2.  | 
  3. Industry
  4.  | 
  5. Agriculture
  6.  | Sustainable Energy: Dishing Out Food Security

Sustainable Energy: Dishing Out Food Security

by | May 31, 2023 | Agriculture, Energy, Featured, Government, News

Blazhulia | Envato

Lunch and breakfast at the 2nd annual Alaska Sustainable Energy Conference were buffets. Because the caterer controlled the temperature of the uneaten portions, leftover food could be donated to the Anchorage Gospel Rescue Mission on Tudor Road. This is a change from the inaugural event in 2022, when attendees were treated to table service, and untouched entrees and desserts were dumped into trash cans.

Food Is Energy 

An overall greater emphasis on food sustainability is another adjustment in the conference’s second year. When Governor Mike Dunleavy’s office launched the event, alternative energy technologies and fuels dominated discussion. As the conference has grown, doubling attendance to about 800 and adding more vendors to the exhibit hall, the agenda has made room for food security, as well.

Food is energy, according to Michael Lavin, founder of Germin8 Ventures, a global investor in agriculture technology. Energy is often measured in terms of barrels of oil or kilowatt-hours, Lavin says, “but nitrogen and calories and the plants and organisms and animals that contain them, that’s also a form of energy. A very important form of energy that gets converted to sustain life.”

At the first day’s lunch, keynote speaker Kip Tom traced the meal back through the supply chain. “We had some beef that came from somewhere in the Midwest, fed corn and soybeans (or maybe it was grass fed). You had lettuce that probably came from the Central Valley in California. You had vegetables that probably came from Nogales [port of entry for Mexican produce] or somewhere in south Texas,” said Tom. Further, the former US ambassador to United Nations food and agriculture agencies noted that the fertilizer that put nitrogen into those domestic crops was quite possibly imported from Russia or China.

A sustainable approach to food must balance economics, the environment, and society, says Bryce Wrigley, owner of Alaska Flour Company in Delta Junction. The society aspect includes factors such as consumer preferences and the quality of life for agricultural communities.

By some measures, those three pillars are currently out of balance. “We’ve developed a system to solve a problem fifty years ago: caloric security was what really incentivized the Green Revolution,” says Jim Flatt, CEO of Brightseed, a Germin8 portfolio company that prospects for biopharmaceuticals. “That took what was historically a very diverse food supply and narrowed it down to a handful of row crops.” Modern agriculture, Flatt says, is based on monocultures of corn, soybeans, and wheat.

At his barley farm, Wrigley is attempting to bring balance through regenerative agriculture, an approach that emphasizes the environmental pillar. “Disturb the soil as little as possible, introduce animals on the landscape, variety or diversity of not only plants in the soil but also the microbiology, armoring the soil,” he explains. “You begin to understand more of the soil biology than you did before, relationships between mycorrhizal fungi and bacteria and sugars and carbon—all of the ways the system works together.” Wrigley adds that he’s more excited about farming in the last ten years than any time in his life.

Current Issue

Alaska Business May 2024 Cover

May 2024

The last decade has also seen faster methods of altering crops. “Gene editing is the newest form of improving genetics, and that’s coming along, too, and it’s getting increased scrutiny,” said Tom in his keynote speech. “But we have to have these tools if we’re going to continue to leverage the resources we have to feed the world.”

Tom’s next slide displayed the AquAdvantage salmon, an artificial breed of Atlantic salmon with a Chinook salmon growth gene added. In 2015, it became the first genetically modified animal approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for human consumption. Despite strenuous objections from Alaska’s congressional delegation, US sales started two years ago. Tom did not mention the topic of his slide.

Engineering plants to, for example, absorb nitrogen directly from the air (as only a few types can do) is the sort of project that Boston-based Ginkgo Bioworks develops with its research partners. Senior vice president Patrick Boyle, a graduate of Wasilla High School, sees the possibility for advances in cold-resistant grains that Alaskan farmers could grow. “A lot of the investment in elite germplasm for these kinds of applications is happening in northern Europe, so I think there’s a lot that Alaska can do to collaborate,” says Boyle. “There’s some room for American-style accelerated breeding there to produce better germplasm.”

Sharing a conference panel with Boyle, Flatt offered an immediate note of caution. “There’s such a big difference between the environment that exists in Alaska and where most of these row crops are grown,” says Flatt, adding that cold tolerance for single-celled organisms takes many generations to evolve, and plants take longer. “But clearly our knowledge has expanded exponentially here, so what might seem like a long time now may not seem so long, five years from now, as tools improve.”

If crop innovations or climate change bring amber waves of grain to Alaska someday, farmers will need processors, too. Wrigley had to start a mill for his barley, and Alaska Flour Company opened its own bakery in January. “The deeper we go into the value-added space, the better we are able to compete with—and provide an alternative to—imported food,” Wrigley says. “For example, would you rather buy a bag of barley? Or would you rather buy a brownie?”

Grown for Animals

Coreyb21 | Envato

Alaska Flour Company’s brownies, cookie mix, pancake mix, couscous, and hot cereal are, in fact, the only human foods made from Alaska-grown grains. Crops raised in the state are primarily for the benefit of animals. “Livestock is the end user for grains, hay, peas, those kind of things,” Wrigley says. “Growth in agriculture in Alaska is going to depend on livestock.”

Therefore, Wrigley is in favor of adding more livestock farms to sustain the market for grain farmers.

Globally, though, animal agriculture is considered a waste of plant-based food. A 400-calorie steak, for example, requires 4,000 calories of plants to make, and if the cow eats corn or soybeans, then ten times as many humans could’ve been fed by the same cropland. This has driven the interest in plant-based meat substitutes.

“The growth of human population is demanding a lot more protein in their diet, especially as the world gets richer,” Boyle observes. “From that aspect, we literally cannot grow animal agriculture at a fast enough rate to meet that demand, so these more efficient ways of producing meat will augment the existing agriculture that’s out there.”

Even so, Boyle says livestock is not incompatible with alternative proteins, especially if meat is grown locally. “Moving animal agriculture to Alaska, what you’re doing is saving on fuel costs,” Boyle says. “Local distribution can be a way of reducing the energy load and improve the sustainability of the process.”

Think Logistically

Even if it were locally produced, a bagel with one bite out of it went to waste when it was abandoned outside the banquet hall.

Alaska Business

In April, Governor Dunleavy announced the creation of a new Office of Food Security, with the goal of increasing the portion of locally produced foods Alaskans eat from the current fraction of just 5 percent.

While moderating a conference panel, the director of the Alaska Division of Agriculture, Bryan Scoresby, put that 95 percent imported food figure in economic terms. “You have a roughly $2 billion transfer of money out of Alaska to somebody else,” said Scoresby. “That’s a huge revenue loss to the state, if we don’t grow enough of our own.”

Also speaking at the panel was David Muth Jr., managing director of asset management at Peoples Company Capital Markets, a national farm asset broker. Muth says farmers in the Lower 48 may soon look to Alaska as an attractive option. Of Alaska, he says, “We have the water… We have the land resources… We have the need here for food security. And if we have all those other things, we just need to think logistically about where we’re going to put our resources for transportation, for processing, for storage.”

On the closing day of the Alaska Sustainable Energy Conference, lunch was a plated affair, for a change. Organizers chose that approach to keep attendees inside the banquet room rather than scatter them to the buffet in the hall. As a consequence, dozens if not hundreds of servings of Midwest beef, California lettuce, and Mexican vegetables grown with fertilizer from overseas were all transported to the Port of Alaska, cooked, and dished out to nobody.

The catering staff were keenly aware of the waste.

Alaska Business May 2024 cover
In This Issue

Making History

May 2024

The track of oil and gas development in Alaska shows the footprints of bold companies and hard-working individuals who shaped the industry in the past and continue to innovate today. The May 2024 issue of Alaska Business explores that history while looking forward to new product development, the energy transition for the fishing fleet, and the ethics of AI tools in business.

Share This