practices like the inhumane treatment of animals, lower quality outputs, high-density pollution and staggering water and chemical needs, it’s no wonder a return to artisanal subsistence farming seems so attractive.

The bad news; it’s impossible. Countries where it still proliferates have stagnant economies, and it doesn’t offer the variety of output we need in human diets. A single industrialised world farmer produces more food with higher nutritional quality for more people per labour unit than several subsistence farmers.

There just isn’t enough arable land on Earth to feed eight billion people without the scale of factory farming, and if we want to address the negative impacts it can have on the climate and environment, the only thing that might save us is biotechnology.

And one of the biggest problems to solve in growing and processing our food is methane. A third of all the methane we produce is from agriculture, and up to a third of that figure is from enteric methane, produced when farm animals digest food.

That means – at the risk of putting it indelicately – every time a cow or sheep burps or farts, it exacerbates the greenhouse effect. And with meat and dairy animals in the world numbering around three billion, that’s enough to make your eyes water for several reasons.

It’s also a problem that’s only going to grow. According to Dr Tom Williams, a PhD in synthetic biology: “We’re going to have to increase food production by as much as 68% by 2050 if the population keeps growing at the current rate.”

It’s also urgent because, while carbon dioxide gets most of the rap, methane is considered by climate scientists to be far more serious.

CO2 breaks down over about a century and methane takes only about 20 years, but during those 20 years it’s about 80 times more potent. “Anything we do with CO2 emissions we have basically a hundred-year lag time because that’s how long existing emissions will stay in the atmosphere,” Williams says. “If we mitigate methane emissions now we’ll feel the benefits relatively quickly.”

De-methaning agriculture

Williams decided to do something about it, and he figured out what he thinks is a ground-breaking method. Along with colleague Dr Alex Carpenter, Williams founded Number 8 Bio.

Number 8 Bio takes its name from New Zealand (where Williams is from) farm folklore. Using nothing but home-grown ingenuity and a product called ‘number 8 gauge wire’ that originated in the 1860s, it’s said Kiwi farmers can fix anything.

In the same way, Number 8 Bio wants to fix the environment, using bioengineering to decarbonise farming. The company has a unique biochemical process to manufacture feed that results in a monumental drop in methane emissions among ruminants – the hoofed herbivores that get nutrients by their digestive systems fermenting food prior to digestion.

Williams and his colleagues are working with a compound called bromoform. A colourless liquid in its common form, bromoform is an organohalide, one of several organic compounds that contain a halogen like fluorine, chlorine, bromine or iodine that bonds to a carbon atom. Bromoform is also the most common organohalide produced in the desalination of seawater.

Bromoform is also found in seaweed, specifically a variety called asparogopsis, and the Number 8 Bio team has figured out it’s really good at eliminating methane. When delivered in animal feed containing the correct level of active agents, he says trials have caused methane reductions of up to 50%.

Number 8 Bio’s process has another advantage. Because the animal produces less methane for the food it eats, more of that food is converted into energy, which means it can eat less for the same energy intake – so farms don’t need to buy as much feed.

Seaweed in the fields

From there, the complex science is theoretically pretty straightforward. The seaweed contains an enzyme called bromoperoxidase that makes bromoform. Number 8 Bio uses bioengineering to functionally express the bromoperoxidase in yeast, just like the way your genes functionally expressed you to have brown eyes or grow tall in adulthood when you were conceived.

The bromoform-rich yeast is then processed and packaged just like a bag of baker’s yeast you’d see at the supermarket, and that’s essentially Number 8 Bio’s product. It’s mixed in with livestock feed that results in far less methane produced by the stomachs of those billions of meat and dairy animals.

It might seem like the perfect plan because seaweed is so plentiful, but it’s not so easy to process in the quantities we’d need to put a serious dent in global ruminant methane emissions. “Seaweed works, but there are some serious challenges in scaling it up,” Williams says. “It grows in the ocean, it grows slowly and it can’t be engineered. There’s no existing infrastructure for storing or transporting it and it doesn’t taste very good to cows.”

That’s where Williams’ and Carpenter’s backgrounds came in. Their day-to-day studies involved engineering micro-organisms to make chemicals that already exist in nature, molecules with billions of years of practice converting energy, sequestering carbon, and breaking methane down.

“If you engineer a micro-organism for yeast, you’re using something that’s already growing all over the world in million-litre tanks and you can make tons of it in a couple of days. You can dry it, and store it, cows love eating it, and it’s nutritious. It’s one of the most well-understood organisms on Earth – we can engineer it to do virtually whatever we want easily. That solves the problem of scalability and uptake.”

Selling the future

Initially, Williams and Carpenter plan to sell the yeast biomass with the active ingredients directly to farmers and nutritionists where it might be combined with alternative feeds that address other animal health or productivity issues.

But they have an eye on the future. As Williams says somewhat dryly about the number of ruminant animals on Earth: ‘It’s a lot’. “Servicing even one million animals is pretty good, and the way to do that is probably a partner in the places we don’t think we’ll have sales any time soon,” he says. “In the future, we’ll look at a mixed model of corporate partnerships or licensing models.”

Then there’s the considerable matter of a burgeoning meat alternative market, where sales in meat made of everything from grain to fungus grew by nearly 40% in North America across 2017/18. Haven’t we already solved the problem of methane emissions, just waiting for the alt-meat industry to catch up?

“We’re very happy for those products to be part of the solution and those companies to succeed, but the reality is we’re not taking those synthetic biologies up fast enough to make enough of a difference to climate change,” Williams says.

Not only that, substitute meat might not turn out the silver bullet we hope for. Williams starts our conversation by talking about how culturally ingrained meat is, and how hard it’ll be to depose it from the human diet. “It’s especially unrealistic to expect it with large parts of the global population coming into the middle class, which is where consumers demand large amounts of meat and milk.”

But the other matter that might pose the ultimate hurdle to Number 8 Bio and other companies like it is price. “There has to be some economic benefit to the farmer,” Williams says. “They generally have slim margins and they don’t have the luxury of taking on a green technology just because they want to.”

But the value proposition for Number 8 Bio’s scientific breakthrough is pretty compelling. Described by Williams as ‘feed conversion efficiency’, it lets each head of cattle perform more efficiently. As we’ve seen, animals don’t need to eat as much, so even if Number 8 Bio feed is priced a little higher until it takes hold, the economic outlay might still be in its favour.

“We think the company that can lock that in the best will be the one that succeeds in this market,” he says. And with a US presence already set up to capture the North American market and work on perfecting the process continuing apace at home, Number 8 Bio seems on track to do just that.