As the prevailing global food system heads toward disaster, scientists are discovering exciting opportunities that could make nutritious food cheap, clean and abundant for all without hurting the planet. Nafeez Ahmed reports
The world is currently moving – as predicted by a number of scientific models – into an era of water, energy and food scarcity that could unravel the sinews of civilisation.
In part one of my exploration of this, I posited how a ‘global polycrisis’ – caused by climate-induced droughts in Asia, the Russia-Ukraine crisis and an intensifying global food crisis – could accelerate the "irreversible decline" of the Earth's key natural and social systems.
I also explained how these very symptoms of decline also point to signals of hope – because disruptions to the existing food system could spur its transformation.
New scientific research confirms that the spectre of looming scarcity, far from being an innate and inevitable feature of nature, is instead a symptom of the constraints of the existing global system. It suggests we now have a range of powerful tools to create a global food system that, not only feeds everyone on the planet, but does so without pillaging the Earth.
A Key Solution: The Protein Revolution
The global food crisis could be eased by precision fermentation and cellular agriculture (PFCA) – technologies enabling the cheap, sustainable and efficient production of animal proteins without killing animals.
When powered by solar electricity, for instance, microbial protein production can be vastly more efficient than conventional industrial agriculture with minimal environmental impact.
It could, for instance, produce five times more soya beans per hectare than plants even in a country with low sunlight like the UK – and up to 10 times more in better conditions.
Microbial proteins are proteins produced by micro-organisms via fermentation. Precision fermentation allow these micro-organisms to be programmed to produce complex organic molecules such as proteins, with cellular agriculture permitting the production of specific animal proteins.
Two landmark studies released last month show how PFCA can play a fundamental role in transforming our global food systems.
A study published in Nature found that, if only 20% of beef production was displaced by microbial protein, it would slash annual deforestation and related carbon dioxide emissions by half, while also lowering methane emissions. If half of beef production was replaced, this would cut deforestation by 82%. But the study only scratched the surface of what’s possible.
Another team of scientists have found that a “closed-loop microbial production” system would be able to globally replace livestock industries, while dramatically eliminating negative environmental consequences.
Although the study focuses on mycoprotein (created from a naturally-occurring fungus), its lead author Alex Durkin of Imperial College Centre for Process Systems Engineering, told Byline Times that its findings are “supposed to represent microbial proteins generally” – including from PFCA.
That’s because all these approaches to protein production share the common features of “production in controlled environments, no dependence on animals, and more efficient land and crop utility”.
Impact reductions from the livestock industries, the study found, would decline “by 96%, 99%, 74% and 85% on climate change, land occupation, nitrogen fixation and freshwater consumption, respectively”.
So scaling up microbial production at the global level will not breach planetary boundaries, the study concludes.
And due to the nature of these technologies, the applications are diverse. The study points out that, with its shorter, cleaner production cycles – using a tiny fraction of the water, land and fertiliser of conventional industrial food production – “microbial protein can be harnessed to provide readily scalable protein security with vastly reduced environmental impacts, particularly beneficial for emergent nations where the increase in animal-sourced protein demand is expected to soar in response to socio-economic development”.
With such a small land footprint, it can also be scaled-up in “urban areas and countries which face arable land scarcity and depend largely on food imports” – which includes many countries in the Middle East and North Africa at risk of instability in the current crisis.
With no exposure to livestock diseases, microbial proteins can enable “sustained protein production through extreme events e.g. pandemic”.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about these technologies is that they aren’t far-fetched breakthroughs of the future – PFCA exists now and is scaling today driven by fundamental economics.
As technology forecasting think tank RethinkX showed in 2019, cost curve projections show that it will become cost-competitive with bulk animal protein in a few years – five times cheaper by 2030, and 10 times cheaper by 2035.
Eventually it will approach the cost of sugar. And, because it’s so water, land and energy efficient, it will enable us to produce orders of magnitude more food than we do today within planetary boundaries, at a tenth of the cost. Food would never be cheaper.
This also means that conventional livestock industries are going to be economically eviscerated within about a decade. We might be able to delay or accelerate that process, but the fundamental economics of this mean this process cannot ultimately be stopped because animal farming will simply be outcompeted by superior technologies.
This could open up further huge opportunities. We would not only wipe out carbon emissions from livestock agriculture, we would free up 2.7 billion hectares of land for rewilding, reforestation, alternative farming techniques, and carbon sequestration.
Such a rapid phase-out of animal agriculture would, in turn, stabilise greenhouse gas levels for 30 years and offset 68% of CO2 emissions this century. But we don’t need to stop there. By giving that freed up land back to nature in a managed way, we could use it to get more and more carbon out of the atmosphere in a way that is regenerative.
The implications are tremendous: we could enter a new era of clean, food abundance, and – through the same process – help solve some of our biggest ecological challenges.
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In his new book, Regenesis: Feeding the World Without Devouring the Planet, renowned Guardian environment writer George Monbiot shows how a larger, system change – driven by leveraging technology disruptions – can make other regenerative agriculture solutions more feasible. Together, this would lead to a total transformation of the food system.
His book explains that the global food crisis is not just about climate change, but about the entire structure of conventional industrial agriculture – which operates in an extraction paradigm that is relentlessly degrading our soils.
With the colossal dependence of our industrial systems on fossil fuels, the addition of climate impacts into this picture is magnifying the risks of a ‘global polycrisis’ before our eyes. Nothing less than total transformation will allow us to evade the implications.
To the extent that the PFCA disruption has already begun – and will accelerate due to economic factors – the foundations of change are already here. They are being driven by markets, technology and economics.
In Monbiot’s vision, if we leverage these factors by ending subsidies for livestock farming, removing barriers to PFCA proteins, and so on, we can move faster to a final food system transformation. We could harness the best of these technologies alongside the most exciting regenerative farming techniques, in a new model of build-up and creation: producing abundant nutritious food, restoring our soils, stabilising our ecosystems and rewilding our lands.
PFCA protein hubs can be installed almost anywhere, run locally on clean electricity, and with 100 times more land efficiency, up to 25 times more feedstock efficiency, and 10 times more water efficiency.
We should not under-estimate what this opportunity entails. For the first time, we could feed everyone without breaching planetary boundaries in a new paradigm of ‘Food-as-Software’.
But the current crisis also reveals the stark dangers if we delay. We could end up being sucked into the vortex of a prevailing global food system that crumbles under its own weight before these disruptive technologies are able to accelerate the transformation we so desperately need.
In part one of my exploration, I set out the grim prospect of a decade of intensifying global thirst and hunger. But we need to see that prospect for what it is: a symptom of the demise of the old, extraction age food system. As this crisis deepens, we must remember that opening up before us is the unprecedented opportunity to create an entirely new creation-based food system – a paradigm that could empower us to solve global hunger within planetary boundaries.
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