The artificial-food debate has lost sight of the fundamental biological and physical sciences

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In recent months Professor Keith Woodford has received many emails asking if he has seen the RethinkX report demonstrating how in ten years’ time animal proteins will have been largely replaced by artificial foods. By 2030, demand for cattle products will supposedly have fallen by 70%. At that time the global grasslands can be returned to nature. This is his response.

Then this last week the emailers have been asking if I have seen George Monbiot’s report in The Guardian on how artificial foods will replace both plant and animal foods, thereby saving the planet.  According to Monbiot, this food of the future will be made in big laboratory-like factories in which the energy to drive bacterial growth-processes comes from hydrogen separated out from within water molecules.

My response to both the RethinkX and Monbiot reports is that we need more science and less science fiction when shaping the path ahead.

The RethinkX report is being widely quoted by many people.  In the sub-title, it self-describes as foretelling “the second disruption of plants and animals, the disruption of the cow, and the collapse of industrial livestock farming”. The first disruption was supposedly domestication of plants and animals many thousands of years ago, allowing human societies to transform from hunter-gatherer lifestyles.

These are very big claims about the future and raise the question as to just who these RethinkX people are.   I have been trying to work that out. I note that RethinkX self-describes as an ‘independent think tank’.

The two authors of the RethinkX food and Agriculture report are Catherine Tubb and Tony Seba. Tubb’s online biography lists a Cambridge University PhD in Chemistry. Seba’s biography says he is an engineer, serial entrepreneur, keynote speaker and thought-leader (his terms) with a Stanford MBA. Seba’s biography also says that he has taught at the Auckland University Business School.  Well, so far so good. 

The report is beautifully written and provides an impression of strong evidence. Accordingly, most people who seek my views are worried as to the implications for their own agri-food related businesses.

I always say back to people to go and look at the report disclaimers, which no-one seems to notice. The disclaimers include the following:

“Any findings, predictions, inferences, implications, judgments, beliefs, opinions, recommendations, suggestions, and similar matters in this report are statements of opinion by the authors and are not statements of fact. You should treat them as such and come to your own conclusions based upon your own research.”

And then a little further down:

“This report includes possible scenarios selected by the authors. The scenarios are not designed to be comprehensive or necessarily representative of all situations. Any scenario or statement in this report is based upon certain assumptions and methodologies chosen by the authors. Other assumptions and/or methodologies may exist that could lead to other results and/or opinions.”

I also send people to the seldom-read Appendix where it says that:

“Our analysis uses sugar (glucose) as the main feedstock, with efficiency trending from 3kgs of feedstock per 1kg of protein produced (a conversion ratio of 3:1) toward a ratio of less than 2:1 by 2030. There is also scope for other carbohydrates to be used for feedstock.”

That feedstock assumption acknowledges that a tank of bacteria cannot manufacture their own energy.  So, these new genetically modified organisms that will supposedly shape the future of food will need to themselves be supplied with a source of energy.  In that regard, I note that the assumed conversion efficiency of these superbugs is inferior to what can be achieved already with fish farming. 

Turning to the Monbiot report the key example is bacteria-produced flour. Monbiot, who has a BA in zoology, reports that:

“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.”

Now, let’s just stop at that point and assess this use of hydrogen as the source of energy. How is this hydrogen going to give up the necessary energy?

The answer is that turning water into separate hydrogen plus oxygen is indeed possible by electrolysis. However, that process requires considerable energy. The hydrogen can then be burned and turned back into water, thereby releasing the stored energy within.

The only problem is that energy supplied in this way to the primordial soup of bacteria can never be more than the energy supplied to the water during the process of electrolysis. So, where is the energy going to come from to drive the process of electrolysis?

If we go back to basics, then all energy on earth comes from or has come from, a single source. It is called ‘the sun’. The hydrogen is simply one means of storing the sun’s energy. If the world is going to be saved by artificial food, then we will need a huge number of solar panels and wind turbines, along with a transmission and storage system, so as to get the sun’s energy transferred across the world to the big tanks of bacteria.

In contrast, in our current food-producing world we use plants to capture the sun’s energy.  It is a marvellous process called photosynthesis. It is something plants do naturally all over the world.

Within green plant cells and using the sun’s energy, photosynthesis turns carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrate-predominant products, with some of these converted subsequently within plants to protein and fat.  Other minerals come from the soil. We then use ruminant animals to take some of these plants through the food chain to produce meat and milk-based products with a higher density of protein and fat.

In contrast to ruminants, we humans do not have the capability to digest grass. Just try it and you will get a very sore stomach. But rumen bacteria allow cattle, sheep, goats and deer to digest grass in a way that we cannot do.

As for plant-based artificial meat, it is easy to forget that meats containing plant material have been with us for a long time. One such product is called a ’sausage’.

Fake burgers made from plants are no great challenge to make. However, a fake beef steak or lamb chop is a lot more complex. Also, no-one has yet replicated mammalian milk with anything closely resembling the complexity of nature’s product.

Now, none of what I say here should be interpreted as implying that agri-food systems of the future will be the same as now. Nor am I implying that new artificial foods won’t have a place. What I am saying is that a healthy dose of scepticism is appropriate when entrepreneurial shock-jock communicators start saying that meat, milk and even plant products are going to disappear.

A good starting point is to recognise Newton’s First Law that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. It can only be transformed.

Source: *Keith Woodford was Professor of Farm Management and Agribusiness at Lincoln University for 15 years through to 2015. He is now Principal Consultant at AgriFood Systems Ltd.

You can contact him directly here.

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