Getting more serious about food system breakdown

Combativeness and moral disdain pervades recent public discussion of environmental problems. It is not just one ‘side’ that resorts to such tactics. Take food and agriculture as an example. Some people speculate that eco-totalitarians will successfully force us to eat bugs and goo, whereas others oddly claim that anyone defending farmers is a far right extremist, obstructing the technological salvation of humanity and life on Earth. The AI generated image above is poking fun at the piety that’s in an unnecessarily binary discussion – as if we must all be steak lovers or steak haters, food tech fanatics or small farm purists. The famous climate activist Greta Thunberg has not descended into those silly binaries. Which is good, as they are unhelpful when we need a plurality of ideas on what to do about the unfolding breakdown of global food systems, as I chronicle in detail in Chapter 6 of my book “Breaking Together”. This blog coincides with the release of that chapter as a free audio (it is also available free from my University). 

Below is a small excerpt from the chapter, where I discuss my current understanding of both the potential and drawbacks of novel Food Technologies in responding to the global food situation. I do not conclude that everyone everywhere should only eat fake meat, or only eat steak, or only ever eat plants. Instead, I hope our conversations can return to something more sensible than that. If not, then urgent action might be further paralysed, and malnutrition spread when the breakdown of food systems accelerates, especially with the effects of the El Nino phenomenon soon upon us and set for the next few years. I say this is my “current understanding” as I am open to learning more as this situation unfolds and better analysis is shared. 

As I observed that Greta has a good sense of humour, I selected an AI image to mock the silliness of some of the recent discussions of this topic. I recommend ‘The Climate Book’, which she edited, as it is a decent summary of various ideas. The only exceptions are a chapter from Michael Mann which, not being grounded in psychology or sociology, misleads the reader about what motivates radical change, and one from David Wallace Wells that presents an uncritical view of corporatist authoritarian responses to the pandemic. With over 350 million forced into food insecurity due to those policy responses, it is frightening to think how worse it could have been if more African nations had succumbed to the global corporatist policy agenda (which they didn’t, not that the arrogant Western media reports that).

Excerpt from Chapter 6 of Breaking Together:

What’s brewing to avert breakdown?

I wasn’t sure if it was the fried grasshoppers or the fact they were offered as a topping on a croissant. I was in Oaxaca, Mexico, and my fellow conference goers tucked in to what we were told was a local delicacy. What counts as food is cultural: grasshoppers in Mexico; snails in France; horses, pigs and humans in some places, not others. But I didn’t want grasshoppers for breakfast. A popular story in YouTube-land is that the ecofascists want to make us eat bugs and fungal sludge. They don’t just mean Marmite or Mexican delicacies. Some of the backlash comes from the meat and dairy industry, worried that policies on greenhouse gas emissions might impact their business. But what is the reality with novel foods?

For years some researchers have worked on ideas for how we might feed ourselves if there was a global disaster that, for instance, blocked out the sun.[i] Their ideas were largely ignored until the last few years, when some investors have realised we are already within an unfolding environmental disaster that threatens our food supply. They are investing billions of dollars into companies that either grow meat and milk from individual animal cells (sometimes called cultivated meat) or use microbes to grow proteins (sometimes called precision fermentation). Because of the capital involved in this sector increasingly called ‘food tech’, there is now a lot of promotional content in written and video form, coming from think tanks, experts and journalists. Although I have discovered some of that to be quite misleading, the recent claims of some enthusiasts that food tech could save the world from societal collapse and allow us to restore the living world, rather than just be an interesting new food business that doesn’t harm animals, calls for some close attention given our current predicament. 

The potential is interesting, with some innovations looking better than others. There are companies growing fake meat from fungi, without needing either any genetic engineering or complicated processing. As long as you can source the water, energy, substrate inputs and fermentation vats, this form of food production could be done anywhere. I see no reason to object to a new choice of protein like that, which has lower ecological impact and does not harm animals.[ii] However, with the breakdown of global food systems underway, the question is what the energy and substrate demands will be for growing these meat-like products at a significant scale, as well as the industrial infrastructure required. And that’s where it gets more complicated than the food tech optimists like to tell us.

All the substrates used to grow the meat cells or the microbes require nitrogen in the form of ammonium (sulphate or nitrate), which is currently produced with natural/fossil gas as the main input.[iii] An assessment of viability at scale would need to examine what inputs would be needed for each ton of protein produced. Food tech optimists promote the potential for ammonium being produced using hydrogen from the electrolysis of water instead of from natural/fossil gas.[iv] Recognising the huge amounts of energy required for such a process, other enthusiasts imagine genetic engineers will find ways to fix into ammonia the nitrogen in our atmosphere. However, I have not yet seen any substantial evidence on which to assess such a claim. A report on the industry by McKinsey consultants mentions these issues but did not attempt calculations for what might be required for the visions of food tech promoters to be realised.[v]

By swapping out the use of photosynthesis by plants with industrially produced food that uses huge amounts of energy for hydrogen production, the energy crisis facing humanity would not be helped. It is helpful when proponents, such as journalist George Monbiot, attempt calculations of the energy requirements of replacing all human consumed protein with fermented protein. Although he concluded it would raise the world’s electricity demand by 11 percent, it was unclear to me whether he included all the energy requirements for the production of the substrates.[vi] No research I have come across has attempted a full lifecycle analysis of any of the food tech methods. Although we might hope technology will overcome its difficulties or limits, a central part of a scientific worldview is to estimate with data rather than treat technology as a magic that always delivers. When food tech optimists claim new nuclear reactors will solve the energy problems, they are ignoring the research we saw in Chapter 3 which demonstrates that is not possible.

‘Precision’ is an interesting choice of word, as it offers a positive connotation. Yet a more accurate term would be ‘genetically modified fermentation’. Because what most instances involve is the insertion of genetic code into a microbe so that it produces a desired protein substance during fermentation. Many of the food tech entrepreneurs reframe this by describing genetic engineering microbes as simply ‘3D printing’ the molecules they want. Except it is not that at all. Genetic engineering any organism poses the problem not only of potential allergic reactions in consumers, but the escape of the novel genetic arrangements into nature—something called ‘transgene escape’, which is well documented already for existing GM crops. Food tech poses its own risks of genetic pollution.[vii] Once outside of the vats, it is unclear what novel risks there might be. Due to their number and simplicity, gene mixing with non-GM microbes is likely and they might not be possible to contain once in the environment. The novel DNA arrangements will be producing entirely novel compounds from those microbes. Could these microbes end up producing such compounds in the gut of animals, including humans? Due to the particular mix of needs for such microbes to thrive, it is unlikely that would happen. But is it a risk worth taking? Who should decide and are they deciding for the whole of humanity? The regulations differ in different countries and tend to be focused on the direct impact on the consumer from eating residues in final products, rather than the issue of transgene escape affecting the environment.[viii] A better international framework, which would examine the potential hazards from each novel GM microbe, would help avoid mistakes that would be difficult or impossible to put back in the bottle.

With food system breakdown looming, clearly the stakes are high. Unfortunately, the discussion about food tech is polarised by people who think there is a binary choice to make about how to save the world. On the one side, people claim food tech is the answer and on the other side people claim agroecology is the answer.[ix] As a recent organic agroforester myself, I know that mimicking natural processes can successfully replace many of the industrial inputs to agriculture without decimating productivity, while requiring much more manual labour. However, I know there is no one answer to the global food crisis, nor even a multifaceted answer of both food tech and agroecology. Instead, the six hard trends outlined in this chapter mean the situation will continue to deteriorate. We can encourage a range of options that might help people feed themselves and others as best they can, while regenerating more patches of nature, whether gardened or wild, and focus as much on a more equitable and sufficiency-minded approach to food (which we explore more in Chapters 11 and 12). The polarisation reveals how anxious people who work on food and the environment have become. Some wish for a technological salvation from the situation, and so adhere to their view in a quasi-religious fashion. The fact that there are billions of dollars sloshing around food tech now is certainly not a disincentive for their continued devotion.

Will food tech feed billions of people as agricultural systems collapse due to changes in climate and biodiversity? The short answer is no, due to its resource demands, yet if managed and governed well, some novel food technologies will help to feed millions of people, while also presenting some uncertain risk of genetic pollution of the natural world. At present, the understanding is too influenced by, on the one hand, capitalist-funded entrepreneurs and promoters who sometimes mislead with their communications (to both oversell the potential and downplay risks), and on the other hand, people who want to ignore the looming food crisis and demonise all food tech (through commercial or ideological interests). It is unhelpful for food tech optimists to present their ideas in opposition to agroecology and agroforestry. Without urgent attention to redistribution, to cope better during the unfolding food crisis, more people may become suspicious that green capitalists and authoritarians in government want people to swap their cheeseburgers for a future of eating ‘fungal sludge’ and ‘insect goo’.

[i] Denkenberger, D.C. & Pearce, J.M. (2015). Feeding Everyone No Matter What: Managing Food Security After Global Catastrophe. Academic Press, London.

[ii] Primeroots (n.d.). Frequently asked questions.

[iii] Aro, N.; Ercili-Cura, D.; Andberg, M. et al. (2023). Production of bovine beta-lactoglobulin and hen egg ovalbumin by Trichoderma reesei using precision fermentation technology and testing of their techno-functional properties. Food Research International, 163, 112131.

[iv] The Royal Society (2020). Ammonia: Zero-carbon fertilizer, fuel and energy store. Policy briefing.

[v] Brennan, T.’ Katz, J.; Quint, Y. & Spencer, B. (2021). Cultivated meat: Out of the lab, into the frying pan. McKinsey & Company.

[vi] Monbiot, G. (2022). Regenesis: Feeding the World Without Devouring the Planet. Penguin.

[vii] Clark, M. & Maselko, M. (2020), Transgene biocontainment strategies for molecular farming. Frontiers in Plant Science, 11.

[viii] Southey, F. (2022). Regulating precision fermentation: Challenges and opportunities in marketing microbially-derived foods in Europe. Food Navigator Europe.

[ix] Lewis-Stempel, J. (2022). George Monbiot’s farming fantasies. UnHerd.