So what do we do now? After 27 summits and no effective action, it seems the real goal was to get us talking. If governments had taken the prevention of climate degradation seriously, there would have been no Cops 2-27. The main issues would have been resolved at COP1, as the ozone layer depletion crisis was resolved at a single summit in Montreal.
Nothing can now be done without mass protest, whose goal, like that of the protest movements before us, is to reach the critical mass that triggers a social shift. But, as all protesters know, 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 represent the change we need to see.
Let’s focus on technology for a moment. Specifically, what could be the most important environmental technology ever developed: precision fermentation.
Precision fermentation is a refined form of brewing, a way to multiply microbes to create specific products. It has been used for many years to produce medicines and food additives. But now, in several labs and a few factories, scientists are developing what could be a new generation of food staples.
The developments that I find the most interesting do not use any agricultural raw materials. The microbes they spawn feed on hydrogen or methanol – which can be made with renewable electricity – combined with water, carbon dioxide and a very small amount of fertilizer. They produce a flour that is about 60% protein, a much higher concentration than any major crop can achieve (soybeans 37%, chickpeas 20%). When bred to produce specific proteins and fats, they can create 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 reduce the footprint of food production to a remarkable degree. An article estimates that precision fermentation using methanol requires 1,700 times less land than the most efficient agricultural way to produce protein: soybeans grown in the United States. 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 electricity source and recycling rates, it can also lead to drastic reductions in water use and greenhouse gas emissions. Because the process is contained, it avoids the worldwide dumping of waste and chemicals caused by agriculture.
If animal production is replaced by this technology, it will create what may be the last great opportunity to prevent the collapse of earth systems, namely large-scale ecological restoration. By rescuing the vast tracts now occupied by livestock (by far the greatest of all human land uses) or by the crops used to feed them – as well as the seas trawled or gill-netting to destruction – and by restoring forests, wetlands, savannahs, natural grasslands, mangroves, reefs and seabeds, we could both stop the Sixth Great Extinction and tap much of the carbon we released into the atmosphere .
The second amazing possibility is to break the extreme dependence of many countries on food shipped from distant lands. The nations of the Middle East, North Africa, the Horn of Africa and Central America do not have enough fertile land or water to produce enough food. In other places, particularly parts of sub-Saharan Africa, a combination of land degradation, population growth and dietary change is negating any yield gains. But all the nations most vulnerable to food insecurity are rich in something else: sunlight. It is the raw material needed to support hydrogen and methanol-based food production.
Precision Fermentation sits at the top of its price curve and has great potential for deep discounts. The breeding of 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 think is essential), each city could have a self-sustaining microbial brewery, making cheap protein-rich foods suitable for 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, tough, you eat them with every meal. In fact, we deliberately introduce living things into some of our foods, like 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, which new technology might 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 drastically reduce the processing involved in making substitutes for animal products, particularly if the microbes are genetically engineered to produce specific proteins.
This brings us to the third objection. There are major problems with some genetically modified crops such as Roundup Ready corn, whose primary purpose was to expand the market for a patented herbicide, and the dominance of the company that produced it. But GM microbes have been used without controversy in precision fermentation since the 1970s to produce insulin, chymosin, a rennet substitute, and vitamins. There is a real and terrifying crisis of genetic contamination in the food industry, but it stems from the status quo: the spread of antibiotic resistance genes from the manure pools of cattle, into the soil, then up the food chain and into the living world. GM microbes paradoxically offer our best hope of stopping genetic contamination.
The fourth objection has more weight: the possibility that these new technologies will be picked up by a few companies. The risk is real and we must commit to it now, demanding a new food economy radically different from the existing one, in which extreme consolidation has already taken place. But this is not an argument against the technology itself, any more than the dangerous concentration of world grain trade (90% in the hands of four companies) is an argument against grain trade, without which billions of people would starve.
The real sticking point, I believe, is neophobia. I know people who don’t own a microwave because they think it will harm their health (it doesn’t), but who do own a wood stove, which it does. We defend the old and despise the new. Most of the time it should be the other way around.
I supported a new campaign, called Reboot Food, to advocate for new technologies that could help us get out of our dire spiral. We hope to ferment a revolution.
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