Saving Our Bacon
10th January 2020
Farmfree foods might be the only thing that gets 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
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
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
A global soil crisis
Food production is ripping the living world apart. Fishing and farming are, by a long way, the greatest cause
Farmfree food will allow us to hand back vast areas of land and sea to nature, permitting rewilding
Research by the thinktank RethinkX suggests that proteins from precision fermentation will be around ten times cheaper
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
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
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
A paper in Nature
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”
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
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