Towards zero harm: animal-free and land-free food

by Stijn5 min read23rd Oct 20204 comments


Animal product alternativesFarmed animal welfare

If we take into consideration animal suffering – not only of livestock animals but also wild animals and invertebrates – agriculture is likely humanity’s most harmful activity. Looking at animal agriculture: 70 billion farm animals are slaughtered every year, plus a few trillion aquatic animals (e.g. for fishmeal to be used in the livestock industry). The land occupation by livestock and animal feed crops prevents the reforestation of millions of square kilometers of land. Those potential forests could absorb more than half of all CO2 emitted from the burning of fossil fuels since the industrial revolution. This means livestock farming is not only a leading contributor of greenhouse gases but also the leading obstacle to one of the most effective climate change mitigation measures, namely reforestation. 

As animal farming is very harmful to animals and future generations, development of animal-free food such as plant-based meat and cell-based meat are of prime importance. The Good Food Institute promotes animal-free meat, dairy and eggs, i.e. meat without the pig, dairy without the cow and eggs without the chicken. Using real living animals in our food production system is very inefficient and harmful in many ways (as summarized in this infographic). 

The Good Food Institute not only focuses on plant-based and cell-based alternatives to animal products. They also support research and development of fermentation-enabled food. Micro-organisms such as yeast, bacteria, algae and fungi can be used to produce all kinds of protein, fatty acids, vitamins and other nutrients. Precision fermentation is expected to be an upcoming industry-disrupting food technology. 


Why land-free is also important

Fermentation-enabled food not only allows us to go animal-free, but also land-free. Our use of agricultural land is very harmful. When food production requires a lot of land, those crops are usually grown outdoors, where they are vulnerable to pests. The massive use of insecticides harms invertebrate wild animals. As insects could probably be sentient, insecticides could cause a lot of suffering. Also tillage and harvesting can kill wild animals. Next we have pollution, eutrophication and acidification, from nutrient runoff, soil-erosion, herbicides and fungicides. And of course greenhouse gas emissions from the heavy machinery. Outdoor food production also means higher vulnerability to extreme weather events, which means more crop losses and lower yields, which means even higher land use demands.

Land-free food production techniques also allow us to survive very extreme climate events, such as a supervolcano eruption, a global nuclear war or an asteroid impact that release so much dust in the atmosphere, blocking sunlight for several years and making land-based agriculture impossible. Hence, land-free food becomes important in terms of human survival, decreasing the risk of human extinction. 


Why high-tech is better than low-tech

To decrease the harm caused by agriculture, the environmental movement focuses on low-tech, land-based agricultural methods such as organic farming, agro-ecology and permaculture. However, as they are land-based, these food production methods still cause a lot of harm. Much better alternatives are indoor farming such as vertical agriculture, supported by the Association for Vertical Farming. Not only is organic farming sometimes more harmful than conventional land-based farming, but organic farmers often have a negative attitude towards e.g. land-free hydroponic food production systems, where crops are grown in mineral nutrient solutions instead of soil. In Europe, hydroponically grown crops cannot be labeled organic. Those organic farmers believe that farming should be embedded in ecosystems, with plants grown in soil. Of course, those outdoor conditions mean that crops can be affected by insects, and the organic methods to control insect pests, such as organic insecticides and natural predators, remain harmful to the insects. More humane (insect friendly) insecticides are not necessarily organic. Hydroponic systems are much better protected against insects, and have much higher yields due to the improved growing conditions. Hence, the belief that crops should be grown outdoors, in soil, within ecosystems, is harmful (an example of a harmful naturalistic preference).

It becomes clear that the organic, traditional or low-tech proposals to transform our agricultural system are ineffective and even harmful. This time, high-tech provides much better solutions. Most promising indoor farming methods, such as hydroponics and aeroponics (plants grown in water or fog) are high-tech, being research by e.g. NASA to eventually be used in space travel. Of course food production in a space ship cannot be land-based and has to be very efficient in terms of nutrient recycling and resource use. 

However, most of those indoor farming techniques are suitable for growing only fruits and vegetables, not (yet) for producing large amounts of protein, fats and carbohydrates that can replace soy, oil palm, wheat, corn, rice and other major crops.


Why gas-based food is promising

Biomass fermentation agriculture offers new possibilities, where microbes become little protein factories. Especially gas-based production techniques are promising high-tech land-free food production techniques to produce large amounts of biomass (protein, fats and carbohydrates). Carbon dioxide and hydrogen are used by several companies to grow bacteria that produce protein. Three forerunners are Air Protein (US), Solar Foods (Finland) and the Utilization of Carbon Dioxide Institute (Japan). Also bacteria growing on methane can produce protein (e.g. Unibio in  Denmark). These start-up companies used high-tech research from space-travel scientists. 


Why support for the Good Food Institute is so important

Gas-based protein is an example of fermentation-enabled food. These new, high-level fermentation technologies are much more promising solutions than the low-tech organic, agro-ecological and permaculture farming methods that still depend on land and soil and often use animals. Only with animal-free and land-free food can we eliminate harm to farm animals and wild animals. And it also increases the probability of human survival through extreme climate events. 

Animal-free food, such as plant-based and cell-based meats, can eliminate farm animal suffering, whereas land-free food can strongly decrease wild animal suffering. The Good Food Institute not only supports animal-free food, but also promotes some fermentation-enabled, land-free production technologies. That makes support for the Good Food Institute even more effective in terms of decreasing harm. Low-tech land-based agriculture promoted by environmentalists is not so effective to reduce harm and promote sustainability. 

One of my many mistakes in the past is that I supported low-tech agriculture such as permaculture, agro-ecology and organic farming. But now I think we need to evolve towards animal-free and land-free food production, especially gas-based food from precision fermentation, to decrease harm to farm animals and wild animals, and to increase the probability of human survival. This is probably the unique solution that has the most benefits: all the benefits of veganism, plus improving wild animal welfare plus decreasing catastrophic/existential risks. 


4 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 12:05 AM
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I'm glad that GFI is including fermentation now. Greenhouses can be good, but I would be cautious of artificial light (vertical farming). What advocates typically don't say is the energy use and cost - even if we used all the electricity in the world, we could only feed ~5% of people and even with current electricity costs, it would be >$100/dry kilogram.

Three forerunners are Air Protein (US), Solar Foods (Finland) and the Utilization of Carbon Dioxide Institute (Japan).

Thanks, I was familiar with the general concept here, and specific companies working with methane, but not the electrolysis based companies. I had thought that wouldn't be practical given the higher price of electrolysis hydrogen vs natural gas hydrogen.

 A production cost of $5-$6 per kilogram of 100 percent protein. It aims to have Solein on the market and in millions of meals by 2021, but before then it needs to scale-up from pilot plant to major commercial production, and Solein needs regulatory approval for human consumption.

Claims like these are many times more common than delivery, but this seems interesting enough to be worth examining.

We found that the economics of hydrogen single cell protein could be promising in a catastrophe if it had low cost energy. Basically look at where aluminum refining is done-cheap hydropower or coal (which could have carbon sequestration).

Thanks for pointing out that paper. Yes, it does seem like some of these companies are relying on cheap hydropower and carbon pricing.

If photovoltaics keep falling in price they could ease the electricity situation, but their performance would be degraded in nuclear winter (although not in some other situations interfering with conventional agriculture).