Test-tube burgers and skyscraper farms

An urban greenhouse design that could soon be taking hold

Humankind has degraded its environment and stretched the planet’s ecological limits beyond the point of no return. The food supply is threatened, and the world’s top scientists embark on a race against time to develop novel means of producing food.

This may sound like a science fiction plotline, but it is effectively the thinking behind the massive real life research efforts now being undertaken to secure the food supply of the future. The 2007-2008 and 2010-2011 food price spikes have intensified existing efforts to rethink food production, in the face of rapidly escalating demographic and environmental challenges.

Here are four of the candidates – two well-established, and two recent arrivals on the scene – to lead the technological revolution and become the face of futuristic food.

1. Genetic modification (GMOs) and the ‘climate gene’

Genetic modification involves pre-programming a plant to respond to its environment in targeted ways, by inserting external genes into a plant’s genome. Twenty years in, food safety concerns have been largely assuaged, but the industry has failed to shrug off concerns that wide-scale GMO cultivation leads to ultra-resistant pests, unpredictable impacts from gene leakage, and patent battles over what is, ultimately, a proprietary technology.

There is likely to be an added premium on developing drought-tolerant and flood-tolerant crop types over the coming years. GMO uptake to date has been mostly limited to maize, soybean and cotton cultivation in the Americas, but the quest to ‘climate-proof’ crops will target other staples such as wheat and rice, in other parts of the world.  Drought-resistant qualities are not conferred by a single gene but by several, meaning that whole sequences will need to be patented. Expect controversies on a greater scale.

2.     Cloning

Cloning, like GMOs, is a technological heavyweight for which the scientific processes – if not public acceptance – are already well advanced. This is a form of animal breeding where nothing is left to chance. The goal is to yield an animal with identical qualities (e.g. lactation, disease-resistance) to the source animal, and subsequently to use the clone as a breeder.

On the back of welfare concerns for the cloned animal, the EU is primed to place a moratorium on the process. However, Brussels is, by its own admission, powerless to prevent imports of meat/dairy derived from the offspring of clones reaching consumers. Climate change, and the need to breed resilience into our food systems, will once again provide an impetus for wide uptake.

3.     Test-tube meat

Dutch scientists unveiled the first test-tube meat tissue to the world last month, raising the possibility that the future of meat production lies in the lab. Using stem cells from adult cattle, the scientists developed strips of beef muscle in a petri dish, and will soon produce an entire burger, to be served up to a celebrity by gourmet chef Heston Blumenthal.

Conventional livestock rearing involves extensive land, GHG emissions and eventual slaughter, not to mention the huge inputs, in the shape of land, water, fertiliser and pesticide, required to produce animal feed. Test-tube meat could offer the diner a taste of flesh, without the fallout. Should the technology become financially viable on a mass scale, and should the taste be to consumer liking, the approach could start to gain serious momentum.

4.     Skyscraper farms

Vertical farming is also on the cusp of moving from science fiction to practical application. The attraction of layered ‘skyscraper farms’ – normally envisaged as multi-storey greenhouses – is that every drop of water and nutrient would be recycled within a closed system, while light and temperature would be optimised for plant development. By growing upwards, rather than outwards, we would be squaring the circle and producing more food without consuming more resources. Until recently, the concept had existed only in the imagination of architects. But now a 17-storey conical greenhouse is set to enter the construction phase in the Swedish town of Linköping. Drawing on energy from local power plants, the structure will carry rotating pots of fruit and veg slowly around a central helix, and will sell harvested produce direct to local urban populations. This could be the first of many – or a costly experiment that starts and ends in Linköping.

The opportunity cost

All of these solutions are promising when held up against the initial premise: that conventional food production techniques, working within nature’s self-sustaining cycles, are a spent force. But the danger of promoting these technologies is that they reinforce this very message. It is as if we have over-stepped nature’s self-sustaining capacities, and instead of looking for ways to restore the balance, we are trying to circumvent nature altogether.

The real danger is therefore the opportunity cost. The first test-tube burger will have set scientists back €250,000 euros, while the cost of the biggest vertical greenhouse model (25 storeys) is estimated at $280-$555 million. The cumulative costs of twenty years of public and private GMO research are astronomical, while cloning-related innovation could become an equally bottomless pit.

What if this money were ploughed into simple solutions with a proven track record of restoring and maintaining the ecological balance and biodiversity that must underpin all productive farming in the long term? What if the real funding priority were not food innovation, but the dissemination of existing, highly effective techniques? What if the innovation that did occur was focused on advanced breeding techniques (e.g. marker assisted selection and bio-fortification of crops) that raise less ethical issues, and can be kept free of patents? What if we were to improve agricultural infrastructure in Africa, where more than 30% of crops are spoiled in post-harvest storage and transportation? And what if consumers stopped wasting nearly half of their food, and consumed a bit less meat?

Organic-style solutions cannot feed a world of 9 billion people, critics say. And they are right – not while demand is so wastefully high, and supply so infrastructurally crippled. And not while the custodians of degraded or abandoned farmland are deprived of the know-how to keep this land productive. If climate change is allowed to force farming into ever-more-restricted fertile bands, then we will indeed have to rely on miracle, yield-raising technologies. But sooner or later we’ll be confronted, once again, with the resource pressures that intensive farming entails – in all of its incarnations.

Innovation is crucial. But it must come in addition to, not instead of, much-needed investments in simple, low-tech, non-proprietary solutions which can be used freely and effectively by farmers across the world. With food, as with climate change, there is no ‘silver bullet’ solution, and the sci-fi allure of new innovations should not be an excuse for deferring the key decisions about how to live within our limits.

Photo: ‘Plantagon. Illustration: Sweco’

The views expressed in the article are those of the author only.