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