Review: Apocalypse Cow: How meat killed the planet Written and presented by George Monbiot Screened
Congrats to TV/film production house Arrow Pictures for producing the new bombshell TV documentary Apocalypse Cow: How meat killed the planet; and to Channel 4 for broadcasting it; and to writer/presenter George Monbiot for fronting the documentary. In ‘Saving our bacon’, an article published in The Guardian on the same day that the documentary was broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK (Jan 8 2020), Monbiot gives further details of the revolution in food production that he attributes to a Finnish biotech start-up, Solar Foods.
Here is the webpage of Channel 4 (https://www.channel4.com/programmes/apocalypse-cow-how-meat-killed-the-planet/on-demand/68432-001) but the film is not available in Oz; here is the webpage of Arrow Pictures, the production house (and very successful recent arrival to the UK TV/film scene) https://www.arrowintmedia.com/our-work/apocalypse-cow; and here is a reposting of Apocalypse Cow to Youtube, which can be viewed in Australia and around the world: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VNxaN77dcCk
Apocalypse Cow is mostly a critique of the wasteful and destructive practices of the farming industries in production of both animal-based and plant-based food. In this it is highly successful – if focused solely on the situation in Britain. But it is the hopeful alternative in the form of microbial protein (MP), widely known as single-cell protein (SCP), that captures the attention in this dramatic presentation of “farmfree food” prospects and our capacity to produce enough to feed up to 10 billion people without trashing the planet.
The Finnish start-up Solar Foods, ably presented through its co-founders Pasi Vainikka and Juha-Pekka Pitkanen, has put together a package of biotechnologies that they see as having a huge future as they are scaled up. In its lab-based version, which has actually produced an edible product that the company calls Solein (for “solar protein”), an autotrophic soil bacterium called Cupriavidus necatur is selected for rapid growth in an incubator or vat (as in a brewery). The growth medium is water and air; it is made up of water which is electrolysed to produce hydrogen (and which sends oxygen into the air) and carbon dioxide that is concentrated from the air. There are also some nutrients such as phosphorus (P), nitrogen (N) and sulphur (S) added. The autotrophs capture these ingredients and grow to produce large quantities of biomass, which is continually extracted from the growing vessel, dried, and packaged as something that looks like a yellow flour. The flour has neutral taste – which is deliberate, so that the Solein can be used as an additive that will not impart its own flavour to foods.
This process is an alternative to photosynthesis, pioneered early in Earth’s history by green plants to capture the energy from the sun and use it to split water and fix carbon with H and O atoms. Essentially in the Finnish process renewable electric power provides the spark that is used to generate hydrogen from water and it is this hydrogen that then drives the process of fixing the carbon into an edible biomass. The point is that this process, which is conducted in industrial vats or bioreactors, can be scaled up virtually without limit and with near-zero environmental impact. It is a natural process that does not threaten to trash the planet.
Solar Foods has made a number of smart choices in putting together this package. The chosen bacterium is autotrophic (it can literally “feed itself”) so that it does not require a plant- or animal-based growth medium. The organism is not toxic to humans, and contains all the essential amino acids, fats and carbohydrates needed for our survival. The electrolysis to produce the hydrogen is conducted in the growth vessel (vat) rather than externally, so that the designation “electric food” (a term used formerly by Monbiot) is quite accurate. The electricity is 100% from renewable sources; in the case of Finland it is supplied by the energy giant Fortum, which operates its own solar and wind farms (as well as coal plants and nuclear plants). What drives the whole process is uptake of carbon, extracted from the air as carbon dioxide. The Finnish company uses the Direct Air Capture (DAC) technique for sequestering carbon, sourced from its energy partner firm Fortum. And as the Solein producing industry is scaled up, so it will be extracting more and more carbon dioxide from the air – as a counter to carbon dioxide accumulation and its global warming impact by all other agriculture-based food production systems.
Edible microbial biomass (EMB)
Since the term “microbial protein” is considered a marketing negative, Monbiot coins the term “farmfree food” as a clever alternative, meaning that it is food produced without recourse to either plant-based or animal-based farming. Monbiot takes much of his inspiration from the website RethinkX (co-founded by solar enthusiast Tony Seba), and their report “Rethinking food and agriculture 2020-2030 – The Second Domestication of plants and animals, the Disruption of the Cow, and the collapse of industrial livestock farming” (Oct 2019), where MP is cleverly rebranded as “Modern food” (see https://www.rethinkx.com/press-release/2019/9/16/new-report-major-disruption-in-food-and-agriculture-in-next-decade). The best and most neutral term is “edible microbial biomass” as used in a recent overview by the Swedish microbiologist Tom Linder (2019a).
The Finnish entrepreneur-scientists who founded Solar Foods have joined with their former colleagues at the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland and at the School of Energy Systems at the Lappeenranta University of Technology to produce and publish a scientific paper outlining their scientific and technical choices. This paper “Bacterial protein for food and feed generated via renewable energy and direct air capture of CO2: Can it reduce land and water use?” published in the journal Global Food Security (Sep 2019), lays out the technical details of the food production method, and calculates the much diminished water and land requirements of Solein as compared with soy production by conventional agricultural methods. (See https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S221191241830141X)
Neither this paper nor the article accompanying the broadcast of Apocalypse Cow by Monbiot in The Guardian pay much attention to the selection of the autotrophic bacterium Cupriavidus necator, so let me spell out the favourable features of this microbe. It is an autotroph – meaning that it can grow without needing any food source other than hydrogen for energy and carbon for building biomass, along with access to key elements such as P, S and N. If you look up Cupriavidus in the literature you will find papers discussing it as a source for bioplastics or biofuels (e.g. via producing isobutanol) or other organic materials – but very little on it as a source of edible protein. The Finnish work has brought out this aspect of the microbe’s functioning. (See the wikipedia entry for C. necator here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cupriavidus_necator.) C. necator is described as a hydrogen-oxidizing bacterium (also known in German as a knallgas bacterium). The bacterium has developed no fewer than four enzymes adapted for this task – known as hydrogenases. This cellular machinery allows the microbe to grow biomass without light in an alternative to the more familiar photosynthesizing bacteria, with an energy conversion efficiency 10 times that of photosynthesis. As Tom Linder puts it: Large-scale CO2-fixation independent of photosynthesis would seem like an obvious next technology leap in global food production. (2019a: 275)
Advantages of producing food as edible microbial biomass
The advantages of producing food using the hydrogen-powered autotrophic route favoured by Solar Foods, as opposed to conventional agricultural production of plant-based protein like soybeans, are legion. First, the edible microbial biomass (EMB) is produced under controlled conditions (as in a factory) and so is independent of weather or climate changes. It can be carried out anywhere, particularly in areas of maximum solar irradiation such as deserts (and where water could be obtained from the sea and desalinated using solar power). Second, as an autotrophic process the production of EMB (like Solein) uses only elemental resources water and air and renewable energy, so it is independent of resource or energy constraints. The microbes produce biomass at a much faster rate than green plants, and it is all utilized as food or feed, as contrasted with the waste materials (stems, leaves) encountered in traditional plant-based food production. The protein content of EMB is generally higher than in conventional plant-based sources such as soybeans. Fundamentally the key advantage of hydrogen-oxidising form of autotrophic EMB is that it draws down levels of CO2 from the air rather than adding to these levels as inflicted by other forms of food production – it is a carbon-negative process. The greater the scale of its implementation, the greater its contribution to the curbing of global warming.
Solein is of course not a miracle food. It is recognized in the literature that EMB produced through the hydrogen-oxidizing route has a higher nucleic acid content than desirable (which could cause gout in humans), which calls for further treatment of the EMB to reduce its nucleic acid or urea content. This is an issue that Solar Foods and their Solein product will have to meet. It would be surprising if Solein contained all trace elements and vitamins needed by a balanced human diet, and so some additives would be needed. The edible product is apparently quite acceptable in terms of (neutral) flavour and texture – as evidenced in Apocalypse Cow when George Monbiot bites into a pancake cooked in the Solar Foods lab in Helsinki.
The barriers to the uptake of hydrogen-oxidising autotrophic EMB are not so much technological as social, economic and political. These issues are hinted at in Monbiot’s addresses to camera in Apocalypse Cow and in his accompanying Guardian article. They are addressed head-on in the 2019 report from RethinkX – and perhaps exaggerated there. But there is no doubt that the agricultural sector faces huge upheavals in the next several years, as its spoliation of the earth is confronted and challenged, and as safe and healthy alternatives like Solein come to the fore. Smart government intervention will be called for in shepherding societies away from destructive food production practices and phasing in the new microbial production practices in a way that minimizes disruption and conflict.
The point driven home by this excellent documentary from Arrow Pictures is that edible microbial biomass like Solein offers the prospect of feeding a global population of up to 10 billion without trashing the planet – as is currently being accomplished by both animal-based and plant-based agriculture. Monbiot is right on the money when he describes this as potentially the biggest industrial transformation we have introduced – bar none. It is the ultimate expression of the global green shift that is already under way.
Linder, T. 2019a. Making the case for edible microorganisms as an integral part of a more sustainable and resilient food production system, Food Security, 11: 265-278.
Linder, T. 2019b. Edible microorganisms – An overlooked technology option to counteract agricultural expansion, Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, (8 May 2019) at: https://doi.org/10.3389/fsufs.2019.00032
Sillman, J., Nygren, L., Kahiluoto, H., Ruuskanen, V., Tamminen, A., Bajamundi, C., Nappa, M., Wuokko, M., Lindh, T., Vainikka, P., Pitkanen, J.-P. and Ahola, J. 2019. Bacterial protein for food and feed generated via renewable energy and direct air capture of CO2: Can it reduce land and water use? Global Food Security, 22: 25-32.
 See Wikipedia entry at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cupriavidus_necator C. necator is a non-pathogenic microbe sourced from the soil.