Total Transformation of Our Extractive Global Food System

How Replacing Animal Farming with Microbial Proteins Could Feed the World and Save the Planet

As the prevailing global food system heads toward disaster, scientists are discovering exciting opportunities that could make nutritious food cheap, clean and abundant for all without hurting the planet. Nafeez Ahmed reports


Nafeez Ahmed, Byline Times (UK)

16 June 2022


The world is currently moving – as predicted by a number of scientific models – into an era of water, energy and food scarcity that could unravel the sinews of civilisation.


In part one of my exploration of this, I posited how a ‘global polycrisis’ – caused by climate-induced droughts in Asia, the Russia-Ukraine crisis and an intensifying global food crisis – could accelerate the “irreversible decline” of the Earth’s key natural and social systems.


I also explained how these very symptoms of decline also point to signals of hope – because disruptions to the existing food system could spur its transformation.


New scientific research confirms that the spectre of looming scarcity, far from being an innate and inevitable feature of nature, is instead a symptom of the constraints of the existing global system. It suggests we now have a range of powerful tools to create a global food system that, not only feeds everyone on the planet, but does so without pillaging the Earth.


A Key Solution: The Protein Revolution


The global food crisis could be eased by precision fermentation and cellular agriculture (PFCA) – technologies enabling the cheap, sustainable and efficient production of animal proteins without killing animals.


When powered by solar electricity, for instance, microbial protein production can be vastly more efficient than conventional industrial agriculture with minimal environmental impact.


It could, for instance, produce five times more soya beans per hectare than plants even in a country with low sunlight like the UK – and up to 10 times more in better conditions.


Microbial proteins are proteins produced by micro-organisms via fermentation. Precision fermentation allow these micro-organisms to be programmed to produce complex organic molecules such as proteins, with cellular agriculture permitting the production of specific animal proteins.


Two landmark studies released last month show how PFCA can play a fundamental role in transforming our global food systems.


A study published in Nature found that, if only 20% of beef production was displaced by microbial protein, it would slash annual deforestation and related carbon dioxide emissions by half, while also lowering methane emissions. If half of beef production was replaced, this would cut deforestation by 82%. But the study only scratched the surface of what’s possible.


Another team of scientists have found that a “closed-loop microbial production” system would be able to globally replace livestock industries, while dramatically eliminating negative environmental consequences.


Although the study focuses on mycoprotein (created from a naturally-occurring fungus), its lead author Alex Durkin of Imperial College Centre for Process Systems Engineering, told Byline Times that its findings are “supposed to represent microbial proteins generally” – including from PFCA.


That’s because all these approaches to protein production share the common features of “production in controlled environments, no dependence on animals, and more efficient land and crop utility”.


Impact reductions from the livestock industries, the study found, would decline “by 96%, 99%, 74% and 85% on climate change, land occupation, nitrogen fixation and freshwater consumption, respectively”.


So scaling up microbial production at the global level will not breach planetary boundaries, the study concludes.


And due to the nature of these technologies, the applications are diverse. The study points out that, with its shorter, cleaner production cycles – using a tiny fraction of the water, land and fertiliser of conventional industrial food production – “microbial protein can be harnessed to provide readily scalable protein security with vastly reduced environmental impacts, particularly beneficial for emergent nations where the increase in animal-sourced protein demand is expected to soar in response to socio-economic development”.


With such a small land footprint, it can also be scaled-up in “urban areas and countries which face arable land scarcity and depend largely on food imports” – which includes many countries in the Middle East and North Africa at risk of instability in the current crisis.


With no exposure to livestock diseases, microbial proteins can enable “sustained protein production through extreme events e.g. pandemic”.


Cascading Consequences ...


Total Transformation ...