George Monbiot: Lab-grown food will soon destroy farming – and save the planet

Scientists are replacing crops and livestock with food made from microbes and water. It may save humanity’s bacon

Illustration: Matt Kenyon

It sounds like a miracle, but no great technological leaps were required. In a commercial lab on the outskirts of Helsinki, I watched scientists turn water into food. Through a porthole in a metal tank, I could see a yellow froth churning. It’s a primordial soup of bacteria, taken from the soil and multiplied in the laboratory, using hydrogen extracted from water as its energy source. When the froth was siphoned through a tangle of pipes and squirted on to heated rollers, it turned into a rich yellow flour.

This flour is not yet licensed for sale. But the scientists, working for a company called Solar Foods, were allowed to give me some while filming our documentary Apocalypse Cow. I asked them to make me a pancake: I would be the first person on Earth, beyond the lab staff, to eat such a thing. They set up a frying pan in the lab, mixed the flour with oat milk, and I took my small step for man. It tasted … just like a pancake.

But pancakes are not the intended product. Such flours are likely soon to become the feedstock for almost everything. 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. The first commercial factory built by Solar Foods should be running next year.

The hydrogen pathway used by Solar Foods is about 10 times as efficient as photosynthesis. But because only part of a plant can be eaten, while the bacterial flour is mangetout, you can multiply that efficiency several times. And because it will be brewed in giant vats the land efficiency, the company estimates, is roughly 20,000 times greater. Everyone on Earth could be handsomely fed, and using a tiny fraction of its surface. If, as the company intends, the water used in the process (which is much less than required by farming) is electrolysed with solar power, the best places to build these plants will be deserts.

We are on the cusp of the biggest economic transformation, of any kind, for 200 years. While arguments rage about plant- versus meat-based diets, new technologies will soon make them irrelevant. Before long, most of our food will come neither from animals nor plants, but from unicellular life. After 12,000 years of feeding humankind, all farming except fruit and veg production is likely to be replaced by ferming: brewing microbes through precision fermentation. This means multiplying particular micro-organisms, to produce particular products, in factories.I know some people will be horrified by this prospect. I can see some drawbacks. But I believe it comes in the nick of time.

Several impending disasters are converging on our food supply, any of which could be catastrophic. Climate breakdown threatens to cause what scientists call “multiple breadbasket failures”, through synchronous heatwaves and other impacts. The UN forecasts that by 2050 feeding the world will require a 20% expansion in agriculture’s global water use. But water use is already maxed out in many places: aquifers are vanishing, rivers are failing to reach the sea. The glaciers that supply half the population of Asia are rapidly retreating. Inevitable global heating – due to greenhouse gases already released – is likely to reduce dry season rainfall in critical areas, turning fertile plains into dustbowls.

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. It is hard to see how farming can feed us all even until 2050, let alone to the end of the century and beyond.

Food production is ripping the living world apart. Fishing and farming are, by a long way, the greatest cause of extinction and loss of the diversity and abundance of wildlife. Farming is a major cause of climate breakdown, the biggest cause of river pollution and a hefty source of air pollution. Across vast tracts of the world’s surface, it has replaced complex wild ecosystems with simplified human food chains. Industrial fishing is driving cascading ecological collapse in seas around the world. Eating is now a moral minefield, as almost everything we put in our mouths – from beef to avocados, cheese to chocolate, almonds to tortilla chips, salmon to peanut butter – has an insupportable environmental cost.

But just as hope appeared to be evaporating, the new technologies I call farmfree food create astonishing possibilities to save both people and planet. Farmfree food will allow us to hand back vast areas of land and sea to nature, permitting rewilding and carbon drawdown on a massive scale. It means an end to the exploitation of animals, an end to most deforestation, a massive reduction in the use of pesticides and fertiliser, the end of trawlers and longliners. It’s our best hope of stopping what some have called the “sixth great extinction”, but I prefer to call the great extermination. And, if it’s done right, it means cheap and abundant food for everyone.

Research by the thinktank RethinkX suggests that proteins from precision fermentation will be around 10 times cheaper than animal protein by 2035. The result, it says, will be the near-complete collapse of the livestock industry. The new food economy will “replace an extravagantly inefficient system that requires enormous quantities of inputs and produces huge amounts of waste with one that is precise, targeted, and tractable”. Using tiny areas of land, with a massively reduced requirement for water and nutrients, it “presents the greatest opportunity for environmental restoration in human history”.

Not only will food be cheaper, it will also be healthier. Because farmfree foods will be built up from simple ingredients, rather than broken down from complex ones, allergens, hard fats and other unhealthy components can be screened out. Meat will still be meat, though it will be grown in factories on collagen scaffolds, rather than in the bodies of animals. Starch will still be starch, fats will still be fats. But food is likely to be better, cheaper and much less damaging to the living planet.

It might seem odd for someone who has spent his life calling for political change to enthuse about a technological shift. But nowhere on Earth can I see sensible farm policies developing. Governments provide an astonishing £560bn a year in farm subsidies, and almost all of them are perverse and destructive, driving deforestation, pollution and the killing of wildlife. Research by the Food and Land Use Coalition found that only 1% of the money is used to protect the living world. It failed to find “any examples of governments using their fiscal instruments to directly support the expansion of supply of healthier and more nutritious food.”

Nor is the mainstream debate about farming taking us anywhere, except towards further catastrophe. There’s a widespread belief that the problem is intensive farming, and the answer is extensification (producing less food per hectare). It’s true that intensive farming is highly damaging, but extensive farming is even worse. Many people are rightly concerned about urban sprawl. But agricultural sprawl – which covers a much wider area – is a far greater threat to the natural world. Every hectare of land used by farming is a hectare not used for wildlife and complex living systems.

paper in Nature suggests that, per kilo of food produced, extensive farming causes greater greenhouse gas emissions, soil loss, water use and nitrogen and phosphate pollution than intensive farming. If everyone ate pasture-fed meat, we would need several new planets on which to produce it.

Farmfree production promises a far more stable and reliable food supply that can be grown anywhere, even in countries without farmland. It could be crucial to ending world hunger. But there is a hitch: a clash between consumer and producer interests. Many millions of people, working in farming and food processing, will eventually lose their jobs. Because the new processes are so efficient, the employment they create won’t match the employment they destroy.

RethinkX envisages an extremely rapid “death spiral” in the livestock industry. Only a few components, such as the milk proteins casein and whey, need to be produced through fermentation for profit margins across an entire sector to collapse. Dairy farming in the United States, it claims, will be “all but bankrupt by 2030”. It believes that the American beef industry’s revenues will fall by 90% by 2035.

While I doubt the collapse will be quite that fast, in one respect the thinktank underestimates the scale of the transformation. It fails to mention the extraordinary shift taking place in feedstock production to produce alternatives to plant products, of the kind pioneered in Helsinki. This is likely to hit arable farming as hard as cultured milk and meat production will hit livestock farming. Solar Foods thinks its products could reach cost parity with the world’s cheapest form of protein (soya from South America) within five years. Instead of pumping ever more subsidies into a dying industry, governments should be investing in helping farmers into other forms of employment, while providing relief funds for those who will suddenly lose their livelihoods.

Another hazard is the potential concentration of the farmfree food industry. We should strongly oppose the patenting of key technologies, to ensure the widest possible distribution of ownership. If governments regulate this properly, they could break the hegemony of the massive companies that now control global food commodities. If they don’t, they could reinforce it. In this sector, as in all others, we need strong anti-trust laws. We must also ensure that the new foods always have lower carbon footprints than the old ones: farmfree producers should power their operations entirely from low-carbon sources. This is a time of momentous choices, and we should make them together.

We can’t afford to wait passively for technology to save us. Over the next few years we could lose almost everything, as magnificent habitats such as the rainforests of Madagascar, West Papua and Brazil are felled to produce cattle, soya or palm oil. By temporarily shifting towards a plant-based diet with the lowest possible impacts (no avocados or out-of-season asparagus), we can help buy the necessary time to save magnificent species and places while these new technologies mature. But farmfree food offers hope where hope was missing. We will soon be able to feed the world without devouring it.

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Extinction Rebellion Making Things Inconvenient? Actually, Says Naomi Klein, the Climate Crisis ‘Is Really, Really Inconvenient’

“There is nothing more inconvenient than being hit by a Category 5 hurricane, by having a wildfire raze your town.”

Writer George Monbiot is arrested by police officers after being arrested in Trafalgar Square on October 16, 2019 in London.
Writer George Monbiot is arrested by police officers after being arrested in Trafalgar Square on October 16, 2019 in London. Activists held an emergency people’s assembly in Trafalgar Square following a ban on Extinction Rebellion protests in London. (Photo: Peter Summers/Getty Images)

As Extinction Rebellion activists in London on Wednesday ramped up their latest mobilization with a tenth consecutive day of action, author Naomi Klein pushed back against criticism of the climate protesters and said the climate crisis itself is what’s truly disruptive.

In an interview with Sky News presenter Adam Boulton posted Wednesday, Klein refuted the notion that “a lot of action” to address the climate crisis is “being taken by politicians,” saying their lack of sufficient action is what has drawn youth climate and Extinction Rebellion activists into the streets across the world in recent weeks.

“If standing up against the climate and ecological breakdown and for humanity is against the rules, then the rules must be broken.”
—Greta Thunberg
The interview came as the global mobilization—which has blocked major roads and bridges in their bid to demand greenhouse gas emissions go down to net zero by 2025—staged a number of actions on Wednesday in defiance of a London-wide ban.

Extinction Rebellion has also announced that several affinity groups plan to disrupt Tube services on Thursday. “In any other circumstances,” the group said in a statement, “these groups would never dream of disrupting the Tube but this is an emergency.”

Boulton, in his interview with Klein, said the climate activists put others in a position such that their “route to work is being obstructed” and said XR was “trying to shut down the Tube system.”

“Yes, it’s inconveniencing people,” said Klein. “As somebody who has covered natural disasters that are fueled by climate change for 15 years—there is nothing more inconvenient than being hit by a Category 5 hurricane, by having a wildfire raze your town.”

“Let me tell you how inconvenient it is for the people in Paradise, California, 14,000 of whom lost their homes,” she continued. “Climate change is really, really inconvenient. And so if people have to deal with this inconvenience of some protests in London to get the attention of politicians who have been focused on a singular way on the emergency of Brexit, then so be it.”

London Metropolitan Police this week issued an order banning “any assembly linked to the Extinction Rebellion ‘Autumn Uprising'” within city.

One of Wednesday’s actions was a “people’s assembly” in Trafalgar Square in which roughly 2,500 activists gathered to strategize responses to what they say is the government’s continued inaction on the climate crisis. Among those in the square detained by police was journalist and activist George Monbiot:

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For the sake of life on Earth, we must put a limit on wealth

It’s not just the megarich: increased spending power leads us all to inflict environmental damage. It’s time for a radical plan


 Illustration: Bill Bragg

It is not quite true that behind every great fortune lies a great crime. Musicians and novelists, for example, can become extremely rich by giving other people pleasure. But it does appear to be universally true that in front of every great fortune lies a great crime. Immense wealth translates automatically into immense environmental impacts, regardless of the intentions of those who possess it. The very wealthy, almost as a matter of definition, are committing ecocide.

A few weeks ago, I received a letter from a worker at a British private airport. “I see things that really shouldn’t be happening in 2019,” he wrote. Every day he sees Global 7000 jets, Gulfstream G650s and even Boeing 737s take off from the airport carrying a single passenger, mostly flying to Russia and the US. The private Boeing 737s, built to take 174 passengers, are filled at the airport with around 25,000 litres of fuel. That’s as much fossil energy as a small African town might use in a year.

Where are these single passengers going? Perhaps to visit one of their superhomes, constructed and run at vast environmental cost, or to take a trip on their superyacht, which might burn 500 litres of diesel an hour just ticking over, and which is built and furnished with rare materials extracted at the expense of beautiful places.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that when Google convened a meeting of the rich and famous at the Verdura resort in Sicily in July to discuss climate breakdown, its delegates arrived in 114 private jets and a fleet of megayachts, and drove around the island in supercars. Even when they mean well, the ultrarich cannot help trashing the living world.


‘Superyachts, built and furnished with rare materials, can burn 500 litres of diesel per hour just ticking over.’ The superyacht Aviva off the Cornish coast. Photograph: Simon Maycock/Alamy Stock Photo

A series of research papers shows that income is by far the most important determinant of environmental impact. It doesn’t matter how green you think you are; if you have surplus money, you spend it. The only form of consumption that’s clearly and positively correlated with good environmental intentions is diet: people who see themselves as green tend to eat less meat and more organic vegetables. But attitudes have little bearing on the amount of transport fuel, home energy and other materials you consume. Money conquers all.

The disastrous effects of spending power are compounded by the psychological impacts of being wealthy. Plenty of studies show that the richer you are, the less you are able to connect with other people. Wealth suppresses empathy. One paper reveals that drivers in expensive cars are less likely to stop for people using pedestrian crossings than drivers in cheap cars. Another revealed that rich people were less able than poorer people to feel compassion towards children with cancer. Though they are disproportionately responsible for our environmental crises, the rich will be hurt least and last by planetary disaster, while the poor are hurt first and worst. The richer people are, the research suggests, the less such knowledge is likely to trouble them.

Another issue is that wealth limits the perspectives of even the best-intentioned people. This week, Bill Gates argued in an interview with the Financial Times that divesting (ditching stocks) from fossil fuels is a waste of time. It would be better, he claimed, to pour money into disruptive new technologies with lower emissions. Of course we need new technologies. But he has missed the crucial point: in seeking to prevent climate breakdown, what counts is not what you do but what you stop doing. It doesn’t matter how many solar panels you install if you don’t simultaneously shut down coal and gas burners. Unless existing fossil fuel plants are retired before the end of their lives, and all exploration and development of new fossil fuel reserves is cancelled, there is little chance of preventing more than 1.5C of global heating.

But this requires structural change, which involves political intervention as well as technological innovation: anathema to Silicon Valley billionaires. It demands an acknowledgement that money is not a magic wand that makes all the bad stuff go away.   MORE

We are full of bright ideas to solve ecological problems. So let’s act on them

There is hope in the face of environmental crises. But we must all – farmers, citizens, politicians – embrace change


 ‘Charlie Burrell and Isabella Tree at Knepp in West Sussex have turned a failing farm into a rewilded, ecological haven with loads of biodiversity.’ Photograph: Anthony Cullen/The Guardian

A new UN report is set to reveal that up to 1m species face extinction because of human actions. The loss of pollinating insects and other ecological disasters – from the destruction of flood-saving mangroves to air pollution – poses no less of a threat than climate change, according to the report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

We are triggering a mass extinction event, and critically we cannot separate one environmental crisis from another. Biodiversity loss cannot be partitioned from climate change, or from human population growth or pollution or plastics in our oceans. These challenges are all interconnected. We face an ecology of environmental concerns, and if we continue to consider these problems in partitioned isolation, solutions will continue to emerge far too slowly.

The IPBES report reveals that 3.2 billion people are suffering from degraded soils. We cannot feed our planet’s growing population by destroying its soil. And soil erosion is also fuelling climate change because that earth contains three times more carbon than is in the atmosphere. Soil-destroying chemical farming means there are no insects or skylarks above our fields – and so we’re experiencing this tragic loss of biodiversity.

The connections between these crises make solutions seem all too dauntingly difficult. But in fact, a solution to one problem will inevitably make a positive impact on many others too. More than 28,000 people are dying because of polluted air each year in Britain and air pollution is linked to psychotic experiences and a reduction in educational achievement. It’s not rocket science: improving air quality in our cities by cutting polluting vehicles will bring a vast range of benefits to human health, and help tackle climate change too. That’s a simple binary example of the ecology of crisis.

George Monbiot advocates taking land out of meat production and rewilding it. This will boost biodiversity enormously but will also tackle global warming because those rewilded, rewetted lands will capture significantly more carbon. If these lands are also opened up for us to enjoy, our physical and mental health will flourish. Thus we repair the ecology of destruction.

It can be difficult to know what we can do as individuals – but at least we all possess an increasingly sophisticated understanding of how farming, consumption and energy-use impacts upon the planet, hence the growth of the vegan movement. Lifestyle changes are always worth doing, but seldom as simple as they seem. As I found during Veganuary, it wasn’t too difficult to go vegan but that didn’t automatically mean I was eating ethically or in an environmentally friendly way: some of my vegan food was over-packaged and filled with palm oil.


 ‘The Extinction Rebellion protests made a difference to environmental debates in the House of Commons.’ Photograph: Henry Nicholls/Reuters

If I make a change, it’s me. If both of us do, it’s we. That’s how things grow. The youth climate strikes have been an incredible act of self-empowerment for that generation. I hope their confidence will grow and grow. At the moment they are campaigning about the climate; I hope that next they’ll be campaigning about how they can’t hear any birds singing. MORE

George Monbiot on U.K. Climate Emergency & the Need for Rebellion to Prevent Ecological Apocalypse

 

SEE the VIDEO

AMY GOODMAN, DEMOCRACY NOW!: On Wednesday, the House of Commons became the first parliament in the world to declare a climate emergency. The resolution came on the heels of the recent Extinction Rebellion mass uprising that shut down Central London last month in a series of direct actions.

Activists closed bridges, occupied public landmarks and even superglued themselves to buildings, sidewalks and trains to demand urgent action to combat climate change. Police arrested more than 1,000 protesters.

Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn told Parliament, “We are witnessing an unprecedented upsurge of climate activism, with groups like Extinction Rebellion forcing the politicians in this building to listen. For all the dismissive and defensive column inches the processes have provoked, they are a massive and, I believe, very necessary wake-up call. Today we have the opportunity to say, ‘We hear you.’”

We speak with George Monbiot, British journalist, author and columnist with The Guardian. His recent piece for The Guardian is headlined “Only rebellion will prevent an ecological apocalypse.” Monbiot says capitalism “is like a gun pointed at the heart of the planet. … It will essentially, necessarily destroy our life support systems. Among those characteristics is the drive for perpetual economic growth on a finite planet.”

Transcript of program:

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Dare to declare capitalism dead – before it takes us all down with it

George Monbiot asks, “Do we stop life to allow capitalism to continue, or stop capitalism to allow life to continue?” In terms of the present Canadian political scene this equates to , “Do I vote for  neoliberalism  or do I choose social democracy?”  Your opinion and you vote matters.

The economic system is incompatible with the survival of life on Earth. It is time to design a new one

Refugees at the Greek-Macedonian border in 2016. ‘In the 21st century rising resource consumption has matched or exceeded the rate of economic growth.’ Photograph: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images

… as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to recognise two things. First, that it is the [capitalist] system, rather than any variant of the system, that drives us inexorably towards disaster. Second, that you do not have to produce a definitive alternative to say that capitalism is failing. The statement stands in its own right. But it also demands another, and different, effort to develop a new system.

Capitalism’s failures arise from two of its defining elements. The first is perpetual growth. Economic growth is the aggregate effect of the quest to accumulate capital and extract profit. Capitalism collapses without growth, yet perpetual growth on a finite planet leads inexorably to environmental calamity.

The second defining element is the bizarre assumption that a person is entitled to as great a share of the world’s natural wealth as their money can buy….

Our choice comes down to this. Do we stop life to allow capitalism to continue, or stop capitalism to allow life to continue?

So what does a better system look like? I don’t have a complete answer, and I don’t believe any one person does. But I think I see a rough framework emerging. Part of it is provided by the ecological civilisation proposed by Jeremy Lent, one of the greatest thinkers of our age. Other elements come from Kate Raworth’s doughnut economics and the environmental thinking of Naomi KleinAmitav GhoshAngaangaq AngakkorsuaqRaj Patel and Bill McKibben. Part of the answer lies in the notion of “private sufficiency, public luxury”. Another part arises from the creation of a new conception of justice based on this simple principle: every generation, everywhere, shall have an equal right to the enjoyment of natural wealth. MORE

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WHERE IS CANADA’S SOCIALIST RESURGENCE?

 

The destruction of the Earth is a crime. It should be prosecuted

This tribute to Polly Higgins by George Monbiot appeared in The Guardian, Mar 28.  On Apr 21 came the news that Polly had passed away. Monbiot wrote

““If this is my time to go,” she told me, “my legal team will continue undeterred. But there are millions who care so much and feel so powerless about the future, and I would love to see them begin to understand the power of this one, simple law to protect the Earth – to realise it’s possible, even straightforward. I wish I could live to see a million Earth Protectors standing for it – because I believe they will.”

Businesses should be liable for the harm they do. Polly Higgins has launched a push to make ecocide an international crime

Illustration by Eva Bee
Illustration by Eva Bee

Why do we wait until someone has passed away before we honour them? I believe we should overcome our embarrassment, and say it while they are with us. In this spirit, I want to tell you about the world-changing work of Polly Higgins.

She is a barrister who has devoted her life to creating an international crime of ecocide. This means serious damage to, or destruction of, the natural world and the Earth’s systems. It would make the people who commission it – such as chief executives and government ministers – criminally liable for the harm they do to others, while creating a legal duty of care for life on Earth. 

I believe it would change everything. It would radically shift the balance of power, forcing anyone contemplating large-scale vandalism to ask themselves: “Will I end up in the international criminal court for this?” It could make the difference between a habitable and an uninhabitable planet.


From Ecocide to Ecolibrium: The Great Turning | Polly Higgins | TEDxUppsalaUniversity

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An easy, cost-effective way to address climate change? Massive reforestation


Quinte Conservation has a tree seeding program. Potential landowners may be eligible for a subsidized program.

As the implications of climate change become starker and the world faces up to a biodiversity crisis that threatens humanity’s existence, a group of campaigners from across the world are saying there is one clear way to get us out of this mess, but that governments are ignoring it.

In an open letter published in the British newspaper, The Guardian, the group tells governments that the best and cheapest way to avert a climate catastrophe is to heal nature by restoring and replanting degraded forests and by better conserving the natural world.

They call for the defense, restoration and reestablishment of forests, peatlands, mangroves, salt marshes, natural seabeds, and other crucial ecosystems, to remove and store large amounts of carbon from the air. The protection and restoration of these ecosystems can help minimize a sixth great extinction, they say.

The group says that nearly a third of the greenhouse gas reductions needed to hold temperatures to a 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) rise can be provided by the restoration of natural habitats. But natural solutions are calculated to have attracted just a small fraction of the funding so far committed, according to journalist an author George Monbiot, one of the signatories.

Protecting and restoring natural forests is seen as vital. Trees suck carbon dioxide from the air and store itNearly one-quarter of all the emissions reductions pledged by countries in the 2015 Paris agreement could come from tree planting and restoration. The U.N. has challenged countries to restore 865 million acres of farm and forest land by 2030 — an area bigger than India. And countries are responding. MORE