After reporting on a scientific breakthrough that could see people eating protein produced from waste plastic, scientists are now presenting new research that solar-powered microbes, which can even be cultivated in desert areas, could be the future of food.
On Friday we reported on a scientific ‘breakthrough’ that could see people eating protein produced from – wait for it – waste plastic, and now another group of scientists is claiming that solar-powered microbes could be used to produce ‘nutritious’ food in the near future.
Just like the research on plastic protein, the new research on solar-powered microbes begins from the premise that the world is in the grip of a food crisis that is only going to get worse, especially as the impacts of man-made climate change take hold. Population growth and the increasing demand for ‘resource-intensive’ animal products are seen as factors that are driving a need for ‘more sustainable’ innovative food sources, rather than traditional agricultural solutions.
Microbes: Food for The Future?
Although microbes have played an important role in food production and preservation since the dawn of human history – in cheese and beer, for instance – microbes may come to play an even more prominent role in the food world of the future, according to the team led from the University of Göttingen, in research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Using computer simulations drawing directly from laboratory results, the researchers made models of large-scale microbial food production facilities which use solar energy, air, water, and nutrients to grow microbes.
In the model, the protein-rich biomass is harvested and processed. The resulting powder can be used as feed for animals, or as food for people. The researchers analysed the energy requirements for each step, from start to finish, taking into account electricity generation (from solar panels), electrochemical production of substrate for the microbes, microbe cultivation, harvesting, and processing of the biomass. Several types of microbes and growth strategies were also compared in order to identify the most efficient.
The study found that for each kilo of protein produced, solar-powered microbes require only 10% of the land area compared to even the most efficient plant crop — soybean. The study calculated that even in northern climates with less sunshine, solar-powered microbial foods could produce yields that far outstrip staple crops, while minimizing water and fertilizer use. The researchers also highlight that this production could be located in regions unsuitable for agriculture, such as deserts.
Believe it or not, but scientists have managed to make obese mice quite literally SWEAT off excess fat, simply by giving them a common immune protein. The scientists believe this could be used in future to treat overweight humans too.
Research on these microbes has already yielded ‘beneficial effects’ when fed to livestock and is already being produced on a large scale in the EU.
“We expect that microbial protein will also be beneficial as a supplement to our diets, since it provides a high-quality protein source composed of all essential amino acids, as well as vitamins and minerals,” explains first author Dorian Leger.
“This technology has the potential to support food production while preventing damage to the environment. Current farming methods contribute to polluted ecosystems and depleted water reserves worldwide.”
The World Economic Forum has taken a very keen interest in alternative food sources
At the moment, 30-40% of the Earth’s land is used for farming, yet one in ten people are undernourished according to 2020 statistics.
Leger says, “Integrating the cultivation of nutrient-rich microbes with renewable energy systems, such as solar panels, has the potential to produce more food with less resources. This could free up vast amounts of agricultural land, and, in addition, prevent the further destruction of natural ecosystems thereby making a valuable contribution to conservation and sustainability whilst promoting food availability globally.”
Whatever the potential, on paper, for these new foodstuffs, the question remains whether consumers will have a free choice to choose to eat them, or whether they will be compelled to. In our somewhat pessimistic analysis, we believe it is likely to be the latter rather than the former, as we outlined in our article on plastic protein.
“The age of dietary choice may very swiftly be coming to an end,” we wrote.
We pointed to various developments and near-misses in recent months, including the report of the UK government’s National Food Strategy, which stopped just short of recommending a dreaded ‘meat tax’ but left them a distinct possibility. One commentator, on British national television, even said that “Boris Johnson is going to have to stop advising people to fly less and eat less red meat and find ways of forcing people”.
Christopher Snowdon’s appearance on GB News alerted many for the first time to the possibility that the government might legislate to prevent them from eating meat
We also noted that, alongside growing signs of governmental willingness to force people to change their diets, brands are now employing an increasingly shameless shame-based model of advertising, with Oatly’s ‘Help Dad’ campaign being a particularly unpleasant example.
“At the commercial level, companies such as Oatly and other plant-based brands are resorting to increasingly manipulative tactics to shame consumers into stopping buying animal-based food products. In doing so, they are bolstered by scientific research which shows that claims about the taste and health benefits of plant-based animal-product alternatives fall flat with consumers, and that ‘social pressure’ is a much more effective way to get them to give up their favourite foods.”
Did you know that soybean oil, the most widely consumed oil in the US, causes serious genetic dysregulation and weight gain mice. What could the possible implications be for humans? Click here to find out.
Then there are the commentators and academics, like S. Matthew Liao, whose tone has become increasingly shrill in recent years as they advocate a variety of, frankly, sinister ‘solutions’ to the problem of traditional agriculture and meat consumption.
A bioethicist at NYU, Liao, for instance, has advocated forcibly editing people’s genes to make them allergic to red meat, in a manner similar to the effects suffered by people bitten by the lone star tick, and shrinking people by 25% to make their carbon footprints (as well as their literal footprints) smaller.
The odds definitely appear to be stacked against lovers of meat and animal products, and although there is evidence that perhaps a majority of people are attached enough to meat to seriously countenance dying younger rather than giving it up, only time will tell if dietary choice remains a substantial part of individual liberty, or if it falls by the wayside in the quest to ‘save the planet’.
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