Japan’s biotech start-ups may buoy future food supplies for the resource-poor archipelago.
Tokyo-based Algal Bio is a startup whose time has come. As supply chain concerns grow in Japan, by far the least food self-sufficient G7 member, there are growing hopes that bio-manufactured products could one day nourish the nation.
Founded in 2018 by Dr. Takeshi Takeshita, Algal Bio is a spinoff of a Tokyo University biotech lab. In July 2022, it earned $4.32 million in its latest Series B funding round from DBJ Capital, University of Tokyo Edge Capital, Mitsubishi UFJ Capital, and others.
Like other canny biotech companies, Algal Bio’s business model is not tied to particular products. Instead, its interests range across a smorgasbord of high-value algal substances. Its first in-house product, a nutraceutical ingredient, is due for launch in 2022 but so far its revenue has come from licensing bio-manufacturing platforms to Japanese companies in diverse sectors.
Algal Bio’s partners have used its algal bio-foundry for products in health, beauty, wellness, food ingredients, and wastewater treatment. The company is now in talks for its first partnerships with foreign companies.
The versatility of Algal Bio’s platform derives from the company’s extensive library of wild and modified algal strains. Because each species displays distinctive traits with different uses, a larger strain inventory means a potentially broader market.
Algae can supply all kinds of chemicals. Yet as inflation, supply chain disruptions, and agricultural uncertainties push food security up the Japanese economic agenda, it is their edible fats and proteins that are attracting increasing attention.
Japan’s Impending Crisis
Built upon 20 years of scientific research at the University of Tokyo, Algal Bio is embedded in Japan’s long history of phycological research. The study of algae has always been a prominent plank in the country’s broader bioscience specialism and many of the world’s patents in the field come from there.
Even aside from this rich tradition, the Japanese phyco-biotech space has received a renewed social mandate of late. Despite being a wealthy and politically stable nation with world-leading agricultural tech, Japan has serious structural vulnerabilities in its food system.
Since 2011, the island has never produced more than 40 percent of its calories per year despite government targets in 2015 to push this up to 45 percent. 2021 marked a record low with Japan importing 62% of its calories: only 38% of the calories consumed in that year were grown within its borders.
Japan’s food import dependency stems from its geography. Only a tiny percentage of its land surface is suitable for arable farming and livestock. What makes bolstering Japan’s food self-sufficiency even more difficult is that there are no native fertiliser sources in the country.
Since the start of 2022, Japan’s spending on fertiliser imports have been pushing towards its second highest levels since the 1980s. Just as for food commodities, any policies to boost native agricultural production will be reliant on vulnerable and costly trade links.
Changing consumer habits are only worsening the problem. Rice farming has existed on the archipelago for almost three millennia, but demand is growing for commodities that the island does not cultivate at scale: animal meat, wheat, and dairy.
Wheat is an especially critical foreign import that cannot simply be replaced by growing more native rice. To substitute current levels of wheat with indigenous rice crops, Japan would need to find ten times more new paddy field hectares than was available in 2020.
Then there are distortions within its prize native rice market. The Japanese government is discouraging farmers from maintaining steady production in rice by artificially sustaining prices for the grain, even while demand for the traditional staple dwindles.
Added to this, the global trade networks that have fed the nation since the Second World War are starting to unravel as the interlocking pressures of war, climate collapse, and shifting economic power test the limits of the liberal trading order.
Yet more external shocks may be on the horizon. Chinese government rhetoric around territorial claims is intensifying and Japan is acutely aware that conflict in the Taiwan strait would further throttle its import flows.
Japan’s food woes might be particularly acute but they are also globally resonant. While other countries may not be as land-constrained, most crops on the world market are heavily dependent on fossil-fuel derived fertilisers. These essential inputs are energy intensive and environmentally destructive to extract and process.
In 1995, researchers Giampietro and Pimentelin calculated the ratio between the energy that goes into farming and the US consumer calories obtained from it. They found around 10 kilocalories of inorganic fuel energy, powering things like agricultural machines, fertilizer production, packaging, and delivery but not household cooking, is needed to make just 1 food kilocalorie for the average US consumer.
Algal Bio joins many other researchers and companies in claiming sustainably-cultivated algal fertiliser could narrow the ratio between food production energy and calorific outputs. With relatively few inputs, algae cultivation produces biomass rich in nutrients. It matures quickly, offering harvests in quick succession, and can adapt to different environments.
Algal Bio has already been investigating Chlorella, an algal genus that offers a rich source of bio-fertiliser. The company is not alone in its Chlorella bio-prospecting. Researchers have been aware of the agricultural benefits of this algal type for years.
One of the most recent studies into the powers of Chlorella came in March 2022 in the Journal of Applied Phycology. It reported that applying Chlorella pyrenoidosa reduced physiological stresses in quinoa during germination and growth under unfavourable saline-alkaline conditions. An optimal 75% dose of algal cell boosted biomass, seedling vigour, and root and shoot strength.
By providing homegrown, biobased crop nutrients, algal bio-fertiliser could address some of Japan’s land and mineral scarcity issues by boosting productivity on existing cultivated land. But algae could also supply food security solutions in another way: by providing a direct source of protein.
Novel Proteins in Japan
Chlorella algaes are appealing from a food tech standpoint because their protein content is comparable to soybeans and peas, mega-staples of the world food market. They also contain fats and nutrients. Algal Bio predicts it will become the next plant-based alternative protein to sweep the market and its strain research comes at a time when Japanese laws around cultivated meats are just beginning to develop.
In 2022, the Japanese Health Ministry began hammering out a regulatory system capable of fostering an industry in cultivated meats, organising an expert team to assess its safety and compile rules for product approvals.
Even before this, the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries designated the Japanese Association of Cellular Agriculture the official private-public partnership for boosting the industry. The association unites stakeholders to promote the sector in Japan, focusing on cultured meat as well as cultured poultry and seafood.
Chlorella protein is already produced in Europe by the Danish company Aliga Microalgae. It deploys precision fermentation to cultivate the algae food ingredient at scale with a proven production capacity of 400 tonnes per year.
In some respects, Japan is ripe for a cultured meat industry based around precision fermentation. Food produced through microbial action is embedded in the culture. Pickles, natto, miso and tofu are just some of the quotidian dishes that result from fermentation.
Although the traditional fermentation techniques at play in traditional cuisine work along similar biochemical principles found in modern precision fermentation, the latter offers more control over the volume and characteristics of the end product. Target foodstuffs, which incubate in the bodies of host microbes, can be altered by gene-editing host organisms or by adjusting their bioreactor growth environments.
Combined with its strong record in biopharmaceutical production, Japan has the expertise and technical infrastructure to nurture these novel food sectors. However, cultured meat also faces quite unique barriers there.
Although Japan imports many GM foods from abroad, home-grown gene-edited crops have never been commercialised. Japanese consumers and agriculturalists are wary of bioengineered foods, with advocacy groups like the Consumers Union of Japan and Seikatsu Club Consumers’ Cooperative Union urging they have not been tested enough for safety. These attitudes could inhibit an industry that routinely uses gene editing techniques to alter microbial strains for optimal yields and product characteristics.
Japan’s Emerging Foodtech Giants
Nonetheless, there is cause for optimism. Some Japanese start-ups are already prominent in non-food precision fermentation, readying their edible offerings for foreign markets or a shift in Japan’s regulatory environment. Chitose Group is one of them.
Chitose is headed by Japanese entrepreneur and scientist Tomohiro Fujita. His company is involved in the whole spectrum of fermentation industries with 80 engineers that work on everything from biopharmaceutical production to bio jet-fuel. It is currently conducting research to use fermentation to cultivate algae.
What unites these applications is that they can all be supplied through industrial-scale fermentation processes. Fujita’s mission is not just to grow the business but to see Japan capitalise on its long history of fermentation and grow a native biotech sector.
Ajinomoto is another significant Japanese player in food biotech. In March 2022, it entered a strategic partnership with Israeli food startup SuperMeat that aims to scale its lab-grown proteins.
Ajinomoto’s role in this partnership is to innovate in the nutrients used to feed cultured cells. The cell media which nourishes functional microbes are the most expensive input in laboratory meat production, comprising around 60 to 80 percent of the product cost.
Like many other thriving bio-based businesses, Ajinomoto’s technical expertise cuts across many sectors that exploit cellular processes in one form or another. In September 2022, its consolidated subsidiary Ajinomoto Genexine Corporation entered an agreement with materials company JSR Corporation to expand its culture media business across the biopharmaceutical industry.
As a company that specialises in formulating the media used to grow living cells, Ajinomoto understands that fermented proteins are not an input-free solution to food insecurity. Although bio-manufactured proteins save on land-use and fossil-fuel fertilisers relative to current agricultural methods, the microbial hosts that incubate them need large quantities of nutrients to survive and metabolise.
It is for this reason that Ajinomoto became a founding stakeholder in the ammonia production company Tsubame, established in 2017. Ammonia is essential for creating synthetic nitrogen fertiliser and is one of the most highly produced inorganic chemicals in the world. Ajinomoto and other cell culture producers also draw on ammonia, using it as raw material for the glutamic acid and amino acids that make up their growth media.
Tsubame is developing the world’s first on-site ammonia synthesis plant, an innovation that would allow all sorts of companies to make their own ammonia wherever they are based and in the volumes they require. Tsubame claims that its new process would cut down on the massive amounts of energy consumed by traditional ammonia synthesis that occurs in just a few high-volume, large-scale plants.
Japan As A Litmus Test
The growing relevance of biotech companies to Japan’s food security policy is set to be replicated elsewhere in the developed world as the ‘polycrisis’ of war, economic upheaval, and climate change bites.
Yet Japan’s food and ag biotech sector reveals another indicative shift. To date, food startups worldwide have usually pitched their products as a means of reducing the carbon emissions associated with intensive animal agriculture – in short, as climate mitigation solutions. Now, these companies are being eyed as pathways to climate adaptation – part of contingency plans to deal with impacts that are already locked in.
In this sense, Japan occupies a unique position among developed countries. Because its food security issues loom far closer than for most, the country is set to become a test case for whether, and how rapidly, nations can leverage the private sector to tackle the immanent effects of climate and geopolitical shifts. For Japan, top of the agenda is hunger – an issue most developed nations have so far had the luxury of contemplating only in theory.