Embrace perhaps the most important green technology of all time. It could save us all | George Monbiot

Soh 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 have been no cops 2-27. The main issues would have been resolved at Cop1 as the ozone depletion crisis happened at a single summit in Montreal.

Nothing works anymore without mass protests whose goal, like the protest movements before us, is to reach the critical mass that triggers a social turning point. But as any protester knows, that’s only part of the challenge. We must also translate our demands into action, which requires political, economic, cultural and technological change. All are necessary, none is sufficient. Only together can they lead to the change we need to see.

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

Precision fermentation is a sophisticated form of brewing, a means of propagating microbes to create specific products. It has been used in the manufacture of medicines and food additives for many years. But now scientists in several labs and some factories are developing what could be a new generation of staple food.

The developments I find most interesting don’t use agricultural resources. The microbes they breed feed on hydrogen or methanol – which can be produced using renewable electricity – in combination with water, carbon dioxide and a very small amount of fertilizer. They produce a flour that contains about 60% protein, a much higher concentration than any larger crop can achieve (soybeans contain 37%, chickpeas 20%). When farmed to produce specific proteins and fats, they can create a much better substitute than plant products for meat, fish, milk and eggs. And they have the potential to do two amazing things.

The first is to significantly reduce the footprint of food production. One study estimates that precision fermentation using methanol requires 1,700 times less land than the most efficient agricultural medium for protein production: soy, grown in the United States. This suggests it could use 138,000 and 157,000 times less land, respectively, than the least efficient method: beef and lamb production. Depending on the power source and recycling rates, it can also enable radical reductions in water use and greenhouse gas emissions. Because the process is contained, the spillage of waste and chemicals from agriculture to the wider world is avoided.

Soy cultivation in Canada
“One study estimates that precision fermentation using methanol requires 1,700 times less land than the most efficient agricultural means of protein production: US-grown soy.” Photo: Creative Touch Imaging Ltd/NurPhoto/REX/Shutterstock

When animal husbandry is replaced by this technology, what may be the last great opportunity to prevent the collapse of the Earth system is large-scale ecological restoration. By rewilding the vast areas now used by livestock (by far the largest of any human land use) or by the crops used to feed them, by destroying the seas with trawls or gillnets, and restoring forests , wetlands and savannas , natural grasslands, mangroves, reefs, and sea floors, we could both halt the sixth great extinction and remove much of the carbon we released into the atmosphere.

The second amazing possibility is to break through the extreme dependence of many nations on food supplied from far away 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 food for themselves. Elsewhere, particularly in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, a combination of land degradation, population growth, and dietary changes are killing any yield gains. But all of the nations most vulnerable to food insecurity abound in something else: sunlight. This is the raw material needed to sustain food production based on hydrogen and methanol.

Precision fermentation is at the top of its price curve and has great potential for deep reductions. Breeding of multicellular organisms (plants and animals) is at the bottom of their price curve: it has pushed these creatures to their limits and sometimes beyond. If production is distributed (which I think is essential), each city could have an autonomous microbial brewery producing cheap high-protein foods tailored to local markets. This technology could ensure food security more effectively than agriculture in many countries.

There are four main objections. The first is “Yuck, bacteria!” Well, tough, you eat them with every meal. In fact, we consciously add live ones to some of our foods, like cheese and yogurt. And take a look at the intensive animal 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 these flours could be used to make ultra-processed foods. Yes, like wheat flour they could. But they can also be used to radically reduce the amount of processing involved in creating substitutes for animal products, especially where the microbes have been genetically engineered to produce specific proteins.

This brings us to the third objection. There are major issues with certain genetically engineered crops, such as Roundup Ready corn, whose primary purpose was to increase the market for a proprietary herbicide and the dominance of the company that makes it. But genetically engineered microbes have been used in precision fermentation to make insulin, the rennet substitute chymosin, and vitamins since the 1970s. There is a real and terrifying genetic contamination crisis in the food industry, but it stems from business as usual: the spread of antibiotic resistance genes from livestock manure tanks into the soil and from there into the food chain and the living world. Paradoxically, genetically engineered microbes offer our best hope of halting genetic contamination.

The fourth objection carries more weight: the potential for these new technologies to be captured by a few companies. The risk is real and we should face it now and call for a new food economy that is radically different from the existing one, which has already undergone extreme consolidation. But that is no argument against the technology per se, any more than the dangerous concentration of the global grain trade (90% of it 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 own a microwave oven, believing it is bad for their health (it doesn’t), but who do have a wood stove, which they do. We defend the old and denigrate the new. Most of the time it should be the other way around.

I’ve supported a new campaign called Reboot Food to advocate for the new technologies that could help us break out of our disastrous spiral. We hope to start a revolution.


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