Soh what are we going to do now? After 27 summits and no effective action, the real goal seems to have been to keep talking. If governments were serious about preventing climate collapse, there would be no Cops 2-27. Major issues would be resolved at Cop1, as the ozone depletion crisis was at a summit in Montreal.
Nothing can now be achieved without mass protest, whose goal, like that of protest movements before us, is to reach the critical mass that triggers a social tipping point. But, as any protester knows, that’s only part of the challenge. We must also turn our demands into action, which requires political, economic, cultural and technological change. 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 brewing, a means of propagating microbes to create specific products. For many years it has been used for the production of medicines and nutritional supplements. But now, in a few labs and a few factories, scientists are developing what could be a new generation of staple foods.
The developments I find most interesting do not use agricultural inputs. The microbes they grow are fed hydrogen or methanol – which can be produced with renewable electricity – combined with water, carbon dioxide and a very small amount of fertilizer. They produce flour that contains approximately 60% protein, a much higher concentration than any major crop can achieve (soybeans contain 37%, chickpeas, 20%). When grown to produce specific proteins and fats, they can create much better plant-based substitutes for meat, fish, milk and eggs. And they have the potential to do two amazing things.
The first is to shrink the footprint of food production to a remarkable degree. One paper estimates that precision methanol fermentation requires 1,700 times less land than the most efficient agricultural means of protein production: US-grown soybeans. This suggests it can use 138,000 and 157,000 times less land than the least efficient means: beef and lamb production, respectively. Depending on the source of electricity and levels of recycling, it can also allow for radical reductions in water use and greenhouse gas emissions. Because the process is limited, it avoids the spread of waste and chemicals into the world caused by agriculture.
If animal husbandry is replaced by this technology, it creates what may be the last great opportunity to prevent the collapse of Earth’s systems, namely ecological restoration on a massive scale. By restoring wildlife to the vast areas now occupied by livestock (by far the largest of all human land uses) or the crops used to feed them – as well as the seas that have been trawled or gill netted to destruction – and reforestation , wetlands, savannahs, natural grasslands, mangroves, reefs and seabeds, we could stop the sixth major extinction event and extract much of the carbon we have released into the atmosphere.
The second amazing possibility is the breaking of the extreme dependence of many nations on food delivered from distant places. Nations in the Middle East, North Africa, the Horn of Africa and Central America do not possess enough fertile land or water to grow enough of their own food. Elsewhere, particularly in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, a combination of soil degradation, population growth and dietary change has nullified any yield gains. But all the nations most vulnerable to food insecurity are rich in something else: sunlight. It is the feedstock needed to support hydrogen and methanol based food production.
Precision fermentation is at the top of its price curve and has great potential for sharp reductions. Cultivation of multicellular organisms (plants and animals) is at the bottom of its cost curve: it has pushed these creatures to their limits, and sometimes beyond. If production is distributed (which I think is essential), each city can have an autonomous microbial brewery to produce low-cost, protein-rich foods tailored to local markets. This technology can, in many nations, provide food security more effectively than agriculture.
There are four main objections. The first is “Ugh, bacteria!” Well, tough ones, eat them with every meal. In fact, we knowingly introduce live ones into some of our foods, such as cheese and yogurt. And look at the intensive factory farms that produce most of the meat and eggs we eat and the slaughterhouses that service them, both of which new technology may make redundant.
The second objection is that these flours can be used to make ultra-processed foods. Yes, like wheat flour, they could. But they can also be used to radically reduce the processing involved in producing animal substitutes, especially if the microbes are genetically edited 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 proprietary herbicide, and the dominance of the company that produces it. But GM microbes have been undeniably used in precision fermentation since the 1970s to produce insulin, a rennet substitute, chymosin, and vitamins. There is a real and terrifying crisis of genetic contamination in the food industry, but it stems from business as usual: the spread of antibiotic resistance genes from livestock tanks, into the soil, and from there into the food chain and the living world. GM microbes paradoxically offer our best hope for stopping genetic pollution.
A fourth objection carries more weight: the potential for these new technologies to be captured by a few corporations. The risk is real and we must address it now, requiring a new food economy that is fundamentally 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 the world grain trade (90% of it in the hands of four corporations) is an argument against the grain trade, without which billions would starve.
The real obstacle, I think, is neophobia. I know people who won’t own a microwave because they think it will harm their health (it doesn’t), but they own a wood stove, which it does. We defend the old and revile the new. Most of the time it should be the other way around.
I have lent my support to a new campaign called Reboot Food to make the case for new technologies that can help us break out of our catastrophic spiral. We hope to ferment a revolution.