An agricultural revolution is coming – and it’s going to save the planet

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BY MADSEN PIRIE

Although environmental alarmists say governments “have done nothing,” the reality is that many of them have already taken the steps that will reduce man-made global warming. Coal as an energy source is on the way out, while energy from renewables such as solar, wind and nuclear, are increasing. The use of electric vehicles is rising rapidly, and the use of fossil fuels in transport is declining.

Last year in the UK, renewables overtook fossil fuels in the generation of electricity, and it is quite likely that most UK cities will have banned petrol and diesel vehicles over the course of the next two decades. Although campaigners want behavioural changes to be imposed, it is technological innovations that are driving the solutions.

One of the most promising recent ones is the move to create farm-free foods, ones that promise to greatly reduce the massive environmental footprint that farming makes. A paper I co-authored 17 months ago explored the development of cultured (“lab-grown”) meats, pointing out that the price reduction since its inception means it is poised to compete commercially with animal-grown meat, but using only 1% of the land, and leaching no fertilizers or pesticides into the environment, nor releasing methane into the atmosphere. [1] The meat is cultured from a few animal cells that are fed with nutrients to produce what could be tons of meat. Scientists have managed to give it the texture and taste of animal meat.

This year the Finnish firm, Solar Foods, revealed it has created protein “from thin air,” combining hydrogen split from water with atmospheric carbon dioxide and nitrogen to enable soil bacteria to produce a protein flour they call “solein.” This is done more efficiently than plants grow with photosynthesis, and could within a decade compete with soya on price, without requiring land cleared from forests to grow on.

These developments raise the prospect of using only a fraction of current farmland to meet future food demands, leaving the way clear to reforest and “rewild” much of the land currently needed for agriculture. They herald an agriculture revolution as profound as that which happened 12,000 years ago, when humans shifted from being hunter-gatherers to using crops and animal husbandry as their main food sources.

There will be a massive impact on the agricultural industry, as there are with many technological innovations, but the development will generate the wealth that can deal with this. The biggest impact, however, will not be upon the industry, but upon the planet, as we vastly reduce the footprint that agriculture makes upon it. As so often, it is the unlimited resource, that of human creativity and ingenuity, that is solving the problems.

Dr Madsen Pirie is President of the Adam Smith Institute.

References

  1. “Don’t Have a Cow, Man,” by Jamie Hollywood & Dr Madsen Pirie, ASI, 2018.