Electric Food

Do we really need farms to produce our food? For most of human history the question would have seemed absurd: it was farming — ie moving from being hunter-gathers to creating domesticated animals and crops — that opened the door to civilisation. But there’s a growing movement that suggests we should detach our food production from its ties to the land and, especially, animals. I first encountered the idea in the 1970s in a visionary passage by the French chemist Marcellin Berthelot, written in 1894 and looking forward to the year 2000:

The day will come when everyone will carry their little protein tablet, their little pat of fat, their little portion of starch or sugar, their little bottle of spices, tailored to their personal taste; all these will be synthesized economically and in inexhaustible quantities in our factories.

Berthelot was ahead of his time then and he still seemed out of step in the natural-is-best 1970s. His utopia seemed to me a prissy urban spasm of distaste for organic life: like Donald Trump, Berthelot was a germophobe. His piece went on: “There will be no more harvest fields, no vineyards…perhaps the deserts of sand will even become the favoured haunt of human civilisation because they will be more salubrious than these stinking clays and infested swamps, mired in putrefaction, that are the seats of farming today”.

At the time, I passionately hated this attack on nature; for all is cruelty and disease, we were inexorably part of it, there was much joy in the farmed landscape, and didn’t putrefaction give us Stilton cheese, beer, wine and yogurt? I even wrote a poem, ‘Frogspawn’ against Berthelot: “and I love this brown and the jellies of life / and set them up to confute the dry / dust of pedants and the arid philosophies / of all who would keep their powder dry”.

In the 125 years since Berthelot, these ideas have resurfaced from time to time for different reasons. An American paper published in1968 sounds uncannily like Berthelot: “Food for the new billions who will inhabit the earth in 2000 can only be supplied if the world passes beyond a dependence on agriculture.” The wastefulness of the protein conversion process using animals was the main reason for change: “An acre of land can produce 800,000 calories in the form of plants, but when the plants are fed to animals, the animals return only 200,000 calories.”

This argument was going to become even more compelling but when in 2013 Rob Rhinehart, an American software engineer, came to emulate Berthelot his motive was urban man’s impatience with the time-consuming hassle of food preparation. Rhinehart resolved to treat it as an engineering problem: based on his readings of biochemistry textbooks and U.S. government websites he created Soylent, a liquid total food which he then crowd-funded into a hot commercial proposition which attracted $75 million in funding. Soylent has become a bestseller despite some incidents in which users became seriously ill.

As was noted in the 1968 report, the principal concern is meat production and there is a strand of work hoping to produce meat by using stem cells to bypass whole animals living in the environment. In 2013, the Dutch scientist Mark Post created experimental stem-cell burgers (the first one cost £250,000) which are now being commercialised by Mosa Meat.

These approaches are niche but what has changed everything is the realisation that current farming practices are major contributors to global warming. George Monbiot, in the Guardian in October 2018, wrote about the new awareness that our food habits are a prime contributor to the looming environmental catastrophe. Whereas Berthelot was vainly and whimsically trying to wean people from a way of life that they mostly regarded as immutably, incorrigibly and naturally human, Monbiot has all the damming evidence at his fingertips: “cutting out animal products would reduce the global requirement for farmland by 76%”; “it is almost impossible to see how we can stop more than 1.5C 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”.

One conclusion we have to draw from the new wisdom on climate change and food is that organic is no longer “green” (if it ever was). At present, there is little or no realisation that artificial fertilisers support about 40% the world’s population: organic farming alone would not be able to support the world’s current population, let alone the projected increase to 10 billion by 2050. Even worse, organic farming is just as emission intensive as agribusiness because it requires far more land per unit output and this conflicts with the global need to increase forest cover. Taking climate change seriously now entails exploring the option of synthetic food.

Monbiot began his piece with a recipe not unlike Berthelot’s: “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 10 times more efficient?

Berthelot would have been delighted to find his ideas bearing fruit at last (he was also a prophet of renewable energy from the sun)…until he realised that the key ingredient in the new electric food is bacteria— he imagined that his food would be made by purely synthetic chemistry with no living intermediaries, and indeed the recent headlines mostly make play with just that idea: “Food from thin air, sun and water!” But it’s not quite the dematerialised miracle it seems: it always involves Berthelot’s hated putrefactive organisms: bacteria.

One of the great discoveries of recent years is that bacteria can “feed” on electricity. All living processes are essential driven by electrons in motion, so this isn’t really surprising. Bacteria are the most versatile and important organisms on earth: only they can live on the ingredients proposed to create the new synthetic food: “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”.

Bacteria are also at the heart of the project to create liquid fuels and chemical feedstocks from, once again, electricity from solar panels (or, even better, nano light harvesters that deliver the sun’s energy directly to the bacteria), and a small amount of water, carbon dioxide drawn from the air, nitrogen and trace elements.

The particular work that caught Monbiot’s attention comes from a Finnish startup called Solar Foods but dozens of teams across the world are working on similar projects, some for creating food, others energy and chemical feedstocks.

Is this then the future? At present, techniques such as Mark Post’s stem cell beef and Solar Foods’ electric bacterial food are expensive and can only produce minimal quantities of food. Of course the computer was once an expensive giant and the cost of a single genome was $3 billion and these scaled up successfully, so why not electric food? But not every proof of principle can do this. Mass farming practices will have to change but in the end the global economic and environmental impact of synthetic food will have to be better than that of the time-honoured techniques it is replacing. At present, Berthelot’s vision sounds a little too pat.