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How plants and bacteria could provide new energy for Europe

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The use of plants and other biological methods to produce renewable fuels and non-polluting chemicals is steadily increasing. How long will it take for biofuels to make a meaningful contribution to the replacement of fossil fuels?

Recent research on energy production through biological processes offers a wide range of novel solutions that could be pursued to improve energy sustainability. Animal by-products and plants have long been used to generate energy: cost-effective and renewable raw materials derived from agricultural wastes and crops are currently employed to produce biofuels as cleaner and cheaper substitutes for crude oil.

Current technologies do not allow the full exploitation of large-scale production of renewable energy from biological processes yet. However, recent research advances indicate that, in a not-so-far future, it could be way easier to create new plant varieties that significantly improve the efficiency of these methods.

For instance, a relatively new branch of studies exploits microorganisms such as yeasts and microalgae, adjusting their characteristics to produce biofuel through processes such as photosynthesis and fermentation. Current estimates indicate that the decrease of greenhouse gas emissions of current biofuels is on average 30% compared to GHG emitted burning “traditional” fossil fuels. Still, several third-generation solutions currently under investigation could allow much better results by enabling up to 80% reductions. With an incumbent energy crisis to be resolved, the development of such solutions can be expected to accelerate significantly.

Innovative technologies such as CRISPR-Cas9, based on Professor Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier research, could be crucial in driving this acceleration. They both received the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry as the inventors of the technology (you can watch Jennifer Doudna’s presentation at a recent event we organised by clicking here). If properly regulated, such innovation could revolutionise the food sector and introduce a renewable and carbon-neutral supply of biofuels and other chemicals. But genome editing is not the silver bullet to solve all agricultural challenges: from artificial intelligence to blockchain and vertical farming, many innovations are waiting to be deployed to optimise yields and tackle the problems induced by climate change.

For this reason, legislators and policymakers must reflect on how to regulate innovation in agriculture, carefully balancing the precautionary principle and the urgent need for renewal of the sector. More technology development is needed to produce the commercially viable biofuels and chemicals we need. Innovation in agriculture could also help replace plastics and many other petroleum-based chemicals with biodegradable, biocompatible non-fossil-based analogues. The challenge to produce renewable energy and non-polluting chemicals is part of the broader agenda set through the ambitious European turn towards a zero-impact continent, which the current Commission has established through the European Green Deal and the Farm to Fork Strategy.

With COP26 scheduled for this week, world leaders will be called upon to speak out on the future of our planet. It is difficult to predict which of the possible paths they will choose and whether their choices will lead to the necessary results in the medium and long term. Certainly, inaction is the only road that does not lead to any solution. Hence, it is essential to imagine new solutions that combat climate change and restore balance in the relationship between humans and terrestrial ecosystems.

On the one hand, the objectives outlined through these policies are essential for the well-being of future generations. On the other, they put the agricultural sector under tremendous pressure to minimise its impact on the environment, climate and biodiversity. Re-Imagine Europa’s Task Force on “Sustainable Agriculture and Innovation” aims to build a vision to adapt the whole European agricultural sector to the needs of the present times, balancing them with the traditions that characterise our continent. European farmers are already dealing with severe floods and droughts caused by climate change, like those that struck France, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium in mid-July 2021. They will have to be supplied with advanced tools to cope with the further inevitable increase in extreme weather phenomena, which could also seriously endanger many centuries-old local products and traditions.