Stor what do we do now? After 27 summits and no effective action, it seems the real purpose was to get us talking. If governments were serious about preventing climate collapse, there would have been no Cops 2-27. The major issues would be resolved at Cop1, as the ozone depletion crisis unfolded in a single summit in Montreal.
Nothing can now be achieved without mass protest, the aim of which, like that of protest movements before us, is to achieve the critical mass that triggers a social turning point. But, as any protester knows, that’s only part of the challenge. We must also translate our demands into action, which requires political, economic, cultural and technological changes. All are necessary, none is sufficient. Only together can they bring about the change we need to see.
Let’s focus on the technology for a moment. Specifically, what may be the most important environmental technology ever developed: precision fermentation.
Precision fermentation is a refined form of fermentation, a means of multiplying microbes to create specific products. It has been used for many years to produce medicines and food additives. But now, in several laboratories and a few factories, scientists are developing what could be a new generation of staple foods.
The developments that I find most interesting do not use agricultural raw materials. The microbes they breed feed on hydrogen or methanol – which can be produced with renewable electricity – combined with water, carbon dioxide and a very small amount of fertilizer. They produce a flour that contains about 60% protein, a much higher concentration than any major crop can achieve (soybeans contain 37%, chickpeas 20%). When raised to produce specific proteins and fats, they can make for much better substitutes than plant products for meat, fish, milk and eggs. And they have the potential to do two amazing things.
The first is to significantly reduce the footprint of food production. One paper estimates that precision fermentation using methanol requires 1,700 times less land than the most efficient agricultural medium for producing protein: US-grown soybeans. This suggests that it could use, respectively, 138,000 and 157,000 times less land than the least efficient means: beef and lamb production. Depending on the source of electricity and recycling rates, it can also enable radical reductions in water use and greenhouse gas emissions. Because the process is contained, it avoids waste and chemical spills into the rest of the world caused by agriculture.
If livestock production is replaced by this technology, it creates what may be the last great opportunity to prevent the collapse of the earth’s systems, namely large-scale ecological restoration. By restoring the vast expanses now occupied by livestock (by far the largest of all human uses of land) or the crops used to feed it – as well as the seas that are dragged by bottom trawls or gillnets to destruction – and by restoring forests, wetlands, savannas, natural grasslands, mangroves, cliffs and seabeds, we could both stop the sixth great extinction and absorb much of the carbon we released into the atmosphere.
The second startling possibility is to break many nations’ extreme dependence on food shipped from distant places. The nations of the Middle East, North Africa, the Horn of Africa and Central America do not have enough land or water to grow enough food. In other places, especially parts of sub-Saharan Africa, a combination of land degradation, population growth, and dietary changes negate any yield increases. But all the nations most vulnerable to food insecurity are rich in something else: sunlight. This is the raw material needed to support hydrogen and methanol-based food production.
Precision brewing is at the top of its price curve and has great potential for steep reductions. Farming multicellular organisms (plants and animals) is at the bottom of its price curve: it has pushed these creatures to their limits, and sometimes beyond. If production is distributed (which I believe is essential), every city could have a self-contained microbial brewery, producing low-cost protein foods tailored to local markets. This technology could, in many countries, ensure food security more effectively than agriculture.
There are four main objections. The first is “Yuck, bacteria!” Well dude, you eat them with every meal. In fact, we deliberately introduce them into some of our foods, such as cheese and yogurt. And take a look at the intensive animal factories that produce most of the meat and eggs we eat and the slaughterhouses that serve them, both of which new technology may make redundant.
The second objection is that these flours could be used to make ultra-processed foods. Yes, like wheat flour, they could. But they can also be used to radically reduce the processing required to make substitutes for animal products, especially if the microbes are genetically engineered to produce specific proteins.
This brings us to the third objection. There are big problems with some GM crops like Roundup Ready corn, whose primary purpose was to expand the market for a proprietary herbicide, and the dominance of the company that makes it. But genetically engineered microbes have been used incontrovertibly in precision fermentation since the 1970s to produce insulin, rennet replacement chymosin, and vitamins. There is a truly terrifying genetic contamination crisis in the food industry, but it stems from business as usual: the spread of antibiotic resistance genes from livestock slurry tanks, into soil and then into the food chain and into the living world. GM microbes paradoxically offer our best hope of stopping genetic contamination.
The fourth objection carries more weight: the potential for these new technologies to be captured by a few companies. The risk is real and we should face it now by calling for a new food economy that is radically different from the existing one, in which extreme consolidation has already taken place. But this is not an argument against the technology per se, any more than the dangerous concentration in the world grain trade (90% of which is in the hands of four corporations) is an argument against the grain trade, without which billions people would die of starvation.
The real sticking point, I think, is neophobia. I know people who won’t own a microwave oven, as they believe it will harm their health (it doesn’t), but who own a wood stove, which it does. We defend the old and insult the new. Most of the time it should be the other way around.
I’ve lent my support to a new campaign, called Reboot Food, to champion new technologies that could help us get out of our downward spiral. We hope to brew a revolution.