Could COVID vaccine development speed change the game for food?

Could bio-innovation be the disruptive technology that addresses the challenges of feeding a growing population and reversing climate change?

A McKinsey Global Institute report was released in May 2020 called The Bio Revolution: Innovations transforming economies, societies and our lives. It surveyed scientific advances and explored 400 use cases to create a roadmap of the business, economic and broader societal implications of bio-innovation.

While research began in early 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic provided insight into the increased agility of scientists able to sequence the virus’s genome in weeks, not months, in part due to advancements in bio-innovation. 

Dr. Steve Webb, executive director of the Global Institute for Food Security, said the pandemic revealed a new way to work within a regulatory framework that doesn’t compromise the safety or quality but is more iterative, interactive and proactive.

“The fact that we were able to go from an idea to a product in less than a year and use the existing framework for vaccine registrations provides a framework for us to think about a new way of doing regulatory,” said Webb.

“You do not lead if your regulatory strategy is to follow.”

Webb said Canada’s reputation for high standards and high quality is an advantage. He doesn’t want that compromised but suggested the regulatory framework and standards shouldn’t be barriers to the innovation process but rather should be a path toward it. 

The report said biological means could create 60 per cent of the world’s physical inputs. 

“Over the next 10 to 20 years, we estimate that these applications alone could have a direct economic impact of between $2 trillion and $4 trillion globally per year,” said the report adding that the range depends on how and when innovation is adopted.

It’s estimated that biomolecules and biosystems in the agriculture, aquaculture and food domain would be responsible for 36 per cent of the annual economic gain over the next 10 to 20 years, equating to between $0.8 trillion to $1.2 trillion from the development of alternative proteins. 

Projections in the report suggest a potential reduction of seven to nine per cent annually from 2018 of manufactured greenhouse gas emissions by 2040 to 2050 if sectors scaled up direct applications. 

“The pace of change is going to be even quicker than we’ve seen before. That’s the whole point of the investment Canada is making (in the industry),” said Webb. 

“But it needs to be more comprehensive and network-driven in terms of driving that change – that design-build-test-learn cycle is accelerating, and we need to be in the race.” 

Lenore Newman, director at the Food and Agriculture Institute and Canada Research Chair, Food Security and Environment, said disruptive technologies are exciting but somewhat ugly on the ground if unplanned.

She’s been tracking the impact of advanced fermentation and cell culture and believes it has the potential to change the face of agriculture and food production.

“We need a national protein strategy, we need to fund research, we need to fund industry, we need to do public-private partnerships,” Newman said. 

“We have to look to places like the Netherlands and Singapore and say, wow, these countries are pouring money into this. They are going to eat our lunch in 10 years if we don’t get started.”

If Canada isn’t competitive in this market, it will evolve into a consumer country, and it will be harder to export because the industry will view Canadian products as environmentally harmful, she added.