Ge­orge Mon­biot: A sci-fi diet could save our planet

The Guardian Weekly - - Contents - Ge­orge Mon­biot Il­lus­tra­tion Nathalie Lees

It’s not about “them”, it’s about us. The hor­rific rate of bi­o­log­i­cal an­ni­hi­la­tion

re­ported last week – 60% of the Earth’s ver­te­brate wildlife gone since 1970 – is driven pri­mar­ily by the food in­dus­try. Farm­ing and fish­ing are the ma­jor causes of the col­lapse of both ma­rine and ter­res­trial ecosys­tems. Meat – con­sumed in greater quan­ti­ties by the rich than by the poor – is the strong­est cause of all. We may shake our heads in hor­ror at the clear­ance of forests, the drainage of wet­lands and the slaugh­ter of preda­tors, but it is done at our be­hest.

The most im­por­tant en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tion we can take is to re­duce the area of land and sea used by farm­ing and fish­ing. This means, above all, switch­ing to a plant-based diet: re­search pub­lished in the jour­nal Sci­ence shows that cut­ting out an­i­mal prod­ucts would re­duce the global re­quire­ment for farm­land by 76%. It would also give us a fair chance of feed­ing the world.

The same ac­tion is es­sen­tial to pre­vent cli­mate break­down. Be­cause gov­ern­ments, bow­ing to the de­mands of cap­i­tal, have left it so late, it is al­most im­pos­si­ble to see how we can stop more than 1.5C of global warm­ing with­out draw­ing car­bon diox­ide out of the at­mos­phere. The only way of do­ing it that has been demon­strated at scale is to al­low trees to re­turn to de­for­ested land.

But could we go be­yond even a plant-based diet? Could we go be­yond agri­cul­ture it­self? What if, in­stead of pro­duc­ing food from soil, we were to pro­duce it from air? What if, in­stead of bas­ing our nu­tri­tion on pho­to­syn­the­sis, we were to use elec­tric­ity to fuel a process whose con­ver­sion of sun­light into food is 10 times more ef­fi­cient?

This sounds like sci­ence fic­tion, but it is al­ready ap­proach­ing com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion. For the past year, a group of Finnish re­searchers has been pro­duc­ing food with­out ei­ther an­i­mals or plants. Their only in­gre­di­ents are hy­dro­gen-ox­i­dis­ing bac­te­ria, elec­tric­ity from so­lar pan­els, a small amount of wa­ter, car­bon diox­ide drawn

from the air, ni­tro­gen and trace quan­ti­ties of min­er­als such as cal­cium, sodium, potas­sium and zinc. The food they have pro­duced is 50% to 60% pro­tein; the rest is car­bo­hy­drate and fat. They have started a com­pany (So­lar Foods) that seeks to open its first fac­tory in 2021.

They use elec­tric­ity from so­lar pan­els to elec­trol­yse wa­ter, pro­duc­ing hy­dro­gen, which feeds bac­te­ria that turn it back into wa­ter. Un­like other forms of mi­cro­bial pro­tein (such as Quorn), it re­quires no car­bo­hy­drate feed­stock – in other words, no plants.

Per­haps you are hor­ri­fied by this prospect. Cer­tainly, there’s noth­ing beau­ti­ful about it. But this is part of the prob­lem. We have al­lowed a myth­i­cal aes­thetic to blind us to the ugly re­al­i­ties of in­dus­trial agri­cul­ture and the mass clear­ance of land re­quired to feed us.

The com­pound the Finnish re­searchers have pro­duced

from air, wa­ter and elec­tric­ity is most likely to be used as a bulk in­gre­di­ent in pro­cessed food. But is there any rea­son why, with mod­i­fi­ca­tions of the process, it could not start to de­liver the pro­teins re­quired to make cul­tured meat, or the oils that could ren­der palm plan­ta­tions re­dun­dant? Is there any rea­son why it should not even­tu­ally re­place much of what we eat?

Ac­cord­ing to the re­searchers’ es­ti­mates, 20,000 times less land is re­quired for their fac­to­ries than is needed to pro­duce the same amount of food by grow­ing soya. Cul­ti­vat­ing all the pro­tein the world now eats with their tech­nique would re­quire an area smaller than Ohio. The best places to do it are deserts, where so­lar en­ergy is most abun­dant. When elec­tric­ity can be gen­er­ated at $17 a megawatt hour, their process be­comes cost­com­pet­i­tive with the cheap­est source of soya.

Could a sim­i­lar tech­nique also be used to pro­duce cel­lu­lose and lignin, re­plac­ing the need for com­mer­cial forestry? Is there any in­her­ent rea­son why the hy­dro­gen path­way could not cre­ate as many prod­ucts as pho­to­syn­the­sis does to­day? Could it help to change our en­tire re­la­tion­ship with the nat­u­ral world, re­duc­ing our foot­print to a frac­tion of its cur­rent size?

There are plenty of ques­tions to be an­swered, plenty of pos­si­ble hur­dles and con­straints. But the po­ten­tial for eco­log­i­cal restora­tion is as­ton­ish­ing. The po­ten­tial for feed­ing the world is just as elec­tri­fy­ing. None of this means we can af­ford to re­lax. In the mean­time, as ur­gent in­ter­me­di­ate steps, we should switch to a plant-based diet and mo­bilise against the de­struc­tion of the liv­ing planet.

But if this works, it could help to change al­most ev­ery­thing. Places that have be­come agri­cul­tural deserts, trashed by gi­ant cor­po­ra­tions, could be re­for­ested, draw­ing car­bon diox­ide from the air on a vast scale. The ecosys­tems of land and sea could re­cover, not just in pock­ets but across great tracts of the planet. A new age of global hunger be­comes less likely.

De­struc­tive tech­nolo­gies got us into this mess; re­fined tech­nolo­gies can help get us out of it. The strug­gle to save ev­ery species and ecosys­tem from the cur­rent wave of de­struc­tion is worth­while. One day, per­haps within our life­times, they could re­pop­u­late a thriv­ing world •

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