It’s encouraging to find agreement across the political divide on the potential of new technologies to combat climate change, reduce animal suffering and supplant massive agricultural subsidies. The Adam Smith Institute recently released a paper on the topic that made many of the same points as George Monbiot (Lab-grown food will end farming – and save the planet, Journal, 8 January).
One overlooked benefit of lab-grown food is that it may help the UK tackle the crisis in housing affordability. As farming is superseded by precision fermentation, the significant amount of land currently used for livestock farming (including parts of the green belt) will be freed up for development in places that people actually want to live.
However, we’d take a different lesson from the promise of lab-grown meat. Free-market environmentalism and harnessing the power of innovative technologies – supported by market-based measures like a border-adjusted carbon tax – can successfully tackle the problem of manmade climate change without fundamentally uprooting the way we run society. Saving the planet doesn’t have to cost us the earth.
Adam Smith Institute
• There are fundamental reasons why the Solar Foods system that George Monbiot refers to can’t compete with plants for sustainable food production.
The supply of minerals for bacteria has to be assembled chemically, with all the chemical industry’s environmental downsides. By contrast, plant roots pull the right minerals in the right proportions out of mixed-up traces in the environment, using solar energy to fuel selective concentration at no cost, generating no heat or chemical pollution and requiring no purified water.
The machinery by which plants acquire raw materials is itself built by the plant using solar energy in a non-polluting process, not made in a factory. Likewise, the light-energy-trapping machinery of plants is assembled on a planetary scale, with none of the unwelcome by-products of heat and chemical pollution associated with the fabrication of solar cells and wind turbines, and with the generation of hydrogen from water by electricity.
The claim that “the hydrogen pathway used by Solar Foods is about 10 times as efficient as photosynthesis” is meaningless if we’re not told which aspects of the two processes are being compared.
Unlike food from plants, no industrially generated food could provide the right mix of dietary constituents essential for health, such as balanced vitamins, minerals and bulk fibre. Supplying these as additives cancels any advantage of electric food. Plants are still the only source of food with long-term sustainability.
David E Hanke
• There is much food for thought in George Monbiot’s paean to precision fermentation. He has undoubtedly made the case that agricultural business as usual is not an option. However, his techno-utopianism needs to come with a hefty side order of the precautionary principle.
He acknowledges the likely impact on the agricultural sector, arguing that governments should “help farmers into other forms of employment” (that worked out well for the miners and steelworkers), and that “strong anti-trust laws” will limit the commercial rapaciousness of the new producers (ditto the digital giants and fossil fuel companies). Millions of people globally grow, hunt or raise food not to make money, but to feed their families. Where will they get the cash to buy the new stuff? The science may seem simple, but the politics is a minefield.
On top of that we are talking about food, not fuel. Vitamin supplements are less effective for health and wellbeing than a varied, mostly plant-based diet. Will foods based on individual proteins meet all our dietary requirements as well as the complex foods we have evolved to consume? What will be the impact on our gut microbiomes? Or our immune systems? Taste, smell, colour and texture all play a part in palatability: enjoyment is a critical part of our food psychology. No doubt the food processing industry will rise to the challenge of making farmfree food fun, but it could take decades.
A rapid switch to such foods would be a massive experiment on the global public: there would need to be clinical trials. We will not reap the potential advantages if the consequences are not fully explored.
• Globally, over 1.3 billion people rely on livestock farming for their livelihoods, either as farmers or as part of the livestock food supply chain. Meat and dairy have known health benefits, and consumption of animal-based food during early life has been linked with lower levels of malnutrition and improved health outcomes.
In many ways, British farming is the envy of the world, with high levels of sustainability and sensible land use – for example, most sheep are raised on land that could not be used for any other purpose – and the National Farmers’ Union has committed to the sector being carbon neutral by 2040.
It is important to acknowledge that certain types of livestock farming may have issues with sustainability and climate change. But it is not true of all farming systems; and the issues that do exist are being dealt with using the latest research into genetics and biotechnology – for example, recent research has shown that certain types of seaweed can reduce methane emissions from cattle to close to zero.
High-profile movements such as EAT-Lancet and Veganuary gain widespread press coverage, yet the fact that the World Health Organization rejected the EAT-Lancet recommendations was largely unreported, and a recent analysis of sales data showed that Veganuary in 2019 was not associated with a reduction in meat and dairy sales. Farmer data also shows that increased sales of alternative milks have not seen a corresponding reduction in dairy sales.
The global food system, consumer choices and climate change are incredibly complex issues, and anyone who proposes simple solutions is almost certainly not in possession of all the relevant facts and data. Livestock are an important part of humanity’s future food needs.
Prof Mick Watson
University of Edinburgh
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