High value pharming: Is the future of farming measured in components?

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By Lyndsey Smith for AgInnovation Ontario

Ottawa – When you get right down to it, farmers don’t raise grain or meat. Really, they produce three things: protein, carbohydrates, and fat.

As luck would have it, humans need those things, in varying quantities, for nutrition.

If we look more closely at one of those three things — protein — we discover that this particular component is so much more than a steak or part of a grain.

Proteins are actually amazing things — they can be enzymes, health promotants, and even medicine. Insulin is protein. Lactoferrin is protein. Humans need protein not just as nutrition in the form of hydrolyzed amino acids, but also for health as protein therapeutics.

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Dr. Altosaar, University of Ottawa

Dr. Illimar Altosaar is the CEO and founder of Proteins Easy Corporation.

Housed within the University of Ottawa’s Department of Biochemistry, Microbiology, and Immunology, Altosaar has been patenting his “ah-ha” moments regarding useful gene transfer into grains for the last 15 years.

Recently, his team began refining a very promising technique of tethering specific proteins to the surface of starch granules of corn and rice and, soon, durum wheat.

Altosaar explains that scientists have had limited success in creating protein in a lab setting. A few short chains of amino acids is the best humans have done so far.

Plants, however, are elegantly designed factories for creating proteins, he says.

What Altosaar and his team have done, through the use of biotechnology, is created a way to have a plant produce a particular protein and tether or “paint” that protein on to the surface of a starch granule.

Tethering to a starch granule as opposed to a protein being expressed throughout a plant means that collecting and refining the sought-after protein can actually be achieved using low resource-intensive processes.

And that matters, Altosaar says, as we consider the whole-life sustainability of cleaner production systems. Once the grain is harvested, the starch is extracted using milling, air classification (size differentiation) and, finally, a “dry-phission” step to cleave off the protein of interest.

Could we eventually get to a point where doctors could choose an isolated protein off the shelf, just as we do a prescription drug or vitamin supplement?

To Altosaar, that is very much a possibility, even a probability, and he sees significant value for the Canadian farmer in this new production stream.

Altosaar envisions a shift from bulk grain commodities moving long distances to specific components moving instead.

“If you look at a (rail) hopper car of grain,” he says, “how much of that is starch and protein? It’s about 12 MT out of 100 MT. But we move the entire volume, when what we’re after is only the one component.”

If we value protein now, Altosaar says, how much more value would there be in specific end-use proteins?

As the demand for protein as food and specific proteins for medicine grows, could farmers — the caretakers of these elegant factories known as cereal crops — add significant value to their operation?

Altosaar certainly believes so.

“Modern agriculture, the future of agriculture, is in high-value products,” he says, and that goes beyond food to medicinal ingredients, industrial enzymes and more, all of which can now be created in biodegradable, carbon-using factories that farmers are already raising each year in their fields.

Photo source: Illimar Altosaar, University of Ottawa

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