The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that some 795 million people around the world go to bed hungry every night. Between humanity’s ballooning population and climate change, which poses grave threats to agriculture and our food supplies, it’s not a problem that’s going away. Scientists have been working to address the effect that livestock has on climate change, as well as the consequences it will have on our crops, by developing lab-grown meats, alternative proteins like the Impossible Burger, and drought-resistant crops. But a group of Finnish scientists have come up with a different solution: A single-cell protein created with energy and nutritious enough to have for dinner.
According to these mad scientists, creating the synthetic food requires only carbon dioxide, water, microbes, and electricity. In other words, no, you won’t have to buy a proprietary bag of ingredients. The raw materials are exposed to electrolysis — defined as a process of chemical decomposition by passing an electric current through a liquid or solution containing ions — in a bioreactor. The result is a powder made up of more than 50 percent protein and 25 percent carbohydrates, as well as fats and nucleic acids. Its actual texture is malleable, a result of the microbes used. This literal energy powder was created in the Food From Electricity project, a collaboration between Finland’s Lappeenranta University of Technology and the VTT Technical Research Centre.
Don’t get too excited yet about the culinary possibilities. Currently, it takes roughly two weeks for a coffee-cup-size bioreactor to produce just one gram of protein. The VTT’s principal scientist Juha-Pekka Pitkänen believes it will take about a decade before a more efficient version of the system will become widely available. The team, according to a press release, is focused on developing “reactor concepts, technology, improving efficiency, and controlling the process.”
Presuming that Pitkänen and his team can make that happen, the technology’s potential sounds promising. It can operate anywhere there is renewable energy — so wherever there’s solar energy, also known as everywhere besides caves — and operates independently of environmental factors necessary for agriculture. Temperature, humidity, and soil type are irrelevant. Hypothetically, the technology can be transported to arid areas or regions suffering through drought as a means of providing food for starving populations. This is no small thing. Climate change will affect where we can grow crops, and its already exacerbating droughts to disastrous effect. Researchers linked a drought aggravated by climate change to Syria’s civil war, and 20 million people in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, and northeastern Nigeria are affected by a historically bad famine.