This article first appeared in the Spring edition of Birdwatching Magazine
Anyone remember the ScFi film ‘Soylent Green’? To condense the plot it was a dystopian world where everyone ate a green paste supposedly produced from soya beans, but, the plot reveals, it was actually made up of finely milled people. Personally, I see this as the ultimate in recycling and would not object at all to my eventual disposal in this manner. On the other hand, whilst I am, of course, of the tastiest potential being all sweetness and light… there are a good few people out there that might turn the stew bitter. I’m not sure I’d want them for supper, and there’s the rub. I’m happy to return to the cycle of life in the most basic of ways, but less willing to eat other people. The same problem is said to exist with a food production process that could, quite literally, save the world. It is a process such that, an area the size of our capital city is sufficient to produce enough to feed the entire world!
The process is called ‘precision fermentation’. Its not new and is already used to create additives and pharmaceuticals… turns out 98% of the insulin produced for diabetics like me is made this way. Microbes feed on hydrogen or water, carbon dioxide and tiny amounts of fertiliser. In its basic form it produces a flour almost twice as rich in protein as that from pulses.
There are no waste products, it uses a fraction of the water that agriculture does and, pound for pound, as much as 150,000 times less land than beef production! The basic flour can be tailored to stand in for almost any foodstuff, albeit using a lot of flavourings and the like. Speaking as a vegetarian I get a bit fed up with every bit of mock meat I eat tasting mostly of sage or thyme, like a soggy sausage. But, hey, things have improved of late and most people’s taste buds can be fooled into thinking they are eating the real thing. We just need to get over the squeamishness of eating bacteria. Most Quorn eaters have probably forgotten that the basis of their not-chicken meal is a soil fungus.
As for the advantages… well factories can be set up anywhere… especially of land that is no use to man or beast. Maybe on the edge of desserts where they can be powered by solar panels and use desalinated seawater. Its not cheap now, but on a large scale it could feed the world for a pittance.
Topping the list of reasons why we should all get behind this science fiction and ensure it becomes a reality are birds and every other critically endangered critter. Once we stop using land to grow sheep and cows, palm oil and soya, and stop plundering the sea for cat food and fertiliser there will be plenty of land and sea re-wilding away. Corners of which can still produce a bit of high-quality fodder for foodies.
Just imagine a world where land too poor for crops and livestock and of marginal use to the wild world is where our food is produced. Every country has natural or man-made Badlands. Post-industrial polluted places and desserts have the space, so all food can be grown on everyone’s doorstep. That should leave most land to the birds and beasts and we can use our backyards to supplement the microbe meals with a bit of fresh organic veg and maybe even some free-range chickens.
Ironically, Soylent Green the movie was based on a book by Harry Harrison called… Make Room, Make Room!