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An Electrifying Idea


It’s not about “them”, it’s about us. The horrific rate of biological annihilation reported this week – 60% of the Earth’s vertebrate wildlife gone since 1970 – is driven primarily by the food industry. Farming and fishing are the major causes of the collapse of both marine and terrestrial ecosystems. Meat – consumed in greater quantities by the rich than by the poor – is the strongest cause of all. We might shake our heads in horror at the clearance of forests, the drainage of wetlands, the slaughter of predators and the massacre of sharks and turtles by fishing fleets, but it is done at our behest.

As the Guardian’s recent report from Argentina reveals, the huge forests of the Gran Chaco are heading towards extermination, as they are replaced by deserts of soya beans, almost all of which are used to produce animal feed, particularly for Europe. With Jair Bolsonaro in power in Brazil, deforestation in the Amazon is likely to accelerate, much of it driven by the beef lobby that helped bring him to power. The great forests of Indonesia and West Papua are being felled and burnt for oil palm at devastating speed.

The most important environmental action we can take is to reduce the area of land and sea used by farming and fishing. This means, above all, switching to a plant-based diet: research published in the journal Science shows that cutting out animal products would reduce the global requirement for farmland by 76%. It would also give us a fair chance of feeding the world. Grazing is no answer to the ecocide caused by grain-fed livestock: it is an astonishingly wasteful use of vast tracts of land that would otherwise support wildlife and wild ecosystems.

The same action is essential to prevent climate breakdown. Because governments, bowing to the demands of capital, have left it so late, it is almost impossible to see how we can stop more than 1.5° of global warming without drawing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. The only way of doing it that has been demonstrated at scale is to allow trees to return to deforested land.

But could we go beyond even a plant-based diet? Could we go beyond agriculture itself? What if, instead of producing food from soil, we were to produce it from air? What if, instead of basing our nutrition on photosynthesis, we were to use electricity, to fuel a process whose conversion of sunlight into food is ten times more efficient?

This sounds like science fiction, but it is already approaching commercialisation. For the past year, a group of Finnish researchers has been producing food without either animals or plants. Their only ingredients are hydrogen-oxidising bacteria, electricity from solar panels, a small amount of water, carbon dioxide drawn from the air, nitrogen and trace quantities of minerals such as calcium, sodium, potassium and zinc. The food they have produced is 50 to 60% protein, the rest is carbohydrate and fat. They have started a company (Solar Foods), which seeks to open its first factory in 2021. This week it was selected as an incubation project by the European Space Agency.

They use electricity from solar panels to electrolyse water, producing hydrogen, that feeds bacteria (which turn it back into water). Unlike other forms of microbial protein (such as Quorn), it requires no carbohydrate feedstock – in other words, no plants.

Perhaps you are horrified by this prospect. Certainly, there’s nothing beautiful about it. It would be hard to write a pastoral poem about bacteria grazing on hydrogen. But this is part of the problem. We have allowed a mythical aesthetic to blind us to the ugly realities of industrial agriculture. Instilled with an image of farming that begins in infancy, as about half the books for very small children involve a rosy-cheeked farmer with one cow, one horse, one pig and one chicken, living in bucolic harmony, we fail to see the amazing cruelty of large-scale animal farming, the blood and gore, filth and pollution. We fail to apprehend the mass clearance of land required to feed us, the Insectageddon caused by pesticides, the drying up of rivers, the loss of soil, the reduction of the magnificent diversity of life on Earth to a homogenous grey waste.

The compound the Finnish researchers have produced from air, water and electricity is most likely to be used as a bulk ingredient in processed food. But (though this goes well beyond the company’s current plans) is there any reason why, with modifications of the process, it could not start to deliver the proteins required to make cultured meat, or the oils that could render palm plantations redundant? Is there any reason why it should not eventually replace much of what we eat?

According to the researchers’ estimates, 20,000 times less land is required for their factories than to produce the same amount of food by growing soya. Cultivating all the protein the world now eats with their technique would require an area smaller than Ohio. The best places to do it are deserts, where solar energy is most abundant. When electricity can be generated at €15 per megawatt hour (a few years hence), their process becomes cost-competitive with the cheapest source of soya.

Could a similar technique also be used to produce cellulose and lignin, eventually replacing the need for commercial forestry? Is there any inherent reason why the hydrogen pathway could not create as many products as photosynthesis does today? Could it help to change our entire relationship with the natural world, reducing our footprint to a fraction of its current size?

There are plenty of questions to be answered, plenty of possible hurdles and constraints. But think of the possibilities. Agricultural commodities, currently using almost all the Earth’s fertile land area, could be shrunk into a few small pockets of infertile land. The potential for ecological restoration is astonishing. The potential for feeding the world, a question that has literally been keeping me awake at night, is just as electrifying.

None of this means we can afford to relax and wait for an infant technology to save us. In the meantime, as urgent intermediate steps, we should switch to a plant-based diet and mobilise against the destruction of the living planet. You could start by joining the Extinction Rebellion that launches today [Wednesday].

But if this works, it could help, alongside political mobilisation, to change almost everything. Places which have become agricultural deserts, trashed by giant corporations, could be reforested, drawing carbon dioxide from the air on a vast scale. The ecosystems of land and sea could recover, not just in pockets but across great tracts of the planet. A new age of global hunger becomes less likely.

Crude and destructive technologies got us into this mess. Refined technologies can help get us out of it. The struggle to save every possible species and ecosystem from the current wave of destruction is worthwhile. One day, perhaps within our lifetimes, they could repopulate a thriving world.

9 Comments

  1. Rick Gottesman November 9, 2018 7:11 pm 

    While I’m in loose agreement with some of the quote you offer, it still bespeaks an anthropocentric bias. To say that “the fate of the Earth has become entwined with the fate of humans” is true in the short term, but Her ultimate fate isn’t dependent on ours, whereas ours is completely dependent on Hers. Whenever the human experiment ends–which it certainly will at some point (it’s estimated that 95% of all species that have EVER existed are now extinct)–the Earth will move on to the next experiment as She did when the dinosaurs left the scene 65 million years ago and cleared the way for the rise of mammals, i.e., us.

    The undeniable material success of the West–some have named this epoch the “Capitalocene”–has given us the illusion that human progress is a never-ending, linear process. (“Per aspera ad astra”). This statement: “We look across the unbridgeable gulf that separates us from all other beings; it is the gulf of responsibility. We have it; they don’t.” is particularly irritating. The implication is that by taking moral responsibility, we can somehow fix everything. This seems to me a variation of the supremely arrogant “white man’s burden”. In all this I’m not suggesting we should simply fold our tents and crawl away into oblivion. But to think we can turn things around in a handful of years by applying our so-called smarts to a bunch of problems is ludicrous. Having said that, what we can and must do is adapt to what’s coming down the pike by immediately ceasing damaging the biosphere (good luck there!), drastically reducing our consumption of just about everything, adopting widespread regenerative practices and reorganizing our living arrangements, economies and politics around small, localized communities. (Preying like Hell wouldn’t hurt either!) All that begins with a very large dose of humility. Earth will continue to do Her thing; we need to get out of the way.

    • avatar
      James November 9, 2018 8:24 pm 

      Rick, you misinterpret. I never, nor the quotes, suggested we can turn it around in a couple of years. In fact, Hamilton believes, a bit like what seems implied by your good self, that we are indeed fucked, but it depends how fucked we want to be…notice the “we”…dolphins aren’t discussing their or the earths future like we are, like you are and nor do they indeed have the power to do so. And of course we need to do all the things you suggest, but again, that’s us doing the shifting, not the dolphins and cockroaches. Its anthropocentric because its we who need to do shit, can and must.

      It does seem to me everything you suggest Rick, is in fact us, we, humans, taking necessary moral responsibility for the future.

      • Bill Petrou November 9, 2018 11:28 pm 

        I bet Dolphins are saying these stupid humans are destroying us.
        As dinosaurs were extinct millions of years ago human life is bound to have the same faith when the next cycle comes. Unfortunately the “intelligent, logical” human is shortening this cycle thousand fold. Greed is the major factor. We see what is coming and we think a miracle is going to save us. The so called progress we claim to have developed in fact is a regress. Progress which ends up harming nature is nothing but progress. I see famine, migration and wars, perhaps the big one will probably end humanity before nature does it for us.

        • avatar
          James November 11, 2018 6:44 am 

          You might be right Bill. Just let things take their course. Whatever. Doesn’t matter much I guess if humans are a bunch of cunts…do WE want a future for OUR kids that is ok? If WE do, if WE want a future then its is WE that must find a way. And only WE can apply OUR knowledge and power, OUR intellect and logic and reasoning, to do so…what’s it to be then John, a brunetto or a bleeding blonde

          https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=K6T1Xzda6cM

          People are a waste of food
          You’ll never hear the end
          They’re only ever happy
          When they’re burying their friends
          And they take take take
          But they never take a hint
          The ice caps getting skinny
          Still they’re not concerned
          They’re very near extinct

          People are a waste of food
          The end is nearly nigh
          They’ve always said the sky would fall
          Now it is you have to wonder why
          You want to shrink your stinky footprint?
          Get your tubes tied
          Or even better yet
          Go commit suicide
          They can’t say you didn’t try

          And oh my,
          Well i hear the sound of horses’ hooves
          Come the middle of the night
          And oh my,
          Its time to get your gun license
          I see four horsemen riding through
          A cold and endless night

          If money is the root of evil
          Fear of death is worse
          This mortal coil is not a test
          And you can’t hide in a purse
          So don’t go casting no dispersions in the street
          ‘Cause the half the world that starves
          Will know the half you’re in
          Does not deserve to eat

          And oh my,
          Well i hear the sound of horses’ hooves
          Come the middle of the night
          And oh my,
          It’s time to get your gun license
          I see four horsemen riding through
          A cold and endless night

          People are a waste of food
          Don’t bother learning Chinese
          Thou shalt find oneself perturbed
          By less verbose calamities
          Just get some Heinz baked beans,
          A 12 gauge, bandolier and tinned dog food
          We’ll eat your dog, bury our dead
          Or eat them instead
          That’s entirely up to you

          And oh my,
          I hear the sound of unshod hooves come the middle of the
          night
          And oh why
          Well, from now on ’til your grandkids finally get what you
          deserve
          I’m going to be stuck here with you wookies
          Eating fortune cookies
          Until my guts churn

  2. Rick Gottesman November 8, 2018 11:50 pm 

    James, we are indeed a very powerful species, but we’re no different than any other in that we all rely on the biosphere to sustain us. Despite how powerful we believe we are, we’re deluding ourselves if we think we can control and direct Nature to obey us. On the contrary, it’s Nature–which, BTW, is totally indifferent to our survival–that calls the shots. The sooner we learn that inescapable truth the greater our chances of avoiding extinction. To be sure, appropriate technology will play a role in our future should there be one, but it will of necessity be quite modest in scale and adapted to its locality.

    • avatar
      James November 9, 2018 1:05 am 

      “Our power gives us greater responsibility than we have ever had to bear. Once humans separated from other creatures and began deliberately to use their world-making powers to modify their environments they assumed responsibility for natural systems and other animals. But now, in the Anthropocene, the fate of the Earth has become entwined with the fate of humans and our responsibility is of a new kind, risen to another level. Before our own welfare, our virtues, and our duties to one another, our inescapable responsibility for the Earth defines us as moral beings. And so, against all ethics from Kant onwards, morality is not to be found in the realm of freedom but is rooted in the realm of necessity because our duty to care for the Earth must precede all others. It belongs to us alone. We look across the unbridgeable gulf that separates us from all other beings; it is the gulf of responsibility. We have it; they don’t.” (Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, 2018)

  3. Rick Gottesman November 8, 2018 7:13 pm 

    Seriously?! This piece so typifies the kind of short-sighted techno-hubris and deep denial that got us into this mess in the first place. The essay states: “The most important environmental action we can take is to reduce the area of land and sea used by farming and fishing.” Wrong! As much as I might wish to feed the world–wasn’t that what the post-war Green Agricultural Revolution supposed to do?–it ensures our continued exponential growth and destruction of the biosphere for a number of other reasons. No, the most important action we can take is to rapidly and drastically reduce our numbers, currently at 7.5 billion and soaring. But of course, that isn’t feasible–after all, how many of us are willing to exit the planet voluntarily?–and conjurs up a lot of unpalatable scenarios, some of which are tragically already coming to pass. Can we all please grow up and come to grips with the fact that we’re just another biological species that must live within the limits Nature has set for all life. Whether we want to think about it or not, She will take care of our dilemma for us.

    • Bill Petrou November 8, 2018 9:41 pm 

      Unfortunately I agree with you.
      Not only she has set for us to recycle but she has made the life for the majority hell to live in. Greed was her worst gift.

    • avatar
      James November 8, 2018 9:47 pm 

      We are in fact NOT just another biological specIes. We are considerably more powerful than any other, and now completely entangled with the future of this planet and the Earth System, and that cannot be ignored. We cannot go back and we cannot continue to go forward as we have been. We may be fucked, but it’s all about how fucked we want to be and whether we want a future second chance.

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