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Embrace what may be the most important green technology ever. It could save us all | George Monbiot

Soh what do we do now? After 27 tops and no effective action, it seems the real goal was to keep us talking. If governments were serious about preventing climate crisis, there would not have been any police 2-27. The major issues would have been resolved at Cop1 as the ozone depletion crisis was at its peak summit in Montreal.

Nothing can be achieved now without mass protest, the aim of which, like that of the protest movements before us, is to reach the critical mass that social tipping point. But as any 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 changes. They are all necessary, none is sufficient. Only together can they bring about the change we need.

Let’s focus on technology for a moment. Specifically, what is arguably the most important environmental technology ever developed: precision fermentation.

Precision fermentation is a sophisticated form of brewing, a way of multiplying microbes to create specific products. It has been used for many years to produce medicines and food additives. But now, in several laboratories and a few factories, scientists are developing what a New Generation of staple foods.

The developments that I find most interesting do not use agricultural raw materials. The microbes they breed feed with hydrogen or methanol – which can be made from renewable electricity – in combination with water, carbon dioxide and a tiny bit of fertilizer. They produce flour that contains about 60% protein, a much higher concentration than any large crop can achieve (soybeans contain 37%, chickpeas 20%). When bred to produce specific proteins and fats, they can create much better replacements than plant-based products for meat, fish, milk and Eggs. And they have the potential to do two amazing things.

The first is to remarkably reduce the food production footprint. A piece of paper estimates that precision fermentation using methanol requires 1,700 times less land than the most efficient agricultural method to produce protein: soy grown in the US. This suggests it could use 138,000 and 157,000 times less land, respectively, than the least efficient means: production of beef and lamb. Depending on electricity source and recycling rates, it can also enable a radical reduction in water consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Because the process is contained, it prevents waste and chemicals from ending up in the rest of the world as a result of agriculture.

Soybean cultivation in Canada
‘One paper estimates that precision fermentation using methanol requires 1,700 times less land than the most efficient agricultural method to produce protein: soy grown in the US.’ Photo: Creative Touch Imaging Ltd/NurPhoto/REX/Shutterstock

If livestock farming is replaced by this technology, what could be the last major opportunity to prevent Earth’s systems from collapsing will emerge: large-scale ecological restoration. By redesigning the vast areas that are now occupied cattle (by far the largest of all human land uses) or by the crops used to feed them – as well as the seas destroyed by trawls or gillnets – and the restoration of forests, wetlands, savannas, natural grasslands, mangroves, reefs and marine floors, we can both stop the sixth great extinction and bring down much of the carbon we’ve been emitting into the atmosphere.

The second amazing opportunity is to break the extreme dependency of many countries food brought in from faraway places. Nations in the Middle East, North Africa, the Horn of Africa and Central America do not have enough fertile land or water to grow enough own food. In other places, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, a combination of soil degradation, population growth and dietary changes are negating yield gains. But all of the nations most vulnerable to food insecurity are rich in something else: sunlight. This is the raw material needed to maintain food production based on hydrogen and methanol.

Precision fermentation is at the top of the price curve and has great potential for significant reductions. The breeding of multicellular organisms (plants and animals) is at the lower end of the price curve: it has pushed these creatures to their limits, and sometimes further. If production is distributed (which I think is essential), every city could have an autonomous microbial brewery, making low-cost protein foods tailored to local markets. This technology could provide food security more effectively than agriculture in many countries.

There are four main objections. The first is “Yuck, bacteria!” Well, cool, you eat them with every meal. We even consciously introduce live ones into some of our foods, such as cheese and yogurt. And look at the intensive animal factories that produce the most meat and eggs we eat and the slaughterhouses that serve them, both of which may become obsolete with new technology.

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 making substitutes for animal products, especially if the microbes have been gene-edited to produce specific proteins.

This brings us to the third objection. There are major problems with certain GM crops such as Roundup Ready corn, whose main goal was to expand the market for a proprietary herbicide, and the dominance of the company that produced it. But GM microbes have been used undisputedly since the 1970s in precision fermentation to produce insulin, the rennet substitute chymosin and vitamins. There is a real and frightening genetic contamination crisis in the food industry, but it stems from business as usual: the spread of resistance to antibiotics genes from manure tanks for livestock, into the soil and from there the food chain and the living world. Genetically modified microbes paradoxically offer our best hope of stopping genetic contamination.

The fourth objection weighs more heavily: the potential for these new technologies to be adopted by a few companies. The risk is real and we must act now and demand a new food economy that is radically different from the existing one, in which extreme consolidation has already taken place. But that is no argument against the technology itself, nor against the dangerous concentration in the global grain trade (of which 90% is in the hands of four corporations) is an argument against the grain trade, without which billions would starve.

The real sticking point, I think, is neophobia. I know people who don’t want to have a microwave because they think it will harm their health (which is not the case), but who wood stove, what is. We defend the old and vilify the new. Often it should be the other way around.

I’ve given my support to a new campaign called Restart food, to advocate for the new technologies that can help us get out of our catastrophic spiral. We hope to start a revolution.

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