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Rethink Sustainability

Bacteria: a weapon in the fight for sustainable food

How Denmark's Chr. Hansen is using natural products in the transition towards a sustainable economy

For decades, the summers along the coast that stretch south from Copenhagen were plagued by tons of seaweed that would wash up on the beaches and start to rot. 

The stench was a big problem for the locals. But it was an even bigger problem for the tourism industry as holidaymakers from the Danish capital and beyond went elsewhere for their annual breaks.  

Today, all of that has changed thanks to a biogas plant that collects the seaweed and mixes it with biological residue from Chr. Hansen, the Danish bioscience company. The smell has gone, the beaches are cleaner and carbon-neutral energy has replaced fossil fuels for thousands of local residents. 

“We are not only part of delivering cleaner sources of energy and supporting local farmers; we also have a more cost-efficient alternative for handling our biological waste-streams,” explains Michael Juhler, Chr. Hansen's Senior Director, who is responsible for the company's biggest production site in Copenhagen. 

The contribution of Chr. Hansen, which produces food cultures, probiotics and enzymes for the global nutrition, agricultural and pharmaceutical industries, is an example of the steps that some companies are taking to reduce waste and cut emissions. 

This transition towards a Circular, Lean, Inclusive, Clean (CLIC™) economy is happening, and it will inevitably produce winners and losers as companies, industries and entire sectors move at different speeds. But the companies that understand the urgency of change and that are taking transformational steps today are more likely to emerge as leaders of tomorrow's CLIC™ economy. 

Chr. Hansen, which was founded more than 140 years ago,  produces in excess of 30,000 strains of “good bacteria” for food, crops and human health. Its natural cultures and enzymes supply the global dairy industry, and its products are consumed by 1bn people every day. But the company has set its sights on three wider challenges, each one on the United Nations' 17 global sustainability goals, that the world faces as it teeters on an environmental knife edge. 

The first is food waste. According to the UN, food loss and waste is responsible for about 7 per cent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. At the same time, close to 30 per cent of all land given over to agriculture produces food that is never consumed. 

Dairy products have a short shelf life, and Chr. Hansen estimates that 17 per cent of all yoghurt in the European Union is wasted every year. Extending the shelf life of yoghurt by seven days is estimated to reduce waste by 30 per cent. In Europe alone, such a reduction would translate into savings of 440,000 tonnes of yoghurt, or €250m in value and 520,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide. 

Chr. Hansen’s food cultures can delay spoilage in fermented dairy products such as yogurt, and the company has committed to eliminating 1.2m tons of yogurt waste by 2022. It has also developed coagulants for the cheese industry - a significant contributor to greenhouse gases via the methane that cows emit - that reduce the amount of milk required for cheese production. 

The second challenge is eliminating hunger through better farming. The World Resources Institute, a not-for-profit research organisation, estimates that crop yields will have to grow by more than a third over the next 44 years compared with the previous 44 years. But yields are already at historic highs. Add to that climate change and a growing population, it is clear that agriculture requires innovative and sustainable solutions. 

In response, Chr. Hansen is leveraging its microbiological platform and knowledge for improving crop yields. An alliance with FMC Corporation, the US chemical company, has already resulted in the development of a natural product capable of boosting sugar-cane harvests by 10 per cent through enhanced root development and protection. 

The third global challenge is promoting health. Malnutrition continues to plague the developing world. By contrast, populations in industrialised nations suffer obesity and chronic immune diseases. The widespread use of antibiotics, which has given rise to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, only complicates the outlook. 

Among other things, the company has developed a range of probiotics for humans and animals as part of its research into the human microbiome, the ecosystem of more than 38tn bacterial cells that live in and on a typical human body. One probiotic strain can help reduce intestinal problems and may also support immune health, for example. 

According to PwC, the accountancy firm, more than 80 per cent of Chr. Hansen's annual revenue now contributes to these three UN goals, helping to reduce food waste, boost agricultural yields using natural products and improving human health sustainably. 

Today, we are living WILD. The food we let spoil is Wasteful; overlooking potentially valuable assets, such as seaweed, is Idle; the prevalence of inequality is Lopsided; and the excessive use of chemicals, transportation and energy requirements makes us Dirty. But the shift towards the CLIC economy is already underway. By helping to reduce waste, leveraging nature-based solutions, using its probiotics to tackle inequality and pioneering ways to reduce chemical use in agriculture, Chr. Hansen is at the forefront of that transition.  

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