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Will our future diets rely on lab-grown foods?

Will our future diets rely on lab-grown foods?
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Solar Foods lab
© Solar Foods

George Monbiot certainly thinks so, and sees this as a saving grace.

We're wasting our breath arguing over plant- and meat-based diets, says George Monbiot. The environmental writer thinks the future of food lies in lab-grown technology and that, within the next couple of decades, the whole farming industry as we know it – both in pastures and CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) – will be made irrelevant.

It's a bold claim that will likely make many people uncomfortable. Indeed, I read Monbiot's article in the Guardian with considerable skepticism, but he presents some interesting facts. Farming is devastating the natural environment and governments are failing to rein in the destruction. He cites research by the Food and Land Use Coalition, which found precisely zero examples of "governments using their fiscal instruments to directly support the expansion of supply of healthier and more nutritious food." He describes various impending catastrophes that are likely to hit food supply networks eventually.

"Climate breakdown threatens to cause what scientists call 'multiple breadbasket failures', through synchronous heatwaves and other impacts... A global soil crisis threatens the very basis of our subsistence, as great tracts of arable land lose their fertility through erosion, compaction and contamination. Phosphate supplies, crucial for agriculture, are dwindling fast. Insectageddon threatens catastrophic pollination failures... Industrial fishing is driving cascading ecological collapse in seas around the world."

So what does Monbiot think can replace traditional food? He's a proponent of lab-grown proteins, namely a product made by Finnish company Solar Foods that looks like flour but is 50 percent protein and made by capturing CO2 from the air. Whereas fermentation usually relies on plant sugars to feed microbes, Solar Foods' process replaces it with carbon, which disconnects agricultural feedstocks from agricultural production.

FastCo reported last year, "The process uses solar power to split water through electrolysis in a bioreactor, creating hydrogen that can give microbes energy as they’re also fed carbon. The microbes produce a food that’s composed of roughly 20-25% carbs, 5-10% fat, and 50% protein."

Monbiot believes that this flour could become a new feedstock for almost anything:

"In their raw state, they can replace the fillers now used in thousands of food products. When the bacteria are modified they will create the specific proteins needed for lab-grown meat, milk and eggs. Other tweaks will produce lauric acid – goodbye palm oil – and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids – hello lab-grown fish. The carbohydrates that remain when proteins and fats have been extracted could replace everything from pasta flour to potato crisps."

Surely it's not as easy as that. The human body's nutritional needs are complex, after all, and there's more to food than its various building blocks; it's one of those things that is greater than the sum of its parts. One skeptical commenter said,

"There are unknown myriads of micronutrients and combinations of them required by living organisms of all kinds, including humans and including our own microbiome. By all means use microbes to produce protein, and to replace the bulk of carbs and fats currently produced by farming. But cut the link between human digestion and the living environment at your peril."

Then there's the added psychological cost of ceasing to view the world around us as a source of food and abundance, which we have evolved to do for millennia. That's not to say we shouldn't look for alternatives, as current farming methods are clearly unsustainable, but suggesting that we could subsist successfully off exclusively lab-grown foods (minus fruits and vegetables) seems farfetched. On the other hand, food has evolved dramatically in the past half-century, with us eating things now that would have been unrecognizable to previous generations, so who knows?

It's an interesting suggestion nonetheless, and I encourage you to read the whole thing here. You can learn more about Solar Foods on its website.

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