‘Soylent yellow’: Is artificial protein really a solution to food production?


By Kurt Cobb, originally published by Resource Insights

via Resilience - January 12, 2020


The 1973 dystopian science fiction film “Soylent Green” is set in the year 2022, just one year after a nonfictional Finnish company hopes to begin selling an artificially produced yellow protein-laden flour created by bacteria that the company says will revolutionize food production.


The flour is derived from vats of yellow bacteria whose fermentation process create a yellow protein that when dried looks like flour. That yellow flour contains 50 percent protein, 20 to 25 percent carbohydrates and 5 to 10 percent fat. This basic foodstuff can then presumably be turned into products such as meat substitutes, bread products and filler in myriad foods needing a protein boost.


The entire process takes place indoors and the company claims that it dramatically reduces the amount of water, land and other resources needed to grow or raise the equivalent amount of protein using modern farming techniques.


The normally sober-minded environmental columnist, George Monbiot, tells us that this process may be 20,000 times more efficient than farming and could in the future produce protein that is one-tenth the cost of animal protein. So-called “farm-free” foods as a category could lead to the collapse of the global livestock industry by 2035 when industry boosters expect meat to be grown primarily in factories.


What makes Monbiot a fan? It is the possibility of returning vast tracts of land to the wild for regrowth that could potentially reverse climate change. These food production methods also address the growing need for food among a continuously increasing human population in a world now cursed with climate change—climate change so bad that it will turn our current breadbaskets into dustbowls.


Can we blame Monbiot for looking for solutions, any solutions that won’t involve the collapse of human society?


But can such methods actually do what they promise? And, if they can, do we want them?


The first problem I see is that food is as much a cultural artifact as a biological necessity. And, growing it is as much a cultural act as preparing it and eating it. The disappearance of farms in favor of industrial vats will certainly take some getting used to.


Second, farming has been a robust form of food production for at least 10,000 years. We have a lot of knowledge about how to do it, and we humans have been exceedingly successful at making it work for us. After all, there are almost 7.8 billion of us on Earth. What happens if this new, barely tried system doesn’t work in the long run and we find out only after much of our farming knowledge has disappeared. Keep in mind that most of the knowledge about farming isn’t in books. It’s in farmers’ minds. What happens when we have few or none of those minds left to reteach us how to grow food.


Third, the unintended consequences of switching much of our food supply over to factory production will undoubtedly be many and significant...


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