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Saving Our Bacon

January 10, 2020 - 17:48 -- Admin

Farmfree
foods might be the only thing that get us – and much of the rest of the living
world – through this century.

By George
Monbiot, published in the Guardian 8th January 2020

It sounds
like a miracle, but no great technological leaps were required. In a commercial
lab on the outskirts of Helsinki, I watched scientists turning water into food.
Through a porthole in a metal tank, I could see a yellow froth churning. It’s a
primordial soup of bacteria, taken from the soil, using hydrogen extracted from
water as its energy source. When the froth was siphoned through a tangle of
pipes, and squirted onto heated rollers, it turned into a rich yellow flour.

This flour
is not yet licensed for sale. But the scientists, working for a company called Solar
Foods
, were
allowed to give me some. I asked them, filming our documentary Apocalypse Cow, to make me a pancake: I would be the first
person on Earth, beyond the lab staff, to eat such a thing. They set up a
frying pan in the lab, mixed the flour with oat milk, and I took my small step
for man. It tasted … just like a pancake.

But
pancakes are not the intended product. Such flours are likely soon to become
the feedstock for almost everything. In their raw state, they can replace the
fillers now used in thousands of food products. When the bacteria are modified,
they will create the specific proteins needed for cultured meat, milk and eggs.
Other tweaks will produce lauric acid – goodbye palm oil – and long-chain omega-3
fatty acids: hello cultured fish. The carbohydrates that remain when proteins
and fats have been extracted could replace everything from pasta flour to
potato crisps. The first commercial factory built by Solar Foods should be
running next year.

The
hydrogen pathway is around ten times as efficient as photosynthesis. But
because only part of a plant can be eaten, while the bacterial flour is
mangetout, you can multiply that efficiency several times. And because it will
be brewed in giant vats, the land efficiency, the company estimates, is roughly
20,000 times greater. Everyone on Earth could be handsomely fed, using a tiny
fraction of its surface. If, as the company intends, the water is electrolysed
with solar power, the best places to build these plants will be deserts.

We are on
the cusp of the biggest economic transformation, of any kind, for 200 years.
While arguments rage about plant- versus meat-based diets, new technologies
will soon make them irrelevant. Before long, most of our food will come neither
from animals nor plants, but from unicellular life. After 12,000 years of
feeding humankind, all farming except fruit and veg production is likely to be
replaced by ferming: brewing microbes through precision fermentation. I know
some people will be horrified by this prospect. I can see some drawbacks. But I
believe it comes in the nick of time.

Several impending
disasters are converging on our food supply, any of which could be
catastrophic. Climate breakdown threatens to cause what scientists call “multiple breadbasket failures”, through synchronous heatwaves and other impacts. The UN forecasts that by
2050 feeding the world will require a 20% expansion in global water use. But water use is already maxed out in many
places: aquifers are vanishing, rivers are failing to reach the sea. The
glaciers that supply half the population of Asia are rapidly retreating.
Inevitable global heating – due to greenhouse gases already released – is
likely to reduce dry season rainfall in critical areas, turning fertile plains into dustbowls.

A global soil crisis threatens the very basis of our subsistence,
as great tracts of arable land lose their fertility through erosion, compaction
and contamination. Phosphate supplies, crucial for agriculture, are dwindling fast. Insectageddon threatens catastrophic pollination failures.
It is hard to see how farming can feed us all even until 2050, let alone to the
end of the century and beyond.

Food
production is ripping the living world apart. Fishing and farming are, by a
long way, the greatest cause of extinction and loss of the diversity and
abundance of wildlife. Farming is a major cause of climate breakdown, the biggest cause of river pollution and a hefty source of air pollution. Across vast tracts of the world’s surface,
it has replaced complex wild ecosystems with simplified human food chains.
Industrial fishing is driving cascading ecological collapse in seas around the
world. Eating is now a moral minefield, as almost everything we put in our mouths
– from beef to avocados, cheese to chocolate, almonds to tortilla chips, salmon
to peanut butter – has an insupportable environmental cost. But just as hope
appeared to be evaporating, the new technologies I call “farmfree food” create
astonishing possibilities to save both people and planet. 

Farmfree
food will allow us to hand back vast areas of land and sea to nature,
permitting rewilding and carbon drawdown on a massive scale. It means an end to the
exploitation of animals, an end to most deforestation, a massive reduction in
the use of pesticides and fertiliser, the end of trawlers and longliners. It’s
our best hope of stopping the Great Extermination. And, if it’s done right, it means cheap and
abundant food for everyone.

Research
by the thinktank RethinkX suggests that proteins from precision fermentation
will be around ten times cheaper than animal protein by 2035. The result, it
says, will be the near-complete collapse of the livestock industry. The new
food economy will “replace an extravagantly inefficient system that requires
enormous quantities of inputs and produces huge amounts of waste with one that
is precise, targeted, and tractable.” Using tiny areas of land, with a
massively reduced requirement for water and nutrients, it “presents the
greatest opportunity for environmental restoration in human history.”

Not only
will food be cheaper, it will also be healthier. Because farmfree foods will be
built up from simple ingredients, rather than broken down from complex ones,
allergens, hard fats and other unhealthy components can be screened out. Meat
will still be meat, though it will be grown in factories on collagen scaffolds, rather than in the bodies of animals. Starch
will still be starch, fats will still be fats. But food is likely to be better,
cheaper and much less damaging to the living planet.

It might
seem odd for someone who has spent his life calling for political change to
enthuse about a technological shift. But nowhere on earth can I see sensible
farm policies developing. Governments provide an astonishing £560 billion a
year in farm subsidies, and almost all of them are perverse and destructive,
driving deforestation, pollution and the killing of wildlife. Research by the Food and Land Use Coalition found that only 1% of the money is used to
protect the living world. It failed to find “any examples of governments using
their fiscal instruments to directly support the expansion of supply of
healthier and more nutritious food.”

Nor is the
mainstream debate about farming taking us anywhere, except towards further
catastrophe. There’s a widespread belief that the problem is intensive farming,
and the answer is extensification (producing less food per hectare). It’s true
that intensive farming is highly damaging, but extensive farming is even worse. Many people are rightly concerned about
urban sprawl. But agricultural sprawl – which covers a much wider area – is a
far greater threat to the natural world. Every hectare of land used by farming
is a hectare not used for wildlife and complex living systems.

A paper in Nature suggests that, per kilo of food produced,
extensive farming causes greater greenhouse gas emissions, soil loss, water use
and nitrogen and phosphate pollution than intensive farming. If everyone ate
pasture-fed meat, we would need several new planets on which to produce it.

Farmfree
production promises a far more stable and reliable food supply, that can be
grown anywhere, even in countries without farmland. It could be crucial to
ending world hunger. But there is a hitch: a clash between consumer and
producer interests. Many millions of people, working in farming and food
processing, will eventually lose their jobs. Because the new processes are so
efficient, the employment they create won’t match the employment they destroy.

RethinkX
envisages an extremely rapid “death spiral” in the livestock industry. Only a few
components, such as the milk proteins casein and whey, need to be produced
through fermentation for profit margins across an entire sector to collapse.
Dairy farming in the United States, it claims, will be “all but bankrupt by
2030”. It believes that the US beef industry’s revenues will fall 90% by 2035.

While I doubt the collapse will be quite that fast, in one respect the thinktank underestimates the scale of the transformation. It fails to mention the extraordinary shift taking place in feedstock production, of the kind pioneered in Helsinki. This is likely to hit arable farming as hard as cultured milk and meat production will hit livestock farming. Solar Foods could reach cost parity with the world’s cheapest form of protein (soya from South America) within five years.

Instead of
pumping ever more subsidies into a dying industry, governments should be
investing in a crash programme to help farmers into other forms of employment,
while providing relief funds for those who will suddenly lose their
livelihoods.

Another
hazard is the potential concentration of the farmfree food industry. We should
strongly oppose the patenting of key technologies, to ensure the widest
possible distribution of ownership. If governments regulate this properly, they
could break the hegemony of the massive companies that now control global food commodities. If they don’t, they could reinforce it. In
this sector, as in all others, we need strong anti-trust laws. We must also
ensure that the new foods always have lower carbon footprints than the old
ones: farmfree producers should power their operations entirely from low-carbon
sources. This is a time of momentous choices, and we should make them together.

We can’t
afford to wait passively for technology to save us. Over the next few years, we
could lose almost everything, as magnificent habitats such as the rainforests
of Madagascar, West Papua and Brazil are felled to produce cattle, soya or palm
oil. By temporarily shifting towards a plant-based diet with the lowest
possible impacts (no avocados or out-of-season asparagus), we can help buy the
necessary time to save magnificent species and places, while the new
technologies mature. But farmfree food offers hope where hope was missing. We
will soon be able to feed the world without devouring it.

George Monbiot’s film Apocalypse Cow is free to view on Channel 4