sQ What do we do now? After 27 summits and no effective action, the real purpose seems to be to keep us talking. If governments were serious about preventing climate collapse, there would be no cops 2-27. The main problems could have been solved at Cop1, as the ozone depletion crisis was at one summit in Montreal.
Nothing can now be achieved without mass protest, whose goal, like the protest movements that preceded us, is to reach the critical mass that leads to a social turning point. But, as every protester knows, this is only part of the challenge. We also need to translate our demands into action, which requires political, economic, cultural and technological change. All necessary, none sufficient. Only together can they measure up to the change we need to see.
Let’s focus for a moment on technology. Specifically, what may be the most important environmental technology ever developed: micro-fermentation.
Microfermentation is a refined form of fermentation, a method of multiplying microbes to produce 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 staple foods.
The developments that I find most interesting are not using agricultural intermediates. The microbes they generate feed on hydrogen or methanol—which can be made with renewable electricity—along with water, carbon dioxide, and a very small amount of fertilizer. They produce flour with nearly 60% protein, a much higher concentration than any major crop can achieve (soybeans contain 37%, chickpeas, 20%). When they are bred to produce specific proteins and fats, they can create much better alternatives to plant-based products For meat, fish, milk and eggs. And they have the ability to do two amazing things.
The first is to significantly reduce the footprint of food production. One study estimates that micro-fermentation using methanol requires 1,700 times less land than the most efficient agricultural method for producing protein: US-grown soybeans. This indicates that it might use, respectively, 138,000 and 157,000 times less space than the least efficient means: beef and mutton production. Depending on the electricity source and recycling rates, it can also enable drastic reductions in water use and greenhouse gas emissions. Because the process is contained, it avoids the spread of waste and chemicals to the wider world caused by agriculture.
If livestock production were to be replaced by this technology, it would create what could be the last great chance to prevent the collapse of Earth’s systems, i.e. large-scale ecological restoration. By rebuilding the vast areas occupied by livestock (by far the greatest uses of human land) or the crops used to feed them – as well as the seas trawled or gillnetted for destruction – and by restoring forests, wetlands, savannas, natural grasslands, mangroves, coral reefs and sea floors We can both stop the sixth great extinction and take a lot of the carbon we’ve released into the atmosphere.
The second amazing possibility is to break the heavy dependence of many countries on food shipped in from far away. Countries in the Middle East, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, and Central America do not have enough fertile land or water to grow enough food. Elsewhere, particularly parts of sub-Saharan Africa, a combination of soil degradation, population growth and nutritional change is canceling out any yield gains. But all of the nations most vulnerable to food insecurity are rich in something else: sunshine. This is the feedstock required to maintain food production based on hydrogen and methanol.
Precision brewing is at the top of the price curve, and has great potential for sharp cuts. Cultivation of multicellular organisms (plants and animals) is at the bottom of the price curve: it has pushed these organisms to their limits, sometimes even further. If production is distributed (Which I think is essential), each city could have an independent microbial brewery, making cheap, high-protein foods designed for local markets. This technology can, in many countries, provide food security more effectively than agriculture.
There are four main objections. The first is “Hey bacteria!” Well, tough, you eat them with every meal. In fact, we intentionally include organisms in some of our foods, such as cheese and yogurt. And take a look at the animal-intensive factories that produce most of the meat and eggs we eat and the slaughterhouses that serve them, both of which new technology could make redundant.
The second objection is that this flour can be used to make ultra-processed foods. Yes, like wheat flour, they can. But they can also be used to radically reduce the processing involved in making alternatives to animal products, especially if microbes are genetically edited to produce specific proteins.
This brings us to the third objection. There are major problems with some GM crops such as Roundup Ready maize, whose main goal has been to expand the market for proprietary herbicides, and the dominance of the company that produces them. But genetically modified microbes have been indisputably used in micro-fermentation since the 1970s to produce inulin, chymosin, rennet substitute, and vitamins. There is a real and terrifying genetic contamination crisis in the food industry, but it arises from business as usual: the spread of antibiotic resistance genes from livestock slurry tanks, into the soil and then into the food chain and the living world. Paradoxically, genetically modified microbes offer our best hope for stopping genetic pollution.
The fourth objection has more weight: the possibility that a small number of companies will acquire these new technologies. The danger is real and we must deal with it now, demanding a new food economy that is fundamentally different from the current one, in which severe integration has already occurred. But this is not an argument against the technology itself, any more than the dangerous concentration in the global grain trade (90% of which is in the hands of four corporations) is an argument against the grain trade, without which billions would starve.
I think the real sticking point is the fear of the new. I know people who don’t own a microwave oven, because they think it will harm their health (it doesn’t), but they do own a wood-burning stove, which it does. We defend the old and the lineage of the new. More often than not, it should be the other way around.
I’ve lent my support to a new campaign, called Reboot Food, to demonstrate the importance of new technologies that can help pull us out of the spiral of disaster. Hopefully a revolution is brewing.