Humans have been able to manipulate their environment to increase food production for a long time. The ecosystem producesThere are many ways to do this, including burning underbrush to encourage berry growth or damming a river to create a fishpond. Crop agriculture is the most extreme form. This is where people re-engineer entire ecosystems to provide food for a few plants. This strategy has been extended by farmers over the past century to include chemistry in order to increase nutrient acquisition and pest control.
This system of industrial agriculture saw the production of cereal crops rise. 800 million to more that 2.7 billion tons between 1961-1919This has outpaced the modern growth in human populations. But this success came at a severe environmental cost. About Half the world’s land surface is now used for agriculture, HalfArtificial production of all biologically-usable nitrogen is possible, 96 percentThe mammalian biomass of humans and our livestock is the same as that of mammals. The result has been mass extinctions and climate change. Agriculture is responsible for around 25 percent global warming.
There are many ideas on how to reform agriculture to make farming less destructive. These ideas range from organic farming and eating less meat to genetic engineering crops to be more productive and less vulnerable to pests. It is possible to replace animals with lab-grown meat.
In the last five years, a more radical idea emerged: to grow hydrogen-oxidising bacteria for human use. These bacteria produce hydrogen and carbon dioxide to create biomass. The plan is to combine the technologies of water electrolysis and bacteria fermentation to create large amounts of bacterial biofuel using renewable electricity. This is basically a way to take ecosystem modification to its ultimate form. Humans will take over the responsibility of harvesting sunlight to create water and grow food in artificially-created environments.
The resulting edible biomass is a yellow, protein-rich powder that is reported to be delicious. tastesLike wheat. George Monbiot reportedFor The Guardian The substance could replace animal feedstock or fillers in common foods products by 2020. It could also be used as a building block for artificial meat, eggs, milk, and eggs or as a substitute flour for pancakes or pasta.
This system of food production—generally called something like “Produced from renewable energy and direct air capture CO, bacterial protein is used in food and feed.2,” but which can more concisely be referred to as ‘bacilliculture’—has a number of advantages over traditional agriculture. Amazingly, bacilliculture converts solar energy into usable calories at a much higher rate than traditional agriculture, even in its early stages of development. Bacilliculture would be able to feed the world in about 3.5 years. 2.5%Of the land currently used to grow crops. The water required for bacilliculture is also only about 20 percentIt is used to grow crops. Although bacilliculture still requires synthetic fertilizer production, the bioreactor environment where the culturing takes place would allow for a much easier control of nutrient runoff. The Finnish company is already working on commercialization of this technology. Solar FoodsHas promised to have a functioning factory by 2023.
What impact could bacilliculture possibly have on climate change As my colleagues, I and others explore in our recent study Environmental Research LettersThe answer is dependent on many factors. For example, how much of the world’s food supply will bacilliculture produce in the future? How do you reverse climate change caused by agriculture? Is bacilliculture financially viable enough to be able to compete for a limited amount of renewable energy and, consequently, what impact will that have on the effort decarbonize the energy system.
The first question is the most difficult to answer. It is possible that bacilliculture does not catch on or only in very limited circumstances, such as long-duration space flight, which would mean that it will have little impact on climate change. On the other side of the spectrum, bacilliculture may completely replace agriculture and become the primary food source to humans and domesticated animals. We considered the latter scenario for the purposes of this study because we wanted to determine the maximum impact of bacilliculture on climate change. After estimating the maximum impact, the actual impact will be only a fraction.
Agricultural climate change is caused by the conversion of carbon-dense forests and grasslands into carbon-depleted fields, pastures and fields, methane emissions from domestic livestock and rice, and nitrous oxide emissions due to fertilizer. These impacts, except for the burning of fossil fuels have a relatively short life span: Land can be returned to a natural ecosystem within a few decades; methane only lasts 10 years in the atmosphere; nitrous oxide takes 130 years to break down. A lot of the agricultural climate change should be reversed.
Our global climate model was used to simulate idealized experiments. We found that if agriculture were abandoned suddenly in 2020, the warming effects from non-fossilfuel component of agricultural climate changes would dissipate by half in 30 and 100% in 250 years. In principle, then, widespread implementation of bacilliculture could reverse much of the agriculturally-driven climate change.
To examine the potential climate impacts of bacilliculture in more realistic terms, we modified the eight future scenarios in the UN report on Climate Change (IPCC Sixth Assessment Report) in order to account for 90% of agriculture being replaced gradually over the next century. These scenarios range from scenarios that never reach 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming to those where all known sources are used for fossil fuels. These scenarios saw warming drop by 0.05 to 1.0 degrees Celsius between year 2300 and the implementation of bacilliculture. One of the mid-range scenarios, which includes ambitious mitigation of carbon dioxide emissions and extensive expansion of agriculture, saw the greatest reduction in warming. To meet their temperature targets, four of the scenarios require net artificial carbon dioxide removal. Two of these scenarios suggest that the temperature targets can be met without net carbon emission if the agriculture is replaced in late 21st-century. No matter what scenario is played out, bacilliculture could contribute significantly to climate stabilization over the next century.
The last aspect of bacilliculture we considered was the possible competition between decarbonization, bacilliculture and renewable energy. Although bacilliculture consumes a lot of electricity (in 2021), the levelized cost for new utility-scale solar power is currently only 3.6 cents per Kilowatt-hour. Dropping. This means that the estimated cost of electricity to produce one kilogram of biomass from Bacilliculture (about $40 cents) is the same as the market price for soybeans (about $50 cents per kilogram). Because of their high protein content, these biomasses are often compared to bacterial biomass. The future economic scenario is one of low renewable energy costs, high grain prices and low carbon taxes. This is where it would make economic sense to use renewable energy for food production. This may not seem like a problem considering that a quarter of climate changes are caused by agriculture. But this is where the possibility of agricultural climate changing being reversed becomes important. Climate change that is prolonged by fossil fuel use can last forever. However, climate change that is caused by agricultural climate change can be reversed almost entirely within a human lifetime. If not implemented well, a transition from bacilliculture could make climate changes worse by prolonging fossil-fuel power plant existence.
Many people are not interested in the idea of eating bacteria. If bacterial biomass were to become a popular food, it would be a great deal. High proteinGout and other conditions can be prevented by a low carbohydrate or oil content. Health problemsThese limitations can be alleviated with genetic engineering, however. From today’s perspective, it seems likely that bacilliculture will only be deployed to fulfill its originally conceived purpose of feeding astronauts on long-duration space missions. Given these restrictions, why contemplate bacilliculture’s potential impact on climate change and the wider Earth system at all?
It is first and foremost a professional responsibility to future generations. It is difficult to predict what the future will look like. It is also difficult to see how the impossible has become the normal with hindsight. Once a new technology works at a small scale, envisioning and modelling its potential impacts on the Earth’s environment is an obligation for Earth system scientists. If we do our job well, we can avoid terrible surprises like the impact of the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) on the ozone.
Another reason is that bacilliculture could be a solution to the current mess humanity is in. As the Earth system buckles under the weight of climate change, pollution, and extinction, humanity faces the prospect of having to become planetary maintenance engineers with “the ceaseless intricate task of keeping all of the global cycles in balance,” as James Lovelock forecast in his 1979 book, Gaia. Bacilliculture is a possible solution for returning most of the Earth’s surface to a natural state and restoring the function of the natural biogeochemical cycles, while still being able to feed a global population of billions of people. Although it may not be immediately apparent, the promise of a future where Earth is restored to its former riches and with an everlasting hunger-free world may seem too appealing to resist.