Artificial-food debate needs science, not science fiction

In recent months I have received many emails asking if I have 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.

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 super bugs 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 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.

About Keith Woodford

Keith Woodford is an independent consultant, based in New Zealand, who works internationally on agri-food systems and rural development projects. He holds honorary positions as Professor of Agri-Food Systems at Lincoln University, New Zealand, and as Senior Research Fellow at the Contemporary China Research Centre at Victoria University, Wellington.
This entry was posted in Agribusiness, Dairy, Land and water, Meat Industry. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Artificial-food debate needs science, not science fiction

  1. graybae4567 says:

    The Lab. food brigade ignore the total health benefits of GRASS feed unprocessed MEAT.
    The Media ever so keen for an emotive headline keep pushing this line ignoring the effects of very high carbohydrate on the ever increasing % of inflammatory diseases affecting the human population.
    Fact is all the vegetarians etc 75% change back after 7 years. As you say Keith we need Fact not science fiction.There is very little responsibility from the media on this and most issues.
    We remain very great full for your investigative approach on the matters you write on.

  2. Kate Moriarty says:

    I appreciate your input re artificial food and respectfully suggest that, in addition to your comments, the micronutrients in real food (vitamins and minerals) are essential for a healthy body and biome – and almost impossible to provide artificially in the best proportions. Biodiversity is key and to be ignored at our peril. Living things are more than just the sum of their parts.

  3. Dead right,Keith. The proper way to measure sustainability is by a rightly scoped life-cycle based assessment which reveals the whole picture. It is very unlikely that artificial food manufacturer in massive factories (even if they are high tech souped-up laboratories) have a lower carbon or total footprint than field-raised stock. I have yet to see a footprint report from these promoters that addresses the correct scope – key elements are left out. One should always compare apples with apples, if you will. I hope the scientists working in our food industry are on to this. Happy New Year!

  4. Greg van Paassen says:

    Thanks, Keith.

    These “reports” (really, Peter Pan style wishes) can be discounted immediately on the basis of the claimed timetable alone. It is just silly to suggest that something can go from lab project to a globally significant part of a politically important industry in ten years, without the impetus of war. There are many steps along the way; each step is time-consuming; and the atttrition rate at each step is high.

    You’ve looked at some of the technical aspects of supply, Keith. There’s also the demand side.

    To replace an existing successful product, a new product must be significantly better to the end user in three ways. It must be more convenient to obtain and use; it must be meaningfully cheaper; and it must be better in other qualities that are important to the buyer. (Or its use must be enforced by regulation.) Exceptional products may make it with only two of the three, but I can’t think of any such.

    Plant based quasi-meats may eventually have one and a half of these. Bacterial flour, maybe half of one (although I can’t say which one). Absent regulation, neither of them will be any more than another choice on the menu, and a minority one.

    Food production is a matter of national security for most nations, even those that have not experienced famine for well over a century. There’s a lot of legislation and regulation enshrining current methods of food production. Bacterial flour will have a very steep up-hill political battle to replace photosynthetic production, and few and lukewarm political allies.

    (Light-hearted aside: I blame the Disney Corporation for things such as these “reports”. For generations, Disney has been telling impressionable people (children) that if you wish for something hard enough, it will come true. That belief is doing material damage.)

  5. David Porter says:

    Thanks again Keith. To coin a phrase, the devil is in the disclaimers and this one is no different.

    It also amazes me that George Monbiot can get so excited about industrially grown food when he won’t contemplate industrially grown (his phrase) crops and animals. He won’t even accept the feeding of GMO maize/soymeal to animals let alone have it grown in his country. Has the whiff of hypocrisy to me!

    I was discussing a new water treatment with a broiler farmer recently. He was getting excited about a possible reduction of the feed conversion ratio. He is producing broiler chickens in a shed about 20 years old so has higher levels of disease challenge etc, compared to new sheds. He is getting about 1.5:1 a the moment and the best of his competitors are getting below 1.4:1. 3:1 and eventually achieving 2:1 for this doesn’t sound very good really and is certainly not a step forward.

    As you say, our existing agricultural systems will continue to gradually evolve with the occasional revolution like the Green Revolution in the 50’s/60’s and will likely be barely recognisable in 100 years time. This is as it has always been. Lab grown food will likely have a bigger role in the future but, as with all of these things, without some serious advances/revolutions in the technology, it will be a long time before it is able to be competitive with the grass grown stuff. As we’re constantly told with the latest cure for cancer after promising initial results, “the vaccine/tablet/treatment is about five years from commercial release”. When five years comes, or more likely five days, there is no new vaccine/tablet/treatment and the media have moved on to the next thing.

    Let me do some RethinkX-esque speculation. The next green revolution might be something like increasing the ability of plants to be more efficient in capturing and using sunlight. With a little genetic manipulation of chlorophyll….oh, I forgot, GMO technology is bad apparently.

  6. Pingback: Rural round-up | Homepaddock

  7. Daniel Viotti says:

    MUCHAS GRACIAS.
    KEITH.
    POR HACERNOS PENSAR.

  8. Keith Woodford says:

    This is a comment from Brian Dingwall, which failed to post, and which i have now added on his behalf.
    KeithW

    “Couple of things Keith, fixing nitrogen is also very energetically expensive, and scale is an issue. The people of the world consume roughly a bit over a million tonnes of meat per day. So while it is relatively easy to see niche products catering to a market sensitised to the issues of animal husbandry and conversion of muscle and by products into meat, full replacement of all animal products with restructured vegetable protein or fermentation products would seem to be a long way off.
    Another issue to which you allude is that conversion of muscle to meat results in the disassembly of the animal into a raft of quite different products…in my day in the industry I think we had over 4000 different “standpack” numbers for beef alone. Ie the number of quite distinct “products” the customers could specify, and most of these were then sold to customers who further processed them into other retail products. I’m not sure the fledgling businesses are ready for the level of complexity and variety of “meat” the present industry delivers.”

  9. anderson says:

    I’m a meat lover – or – I was a meat lover – until the supermarkets out-muscled the local butcher-shops. Thereafter the quality of the meat became a lottery

    The biggest gripe was when they started manufacturing scotch fillet from scrqaps and gluing the scraps together with food-glue

  10. Beefeater says:

    Very well written and with rational, sound sober, second thought. Pity such would not go viral, like George Monbiot’s wordsmithing!

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