The days when food and beverages are made not in a farmyard or vineyard but in factories are upon us.
Wines without vines, booze without berries, beef without cows and fish without….well water!
Burger King is selling the ‘Impossible Whopper’, the equivalent of their Whopper burger, only this one is made entirely out of plant-based ingredients grown in labs.
And that is just the tip of the iceberg. With the world's population due to add another 2 billion people in the next 30 years, (that’s like adding another China, America, Mexico & Russia), the race is on to feed the human race without destroying the planet.
The UN forecasts that to feed 9 billion people will require a 20% expansion in water use, but water use already exceeds supply in many places, including a country like England where it rains a lot! Some estimates suggest that growing meat in labs could cause greenhouse gases from agriculture to drop by 80% or more!
There is also a global soil crisis as vast swathes of arable land lose their fertility because of erosion, compaction, contamination and simple over use. Think of the images of the central plains of America during the great depression.
Improving productivity through intensive farming practices is already pushing the boundaries of decency. The US guidelines allow as little as ½ a square foot per chicken for their ‘living’ conditions. The answer to that cannot be ‘extensification’ - increasing the amount of land used for farming. Housing is already unaffordable for many. Every acre used for farming means one less acre for homes not to mention forests, natural habitats etc.
zTo be clear, I am not one who subscribes to the theory that farming is a major cause of climate change, and I think the Green New Deal is deeply flawed, not least because it ignores the two most effective solutions – nuclear energy & population management. However, it is clear that the current trajectory for farming in not sustainable either economically or environmentally.
Which is where ‘farm free food’ comes in. Meat, seafood, wine, spirits produced in large factory labs or even by 3D printers. A bit like silicon memory chips are today.
For example, imagine being inside a corrugated iron shed covering an area the size of one and a half American Football fields where there are neatly stacked rows of basil, parsley and lettuce all growing without soil or natural light. You are not dreaming. You are standing in Europe’s largest vertical farm, the first using hydroponic technology to grow produce on a large scale.
Here plants grow on shelves, 17 rows of them, filling a 53,000 square foot space, all sunning themselves under the glow of LED light bulbs.
Security is controlled by iPad; the facility is airtight to prevent bacteria from entering. Just like clean rooms in high tech manufacturing facilities around the globe, visitors walk through air showers before entering, to blast off specks of dust. A handful of “growers” manage the whole ‘farm, only wearing sterile overalls and hairnets instead of jeans, boots and hats. The walls are a brilliant white to maximize light. Machines filter out ethylene from the air. A chemical that causes the breakdown of plant cells, so removing it tricks the plants into thinking they are fresh until the moment they leave.
They are grown using hydroponic technology instead of soil. They germinate on Rockwool insulation and are fed nutrients through water. This means that everything can be controlled to optimise the plant’s growth and the farm’s efficiency. The advantages are clear. While traditional farmers battle increasingly unpredictable weather conditions and raids by millions of bacteria and pests, this ‘farmer’ can control his environment at the touch of a button.
If it's meat you want, companies like Incredible Foods and Memphis Meat use stem cells from a cow, pig, chicken or even a fish and place it in a bioreactor to produce ‘cultured meat’. The technology is still in its early days so texture can be an issue, but in terms of processed meats for burgers, meatballs, nuggets etc. taste tests show that most people can’t taste the difference between the real thing.
In Finland, a Company called Solar Foods is turning water into food by creating a soup of bacteria, naturally found in soil, that is nurtured in large metal tanks. Heat is generated by hydrogen extracted from the process and used to dry the concoction on large heated rollers to create a rich yellow pancake. In taste tests the flour made great pancakes, and the same flour in its raw state can be used to replace fillers used in thousands of food products. The bacteria can also be modified to produce bacteria to make milk and eggs in lab factories and replace palm and olive oil.
The hydrogen pathway used by solar foods is about 10 times more efficient that natural photosynthesis, and because it is grown in large vats in multi-story buildings, they estimate their land efficiency is 20,000 times greater than foods grown in fields. Better still, the buildings can be built near or in major conurbations, so food miles are dramatically reduced.
Other examples of technology improving productivity include gene editing that creates more versatile and productive crops. Satellite mapping means that fertiliser can be delivered with precision. Small robotic tractors are replacing bigger machines. These driver-less tractors guzzle less diesel, compact the soil less and can run 24/7/365 without any bathroom or meal breaks and no sick leave!
Fancy a tipple? Whisky made by sequencing the molecular makeup of spirits, replicating compounds by mixing and matching them so they taste and smell of the world’s most famous Scotches at a fraction of the cost.
Of course, it is early days. Think of the time when Henry Ford predicted horses would be out of a job. Some of the more aggressive predictions suggest that dairy farming in the USA will be obsolescent within a decade and beef industry revenues will be down by 90% a few years later! Solar Foods think they can match the price of Soya, the world’s cheapest form of protein, within 5 years!
Naturally, at least as long as homo sapiens roam the earth, there will always be demand for ‘naturally farmed foods’ from those who can afford to pay for it and prefer their steak reared not manufactured, their wine from real grape juice not a laboratory concoction. I'm sure those with more advanced palettes and senses will notice a difference in quality, if not physically then viscerally. Rather like vinyl always sounds better than digital to audio aficionados. These traditional businesses will also be justified in charging premium prices to cover the incremental costs associated with farming the old fashion way.
This phenomenon is a win-win. All parties can benefit from the inevitable march of technology.
That said, if we are honest with ourselves and take the pragmatic view, farm free food is the realistic solution our species needs to feed 9 billion of us affordably AND without destroying the planet we live on.