Agriculture destroys the earth. Is microbial nutrition a realistic alternative?

In the last 10,000 to 12,000 years, the way we produce our food has virtually destroyed the earth. The food system is bursting at the seams. Climate change and the continued growth of world population and prosperity provide the final push for complete collapse.

According to British author and environmentalist George Monbiot, there really is an alternative to our destructive food system. Genetically modified microorganisms (bacteria, yeasts, molds), grown in stainless steel vessels, provide all the components necessary to replace meat, dairy products, vegetables, fruit, grains and potatoes – in short, everything on our plate.

regenerating. To feed the world without consuming the planet van Monbiot is causing a lot of dust, both in classical and social media. Especially in circles that favor ‘small-scale, organic and local’ as an alternative to conventional farming. Monbiot writes, for example, that there is probably no product that does more harm than beef from an organic company – angry reactions from that quarter are understandable. Vegetarians and ecologists, on the other hand, are more positive about it regenesis – especially because Monbiot advocates the removal of animals from the food chain. Ecologists are particularly charmed by the space that this would free up for nature.

Own orchard

Monbiot begins his book by examining a clod of soil from his own apple orchard. Armed with a magnifying glass, he is amazed by the enormous variety of springtails, mites and other insects, and by the burrowing appetite of the earthworms, which dig and maintain some 8,000 kilometers of tunnels per year.

Invisible, even with a magnifying glass, there is also a whole world to discover of microorganisms located on, between and even in the roots of plants. He therefore does not understand that he has made so many distant journeys to exotic places, while there is an ecosystem under his feet that is at least as complex and wondrous as the jungle of the Amazon.

In the following chapters, Monbiot outlines how humanity is destroying the rich ecosystem of the earth by plowing it over, overfeeding it with fertilizers and poisoning it with pesticides. In our search for more food, especially animal protein, we are also destroying terrestrial ecosystems. Directly by converting wild nature into agricultural land and indirectly by emitting nitrogen and greenhouse gases.

In his argument, Monbiot combines personal experiences with data from the scientific literature. He effortlessly connects algae blooms through fertilizer discharges to rivers he used to swim in to the tipping points that await us if we cross the planet’s borders. The pattern of drought and rainfall in his apple orchard also reminds him of the global effects of climate change, which are already visible.

Monbiot then focuses on people who want to farm in a different way. Without e.g. manure or animal manure or with the combination of arable farming and forestry (‘agro-forestry’). He writes empathetically about it, but these kinds of alternatives do not really provide a solution, he says. Yields are too low, which means that much more land is needed to produce sufficient, healthy and affordable food for all. More land for agriculture means even less space for nature.

One-sided sources

If you click through to his sources – the benefits of an e-book – Monbiot appears to be quite selective in his choices. When it comes to the effects of climate change, for example, he mainly refers to articles based on ‘work as usual-scenario’. The scenario where nothing significant changes in human activity is considered highly unlikely, even by the IPCC climate panel. And Monbiot’s claim that agricultural land is expanding is contradicted by recent figures showing that less land has been used worldwide to produce more food since the turn of the century.

Another problem is Monbiot’s claim that there is a worldwide network of multinational suppliers and buyers who direct not only production but also consumption towards a so-called ‘Global Standard Farm’ and a ‘Global Standard Diet’. Driven by the pursuit of profit, these companies squander the diversity of crops, products and business practices that have traditionally existed in agriculture.

Sun frame ignores the enormous variety of local conditions that farmers have to deal with. Not only physical conditions, such as climate, land and water management, but also the ecological, economic and social prerequisites can be very different.

A similar tendency towards simplification characterizes the remainder of the book dealing with precision fermentation: food production by microorganisms. To be ahamoment experienced by Monbiot during a visit to Solar Foods in Helsinki. With a technology developed by NASA, this start-up makes proteins from bacteria that use hydrogen as an energy source and CO2 as a carbon source. The necessary hydrogen and the energy required for the process are produced using electricity from solar energy, hence the name Solar Foods.

Monbiot bakes a pancake from the protein-rich powder. It not only tastes surprisingly good, but also gives an insight into the future. ‘It’s a small pancake for man, a giant flip for mankind, he paraphrases moonwalker Neil Armstrong. A future where our daily menu is produced by genetically modified microorganisms in stainless steel reactor vessels.

Theoretically, it may be possible. Today there are already companies that make milk proteins, such as casein, without the use of a cow. The ‘blood’ in the veggie burgers in ‘Impossible Burger’ is made from genetically modified yeast cells. But it’s still a big step to create something that not only resembles milk, meat or Brussels sprouts in taste and appearance, but also nutritionally. I doubt that the few microbial products are the ban for a disruption of the food system.

Monbiot’s plea for a transition to microbial nutrition raises more questions than he answers in his book. Classic fermentation, such as making beer or yogurt, can still be done in the kitchen. However, precision fermentation involves large-scale industrial processes that require significant investments in knowledge and capital.

With this large scale, there is also a growing chance that diversity will disappear and the global standard menu, the Global Standard Diet, will become a reality. In his call for microbial-based ultra-processed food, Monbiot forgets that food is more than a container for calories and nutrients.

The enormous variety of foods – which we must really protect – is the result of a tradition that began ten thousand years ago and has enormous social and cultural significance. Within this, there is undoubtedly a place for microbial foods, but as a supplement, not as a replacement.

Also read the interview with David Wengrow: ‘The agricultural revolution is a myth’

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