Sunday, November 06, 2022

Good News for People who Eat

The American diet, high in animal meat and fat, isn’t good for people's health or for the environment. It generates a lot of greenhouse gases from energy consumption and animal waste, and it requires fertilizers and pesticides.  It consumes natural resources and soil, so it can’t be sustained indefinitely, especially if everyone else in the world wants to eat the same menu. But there is a solution that may be coming soon.

Several companies are making a plant-based products that are an imitation of meat. The best-known ones are Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, which have products on the market. These products may be more healthful than animal products, although they are highly processed to give the appearance of meat.  

Artificial milk products are replacing a large fraction of the demand for cow's milk with nut or soy milk.  These vegetable "milk" products are also highly processed to make them seem like animal milk.  Some people have the impression that "natural" products are better than processed ones.  Actually, they are made from the same chemicals.  In some ways, processed food is better, because the quality control and uniformity is better and it is possible to control spoilage and shelf-life.

Another kind of food that is under development is cultured-cell meat, which is grown from stem cells of animals in growth medium to make meat products without animals. There are several start-up companies working on this effort.

These efforts make products that can replace the demand for meat. But they require a significant amount of manufacturing and processing to seem real. They use fewer resources than large herds of animals, but they still require significant amounts of energy and resources.  One well-publicized issue is that it takes a gallon of water to grow one almond.

There is an entirely different approach to a new food source that could save a sigificant amount of energy and land. This effort could provide a new kind of staple food that replaces both agricultural animals and plants. It could provide a much more secure food source that is less vulnerable to bad weather or changing climate.

There are two primary companies involved. A Finnish company called Solar Foods ( has produced prototype food they call solien. According to their website, “Solein is 65-70 % protein, 5-8 % fat (primarily unsaturated fats), 10-15 % dietary fibres and 3-5 % mineral nutrients.”

An American company called Air Protein ( has received $32 million in investment. They seem to have a similar approach, but there is less information on their website.

The goal of the companies is to grow edible microorganisms. The species of microorganisms produce energy from metabolism of hydrogen gas, and grow from carbon dioxide and water, as well as some nutrients. The product is high in protein and vitamins.

This approach has multiple advantages. It provides a food source as the base of the food pyramid, even more basic than plants. It doesn’t require using large areas of agricultural land to grow plants, and then even more area to feed animals and dispose of animal waste. Each stage has costs in efficiency of producing food calories, so food from simpler organisms has significant advantages.

The new method also separates light collection from food production. Light can be collected by solar panels or wind generation to produce electricity, which can be used to generate hydrogen. The hydrogen is transported to the bioreactors, which use minimal land area. It isn’t necessary to grow plants in sunlight as light collectors to make chemical energy in plant tissue. This is another improvement in efficiency.

Adoption of this food source on a large scale would alleviate a number of pressing environmental problems. The overuse of agricultural land and water could be reduced and potentially eliminated. The use of fertilizer and pesticides could end, getting rid of environmental run-off with collateral damage to wild creatures and ecosystems. The large land areas devoted to wheat, corn, and rice monocultures could be reduced, returning land to wilderness for use by other species.

It is unlikely that all agriculture would end, because people will still want variety and some selection of plants and animals. Natural products will be used for variety and flavor. But reactors have the advantage of quality control and protection from weather disasters. The food supply will be more secure. Production in bioreactors reduces the vulnerability of the food supply to bad weather. No matter how inhospitable the weather becomes in agricultural areas due to extreme events or changing climate, there shouldn’t be mass food shortages. Energy for hydrogen production can be collected in deserts or over water, without a need for arable land.  This could at last eliminate hunger and starvation.  It could reduce the impact of climate change.

Further in the future, this kind of food source can be transplanted to space colonies or colonies on other planets. It would remove a restriction that keeps people on the Earth.


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