Microbial paths to a sustainable world

Microbial paths to a sustainable world

Microbes are essential to food production. They can also help make it greener.

The global dairy industry owes much to a small Danish town. That’s because it is home to one of the world’s most significant banks of microbial strains – some 50,000 of them. The collection is owned by the bioscience company Chr. Hansen and is the source of the cultures that are behind every second cheese and yoghurt product on the market, consumed by more than a billion people every single day. 

But the collection has the potential to be even more important. Much of Chr. Hansen’s research and development involves improving the characteristics of these strains to meet specific needs, or combining them in new ways to produce the next generation of good microbes. In this way, Chr. Hansen is tackling some of the world’s most intractable problems, such as creating “bioprotective cultures,” natural cultures that outcompete pathogens in foodstuffs, thus helping to extend the shelf life of products.

“In plants,” says the company’s chief executive, Mauricio Graber, “we’re able to provide natural solutions for plant health that reduce the use of pesticides. For animals, we provide probiotics to reduce the use of antibiotics and therefore avoid the overuse of antibiotics that ends up having an impact on humans.”

Chr. Hansen is one of the world leaders in producing cultures, enzymes and probiotics for the food, nutritional, pharma and agricultural industries. The company, based in Hørsholm, just north of Copenhagen, has a history dating back to 1874, when its founder, Christian Hansen, established a factory in a former metal workshop in Copenhagen. Back then, the business had one product: liquid animal rennet for the cheesemaking process. 

Chr. Hansen has developed many probiotic strains to improve and maintain gut health, and is investing more into this area. “The human microbiome represents a very important opportunity for the future.” And although dairy is still at the heart of its business, another opportunity has arisen through the emergence of plant-based food products. “There is consumer demand,” says Mauricio. “But these products don’t yet have the taste profile that keeps the consumer coming back and helps expand the segment.” He believes that Chr. Hansen’s microbial fermentation capabilities will be able to deliver taste and richness across this segment, as they have done for dairy products, for instance.

Holey cheeses

But Chr. Hansen’s vision extends beyond individual consumers. Mauricio and his team have calculated that 80 per cent of the company’s products contribute towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As for the remaining 20 per cent, the company says those activities aren’t relevant with respect to the SDGs. For instance,  Mauricio says Chr. Hansen makes products that ensure a cheese has the characteristic holes which consumers have come to expect. “You can’t imagine having your favourite cheese without the holes,” he says. “But that doesn’t contribute to a more sustainable planet, right? So we don’t count that.” It’s a methodology that has been audited and validated by PWC. 

Alongside this are the company’s climate commitments. In 2023, Chr. Hansen was ranked as the most sustainable biotech company in the world in Corporate Knight’s annual ranking from a universe of some 6,000 firms with revenues over USD1 billion.

A large part of this is down to the company’s clear commitment to reducing its emissions. That’s not just its Scope 1 and 2 emissions, the direct emissions from its own operations and energy use. But this also includes its Scope 3 emissions, those associated with activities across the entire value chain. Chr. Hansen is targeting a 42 per cent reduction in Scope 1 and 2 greenhouse gases by 2030 and a 20 per cent reduction in Scope 3 emissions in the same timeframe.

Even relatively modest reductions in Scope 3 emissions has a big effect. Chr. Hansen estimates that these account for around 87 per cent of the company’s total greenhouse gas emissions. “The engagement of suppliers is key,” Mauricio explains. “They multiply the efforts of everything that we do, from the sourcing of raw materials to our transportation partners and logistics around the world.”

The company’s large suppliers have been told that they have to join the decarbonisation journey in order to work with Chr. Hansen. Meanwhile, it is lending support and toolkits to smaller suppliers that might not have the resources or capabilities to do the same.

Chr. Hansen is in the process of merging with enzymes manufacturer Novozymes, which, subject to regulatory approval, will be the biggest ever merger of two Danish companies. “We will bring together two very complementary platforms: Chr. Hansen being a leader in microbial solutions and Novozymes being a leader in enzymatic solutions,” says Mauricio. It will create, he says, “a unique bioscience company.” 

For Mauricio, another synergy can be found in the two companies’ shared commitment to tackling the climate crisis. “We are at a pivotal moment in history, when from a sustainability point of view, we will need to develop solutions for the future to address a sustainable farm-to-fork system, where we can produce more to feed a global population,” he says. “But we need to do it in a sustainable way, in a natural way, and to draw fewer resources from the planet.” 

A version of this interview originally appeared in the Pictet Report.

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