Synthetic biology

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In a January 2020 documentary on UK Channel 4 environmental activist and journalist George Monbiot discussed the opportunity costs of not just animal but also arable agriculture compared to the carbon sequestration and biodiversity effects of rewilding, and how technology such as artificial meat, and Solar Foods' non-biologically created artificial flour, might allow us to greatly reduce humans' impact on the natural world.

The programme also discusses the pollution of rivers by run-off from farms, the killing of deer (which Monbiot participates in) to allow shrubs and trees to re-grow, rewilding of former farmland in the Netherlands, and claims for the achievements of an Oxfordshire Organic farmer.

"Apocalyse Cow: How meat killed the planet"; George Monbiot; Jan 2020, Channel 4 (local copy)

Think tank RethinkX claims that:

By 2030, the number of cows in the U.S. will have fallen by 50% and the cattle farming industry will be all but bankrupt. All other livestock industries will suffer a similar fate, while the knock-on effects for crop farmers and businesses throughout the value chain will be severe.

Rethinking Food and Agriculture shows how the modern food disruption, made possible by rapid advances in precision biology and an entirely new model of production we call Food-as-Software, will have profound implications not just for the industrial agriculture industry, but for the wider economy, society, and the environment.

and, in its Executive Summary:

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY We are on the cusp of the deepest, fastest, most consequential disruption in food and agricultural production since the first domestication of plants and animals ten thousand years ago. This is primarily a protein disruption driven by economics. The cost of proteins will be five times cheaper by 2030 and 10 times cheaper by 2035 than existing animal proteins, before ultimately approaching the cost of sugar. They will also be superior in every key attribute – more nutritious, healthier, better tasting, and more convenient, with almost unimaginable variety. This means that, by 2030, modern food products will be higher quality and cost less than half as much to produce as the animal-derived products they replace.

The impact of this disruption on industrial animal farming will be profound. By 2030, the number of cows in the U.S. will have fallen by 50% and the cattle farming industry will be all but bankrupt. All other livestock industries will suffer a similar fate, while the knock-on effects for crop farmers and businesses throughout the value chain will be severe.

This is the result of rapid advances in precision biology that have allowed us to make huge strides in precision fermentation, a process that allows us to program microorganisms to produce almost any complex organic molecule.

These advances are now being combined with an entirely new model of production we call Food-as-Software, in which individual molecules engineered by scientists are uploaded to databases – molecular cookbooks that food engineers anywhere in the world can use to design products in the same way that software developers design apps. This model ensures constant iteration so that products improve rapidly, with each version superior and cheaper than the last. It also ensures a production system that is completely decentralized and much more stable and resilient than industrial animal agriculture, with fermentation farms located in or close to towns and cities.

This rapid improvement is in stark contrast to the industrial livestock production model, which has all but reached its limits in terms of scale, reach, and efficiency. As the most inefficient and economically vulnerable part of this system, cow products will be the first to feel the full force of modern food’s disruptive power. Modern alternatives will be up to 100 times more land efficient, 10-25 times more feedstock efficient, 20 times more time efficient, and 10 times more water efficient.1,2 They will also produce an order of magnitude less waste.

Modern foods have already started disrupting the ground meat market, but once cost parity is reached, we believe in 2021-23, adoption will tip and accelerate exponentially. The disruption will play out in a number of ways and does not rely solely on the direct, one-for-one substitution of end products. In some markets, only a small percentage of the ingredients need to be replaced for an entire product to be disrupted. The whole of the cow milk industry, for example, will start to collapse once modern food technologies have replaced the proteins in a bottle of milk – just 3.3% of its content. The industry, which is already balancing on a knife edge, will thus be all but bankrupt by 2030.

This is not, therefore, one disruption but many in parallel, with each overlapping, reinforcing, and accelerating one another. Product after product that we extract from the cow will be replaced by superior, cheaper, modern alternatives, triggering a death spiral of increasing prices, decreasing demand, and reversing economies of scale for the industrial cattle farming industry, which will collapse long before we see modern technologies produce the perfect, cellular steak.


The disruption of food and agriculture is inevitable – modern products will be cheaper and superior in every conceivable way – but policymakers, investors, businesses, and civil society as a whole have the power to slow down or speed up their adoption. The aim of this report is to start a conversation and focus decisionmakers’ attention on the scale, speed, and impact of the modern food disruption. The choices they make in the near term will have a lasting impact – those regarding IP rights and approval processes for modern food products, for example, will be critical.

Many decisions will be driven by economic advantages as well as by social and environmental considerations. But other decisions may be influenced by incumbent industries seeking to delay or derail the disruption. They may also be influenced by mainstream analysis, although decisions made based on such analysis tend to make economies and societies poorer by locking them into assets, technologies, and skill sets that are uncompetitive, expensive, and obsolete. To unlock the full potential of this and every other technological disruption, we need to embrace a different approach, one that better reflects the complex, dynamic, and rapidly-changing world we live in.

Decision-makers must also recognize there are no geographical barriers to the food and agriculture disruption, so if the U.S. resists or fails to support the modern food industry, other countries such as China will capture the health, wealth, and jobs that accrue to those leading the way. Policymakers must, therefore, start planning for the modern food disruption now in order to capture the extraordinary economic, social, and environmental benefits it has to offer.

Synthetic biology

Synthetic biology’s revolutionary and often disquieting impact on our food system Marc Brazeau; Genetic Literacy Project; 2 Oct 2014

Synthetic biology (synbio) has started to change how we produce food in small ways and is poised to bring about very large changes as the technology matures. The field is fairly broadly defined. It covers current applications like genetically modifying yeasts and algae to convert a substrate like sugar into valuable compounds like vanillin (the compound that give vanilla it flavor and aroma) and ingredients for medicines. But the cutting edge of synthetic biology isn’t just genetically engineering algae and yeasts to produce useful compounds; it’s designing and printing genes from scratch, even multiple genes organized into plasmids (clusters of genes that perform a task) that can tackle complex problems. This video provides a great primer on where the technology is now and how it works.
Algal oil

Algae Alert - Algae oil is the newest and most innovative oil to hit the market ROWAN JACOBSEN; Tasting Table; 6 Apr 2016

Growing oilseed is very wasteful. Each canola, soybean, sunflower or peanut plant produces only a tiny amount of seed, which is then pressed to release its oil. The rest is waste. Those plants yield less than half a ton of oil per hectare, whereas algae are so efficient at converting sugarcane into oil that they can yield three and a half tons per hectare. That means the same amount of oil from a fraction of the land and a smaller carbon footprint. Still, sugarcane is no environmental saint, so I look forward to the day—very soon, according to the TerraVia folks—when the feedstock for the algae will be cellulose—the leftover fibers of plant stalks and leaves. When high-grade culinary oil can be made inexpensively from the waste materials of corn or any other grain, the future will have arrived.

Companies Quietly Apply Biofuel Tools to Household Products STEPHANIE STROM; NT Times; 30 May 2014

Consumer products containing ingredients made using an advanced form of engineering known as synthetic biology are beginning to show up more often on grocery and department store shelves. A liquid laundry detergent made by Ecover, a Belgian company that makes “green” household products including the Method line, contains an oil produced by algae whose genetic code was altered using synthetic biology. The algae’s DNA sequence was changed in a lab, according to Tom Domen, the company’s manager for long-term innovation.

Synthetic foods

Solar Foods

Solar Foods website

Food 'made from air' could compete with soya Roger Harrabin; BBC; 8 Jan 2020

Finnish scientists producing a protein "from thin air" say it will compete with soya on price within the decade. The protein is produced from soil bacteria fed on hydrogen split from water by electricity. The researchers say if the electricity comes from solar and wind power, the food can be grown with near-zero greenhouse gas emissions. If their dreams are realised, it could help the world tackle many of the problems associated with farming.

Lab-grown food will soon destroy farming – and save the planet George Monbiot; The Guardian; 8 Jan 2020

Scientists are replacing crops and livestock with food made from microbes and water. It may save humanity’s bacon

Cultivated meat

Feeding The Planet Isn’t Science Fiction - It’s Cultivated Meat James Conca, Forbes; 10 July 2020

Avant Meats out of Hong Kong is pushing fast on this method [making meat directly from stem cells grown in vats] to produce fish protein using new technologies that allow large scale cultivation of animal cells, in their entirety, in an economically and environmentally sustainable way. No pollutants with the same nutritional value as ordinary meat.

In cultivated meat production, animal stem cells are combined with nutrients, salts, pH buffers, and growth factor and left to multiply in the containers.

Cultivated meats solve numerous problems. We know how harsh grazing animals are on the environment. We know how much water it takes to make a single steak – 2,400 gallons per pound. A pound of meat emits over 20 lbs of CO2 in its creation. Forests are still being razed to make way for grazing cattle.

Cultivated meat requires only a precent of the water and emits a percent of the CO2 of ordinary meat. And if non-]fossil fuel, like nuclear or hydro, is used to power this process, it becomes as green as we can get it.

Also, many people no longer like the idea of slaughtering living beings, regardless of them being bred over millennia specifically for this purpose.

The global fish meat market is estimated to reach US$206 billion by 2026. Each year, 2.7 trillion fish are caught from the wild, with a further hundred billion fish or so killed on commercial farms. These numbers will continue to grow while the available stocks will continue to fall. 90% of the world’s fish stocks are now fully exploited or depleted.

The most successful societies always seemed to have better protein sources than those they subjugated. Meaning more meat. But raising actual cows, fish and other herds took more and more land and water. Cultivated meats is an obvious answer. Plant-based protein is great, but there are some nutrients that can only come from actual meat, like Vitamin B12, Vitamin D3, Creatine, Carnosine and Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA).

We have moved forward on other strategies, including making fake meat that actually tastes and feels like real meat, and changing cow and sheep grazing to be “regenerative”, meaning net zero carbon.

Impossible Foods seems to have done the impossible and created plant-based meat that really can fool anyone, and uses 87% less water, 96% less land, emits 89% fewer greenhouse gases, and produces 92% less aquatic pollutants.

Regenerative grazing is based on emulating the natural life cycle of migrating ungulate herds like cows. Rotating the herds between a series of fenced-off paddocks allows for periods of intense grazing, where the soil is disturbed and the animals’ manure is naturally deposited and incorporated, followed by fallow periods with no grazing where the land is given time to rest and regenerate.

But cultivated meat presents the most radical departure from the norm with the least impact on the environment. Avant Meats isn’t the only trail-blazer. Memphis Meats, Artemys Foods, Future Meat Technologies, SuperMeat and others are also focused on having these products provide the meat requirements of the world’s soon-to-be 10 billion people.

Real cheese without cows

‘Real’ cheese… without cows? New Culture makes mozzarella with milk proteins via microbial fermentation Elaine Watson ; FoodNavigator-USA; 24 Jun 2019

Startup New Culture is seeking to raise $2.8m to develop ‘real’ cheese with casein proteins made from microbial fermentation (instead of cow’s milk) that its founder claims can deliver taste, functionality and nutrition that plant-based cheeses simply cannot match.