Embracing may be the most important green technology of all time.it can save us all george monbiot

smallOh what do we do now? 27 summits with no effective action, it seems the real purpose is to keep us talking. If the government was serious about preventing climate breakdown, there would be no Cops 2-27. Since the ozone depletion crisis was addressed at a summit in Montreal, the main issues were supposed to be resolved at COP 1.

Nothing can be achieved now without mass protests, whose goal, like the protest movement before us, is to reach a critical mass that triggers a social tipping point. But, as every protester knows, that’s only part of the challenge. We also need to translate our demands into action, which requires political, economic, cultural and technological change. All are necessary and none is sufficient. Only together will they be able to achieve the changes we need to see.

Let’s focus on technology for a moment. Specifically, possibly the most important environmental technology ever created: precision fermentation.

Precision fermentation is a refined form of brewing, a method of multiplying microorganisms to create a specific product. It has been used for many years in the production of pharmaceuticals and food additives. But now, in several labs and several factories, scientists are developing what could become a staple for a new generation.

The most interesting development I found was the absence of agricultural ingredients. The microbes they’ve grown feed on hydrogen or methanol — which can be made with renewable electricity — combined with water, carbon dioxide and tiny amounts of fertilizer. The flour they produce contains around 60% protein, much higher than any major crop (37% in soybeans and 20% in chickpeas).When they are bred to produce specific proteins and fats, they can create better alternatives to plant products For meat, fish, milk and eggs. They have the potential to do two amazing things.

The first is to significantly shrink the footprint of food production. One paper estimates that precise fermentation using methanol requires 1,700 times less land than the most efficient agricultural method for protein production (US-grown soybeans). This suggests that it may use 138,000 and 157,000 times less land than the least efficient means (beef and lamb production), respectively. Depending on the power source and recycling rate, it can also drastically reduce water usage and greenhouse gas emissions. Because the process is closed, it prevents waste and chemicals from farming from spilling into the wider world.

Soybeans in Canada
“One paper estimates that precise fermentation using methanol requires 1,700 times less land than the most efficient agricultural means of producing protein: U.S.-grown soybeans.” Photo: Creative Touch Imaging Ltd/NurPhoto/REX/Shutterstock

If this technology displaces livestock production, it could create the last major chance to prevent the collapse of Earth’s systems: large-scale ecological restoration. By rewilding vast tracts of land now occupied by livestock (by far the largest use of land by humans) or the crops used to feed them—and oceans damaged by trawls or gillnets—and restoring forests, wetlands, Grasslands, natural grasslands, mangroves, coral reefs and the ocean floor, we can both prevent the sixth mass extinction and absorb most of the carbon we release into the atmosphere.

A second startling possibility is to break the extreme dependence of many countries on food shipped from far away. Countries in the Middle East, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, and Central America don’t have enough fertile land or water to grow enough food. Elsewhere, notably in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, a combination of soil degradation, population growth and changing diets has offset any gains in yields. But all of the countries most vulnerable to food insecurity are rich in something else: sunshine. This is the feedstock needed to sustain food production based on hydrogen and methanol.

Precision Fermentation is at the top of its price curve, with huge potential for significant price cuts. Farming multicellular organisms (plants and animals) is at the bottom of its price curve: it has pushed these organisms to their limits, and sometimes beyond. If production is distributed (which I think is essential), each town could have an autonomous microbial brewery producing cheap protein-rich food for the local market. In many countries, this technology can provide food security more effectively than agriculture.

There are four main objections. The first one is “Nicky, germs!” Well, it’s hard, you have to eat it at every meal. In fact, we intentionally add live to some of our foods, such as cheese and yogurt. Look at the intensive animal factories that produce most of the meat and eggs we eat and the slaughterhouses that serve them. New technology can make both redundant.

The second objection is that these flours can be used to make ultra-processed foods. Yes, like wheat flour, they can. But they could 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 certain GM crops, such as Roundup Ready corn, whose main purpose is to expand the market for proprietary herbicides, and the dominance of the companies that produce it. But since the 1970s, genetically modified microbes have been used without controversy in precision fermentation to produce insulin, the rennet substitute chymosin, and vitamins. There is a real and dire crisis of genetic contamination in the food industry, but it stems from business as usual: antibiotic resistance genes spread from livestock slurry tanks to soil and then into the food chain and the living world. Paradoxically, GMOs offer our best hope of stopping genetic contamination.

A fourth objection carries more weight: These new technologies are likely to be in the hands of a small number of companies. The risks are real, and we should get involved now, calling for a new food economy that is radically different from the existing economy, which has undergone extreme consolidation. But this is not an argument against technology per se, any more than the dangerous concentration of the global grain trade (90% of which is in the hands of four companies) is not an argument against grain trade, which would starve billions of people.

The real sticking point, I think, is neophobia. I know some people wouldn’t own a microwave if they thought it would damage their health (it doesn’t), but who owns a wood burning stove, it does. We defend the old and revil the new. Many times, it should be the other way around.

I’ve backed a new campaign called Reboot Food to demonstrate new technologies that could help us break out of this disastrous cycle. We hope to brew a revolution.

Source link