ourEconomy: Opinion

If laboratory food is the answer, what is the question?

New food technologies will have important uses. But abolishing agriculture is not a realistic solution to the problems we face.

Ville Lähde
28 January 2020, 5.32pm
Image: PIxabay, Free for commercial use

For a Finnish researcher, it was gratifying to see a local scientific breakthrough receive international attention. The technology that allows protein to be grown “out of thin air” in a laboratory was created under the auspices of two public research institutions, and subsequently spun out as a tech company.

The same miracle that had been provided via ancient evolutionary pathways now has an artificial counterpart. It may sound a bit Star Trek, but it is true.

However, as a researcher, Finnish or otherwise, I was downhearted by George Monbiot’s prophetical approach to the topic in the Guardian. As Monbiot himself acknowledged, he is a bit of a Johnny-come-lately to straightforward technological enthusiasm. But he treads a well-worn path: a breakthrough in technology heralds a future where agriculture vanishes from the face of the planet. In a similar vein, vertical farms and many other innovations have been claimed to liberate humanity from soil, or rather soil from humanity.

Unadulterated technological fervour tends to invoke a categorical opposition: counter-arguments that deny technology offers any kind of solution to the ills of our age. This is not my intention. But to understand whether laboratory food can offer a wholesale answer to our problems of food production, we must first understand the urgent questions that need answering.

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The food systems of the world face three concurrent challenges. How to diminish the environmental impact of food production? How to make production less vulnerable to environmental changes, some of which are inevitable in the best of all worlds? And how to carry out the very mission of the food systems – feeding the people of the world? I will start with the last one, since it is here that technological proselytizers tend to stumble.

There are two to three billion hungry, malnourished or severely food insecure people in the world, and the number of chronically undernourished people is currently growing. The oft-quoted proclamation by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) states that the world needs 50 per cent more food production by 2050. However, this does not mean that the extra 50 per cent would “feed the world”. Rather it would satisfy the projected economic demand.

These are two very different things. Although there are production difficulties in some areas of the world, mostly hunger and food insecurity result from lack of economic access to food, lack of control and power over one’s resources, poor access to clean water and energy, social and economic inequality and faulty infrastructure. In a nutshell, hunger is an issue of poverty, and millions can suffer in the presence of plenty. Most of the severely food insecure people of the world are food producers.

Thus the destruction of agriculture envisioned by George Monbiot would result in the destruction of livelihoods across the world, not to mention all the secondary livelihoods connected to them. Even if more food is produced, it can result in more hunger, if people fall into poverty traps. “Farmfree” has a grim ring to it.

The second fundamental problem with such prognostications is a question of scale. Envisioning the replacement of all animal and plant protein production is grandiose enough, but it’s a whole another game to talk about ending all the grain fields on the planet. The scale is mind-boggling, especially when we are thinking about the rigid timetables and deadlines connected to the environmental problems Monbiot very rightly sees as a key issue. It is not enough to say that new technologies achieve scale “soon”. How soon is soon? Considering climate change, the target should be zero-carbon economies by mid-century and net negative carbon economies after that for quite some time.

Let us compare this to our current energy quandary. Even though low-carbon production is growing much faster than expected, it is not replacing fossil fuels nearly fast enough. Indeed it would be better to diminish the volume of the current energy budget in order to make the challenge more tenable. Against this background it seems irresponsible to propose that all biological capture of solar energy in all the fields of the world should be replaced with technological systems, resulting in burgeoning energy budgets of societies.

Thirdly, such stark contrast between the old ecologically destructive food production and the new ecologically benign technological sphere lumps all current forms of food production in the same class, with no differences. However, the core message of perhaps the most often quoted recent study in the journal Science was precisely that there are stark environmental differences in producing the same nutritional content with different methods. Changing not only the composition of diets but also the methods of production would have gigantic environmental consequences – without destroying the livelihood and food security of hundreds of millions and inflating the needed energy budgets.

The new breakthrough food technology will undoubtedly have important uses, especially in producing protein in areas where natural resources have become scarce and environmental conditions untenable. Supplementing diets is however a very different thing than leaving behind the very biological cycle of water, nutrients and solar energy that has sustained humanity and everyone else since the dawn of time.

In future centuries the human condition will undoubtedly be so different that it may be beyond recognition – much less familiar than Star Trek, in fact. But our current existential problems revolve around the decisions made, the livelihoods created or destroyed, and the infrastructures built within the next few decades.

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