Nov 1, 2018
Deforestation, reduction in farming area and climate breakdown is cringing the future of food in the world. In such situation what needs to be done?
Could we go beyond even a plant and animal-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 10 times more efficient?
This sounds like science fiction, but it is already approaching commercialization. For the past year, a group of Finnish researchers has been producing food without either animals or plants. Their only ingredients are hydrogen-oxidizing 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) that 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 electrolyze water, producing hydrogen, which feeds bacteria that turn it back into water. Unlike other forms of microbial protein (such as Quorn), it requires no carbohydrate feedstock – in other words, no plants.
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.
According to the researchers’ estimates, 20,000 times less land is required for their factories than is needed 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 (£13) a megawatt hour (a few years hence), their process becomes cost-competitive with the cheapest source of soya.
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 literally need immediate answer?