Techno-optimism run amok… George Monbiot’s latest delusion

Okay so let’s get this straight in George Monbiot’s techno-optimistic scenario…. proteins and carbs are created via precision fermentation in brewing tanks requiring infrastructure, blue water and energy. These proteins and carbs (plus some additional minerals, antibiotics and growth factor) will be used in place of amino acids and carbs from industrial crops (soy, corn, etc) to feed growing stem cells in bioreactors that also require a lot of blue water, non-intermittent energy, and infrastructure.The fermentation tanks and bioreactors will also need to be contained in sterile conditioned spaces requiring infrastructure (made of CO2 emitting concrete and steel) and energy. All this energy infrastructure will also need a lot of raw materials and energy to build.

So first, it certainly would be interesting to see a life cycle analysis [LCA] of this above techno-fix at scale for both energy and blue water use. And then compared that LCA to a LCA of  AMP managed solar power head of cattle turning non-edible to human grasses watered by green water into beef, leather and a number of other by-products. Does George have such a LCA for his fermented/cell Ag solution to compare to this recent LCA done of White Oak Pastures beef cattle that was carbon negative? Doing any sort of techno-fix at scale is a lot different than doing a small batch “proof of concept”in a petri dish. Though George seems to lack the scientific literacy or critical/analytical capability to make this distinction.

Now all the non-intermittent energy is going be supplied from non-carbon sources… so wind/solar with advanced batteries or some form of nuclear including maybe even salt-molten thorium reactors. This will occur even though better battery technology isn’t available yet and thorium reactors also aren’t commercially viable. If nuclear, more water and waste to deal with in addition to the all the ammonia, lactic acid and other waste generated from the fermentation tanks and bioreactors. The basic problem with wind and solar is that they are intermittent sources of energy meaning that when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine, no energy is produced. This is where the batteries are needed to store energy for those periods of time when the wind isn’t blowing and or the sun isn’t shining. Especially with cell Ag, there can be no interruption of power since the bioreactors need to be kept at 37 degrees Celsius (98.5 degrees F) all the time while the stem cells are growing.

So this vast industrialization will replaced meat and a lot of other plant based products. Though this technology will also need to replace leather, cotton, fiber, and a myriad of other products made from the by-products of livestock and cropping systems including plastics, soaps, foams, etc. So that’s a lot more energy intensive bioreactors filled with  a lot of circulating blue water needed to replace farming and ranching. So one needs to make sure all of these other tanks for other products are factored into that LCA noted above.

All of the infrastructure for both large scale production and energy won’t somehow magically appear without more mineral extraction across the globe. So deforestation won’t magically stop because a lot of minerals like bauxite and iron ore will be needed. Smelting those materials will require even more energy and infrastructure. Hydro-electric dams require a lot of CO2 intensive concrete and emit a lot of methane. These dams aren’t as green as they’re made out to be. Timber will also still be chopped down especially precious hardwoods in the Amazon.

Then somehow all the “spared land” no longer used for livestock or crops will become part of the public common so that it can be “rewilded”. Will a lot of this land be confiscated or bought from all the private land holders who no longer are allowed to derive any income off of their properties? If not, will the new cell Ag and precision fermentation companies offer to pay all taxes on this land? Plus somehow, without human interference, all land will magically rewild and once again become some big vast forest that never existed in many places on the planet. Though it’s probably more likely that a lot of land will further desertify, especially grasslands that co-evolved with large herds of ruminants and predators that managed these herds. But per Monbiot’s vision, large herds of wild ruminants (including bison, elk, auroch, water buffalo), that once existed, can’t be restored. Why? These wild ruminants- like sheep and cattle- are also “carbon releasing machines”. So packs of wolves and other predators will have to subsist on rabbits, beavers and other small mammals. Well, maybe not beavers, since beavers create ponds that also emit a lot of methane.

Best of all…all the companies and investors spending billions to develop all this food tech aren’t the slightest bit concerned about controlling markets or maximizing a return on their investment for their investors. Of course, they’re all doing this to “save the planet.” So all of this technology will be open source without any patents or intellectual property except on stem cell lines, cell media, growth factors, bioreactors, scaffolding, fermentation processes, etc. But still no single company will be able to control the market so all of our food autonomy and food dollars will be held by three or four large conglomerates, that coordinate their efforts to monopolize the market place, rather than by one big food company. Praise techno-Jesus!

Though, of course,  in the space between Monbiot’s ears, all this food tech is absolutely necessary. Intensive systems are bad, but extensive systems are even worse. Well that’s what FCRN claims. All that evil methane that rises from cattle and sheep on pastures into the atmosphere unabated by methanotrophs and hydroyxl radicals. Nope, cyclical carbon is evil especially when its part of the carbon cycle. So less techno-optimistic solutions are sheer folly.  There’s no getting rid of that mechanistic mindset, thus regenerative agriculture isn’t a more practical alternative. It’s evil! Besides who wants small family farmers and ranchers to make any money? Not George, the pseudo proletariat!  That would be too democratic. So much better to have further consolidation of  wealth rather than healthy soils, and restored ecosystems shared with wildlife.

Sarcasm aside, George doesn’t realize that in regenerative systems, livestock are kept bunched in herds and only occupy a percent or two of a farm or ranch at any one time.  He also doesn’t seem to realize that by restoring soil health, in large part through better grazing management, the carrying capacity of land can be drastically increased in many cases from 300 to 800% with plenty of room left over for other wild animals, especially birds. That is a lot more ruminants can be put on the same amount of land. So no, another planet is NOT needed.  George is just repeating fallacies. He’s pretending to be an authority on something he knows very little about.

Sadly his food religion has seemingly replaced his commonsense. If George really had his wits about him, he’d be championing regenerative agriculture in all of its various forms including and especially silvo pasture and agro-forestry.

 

7 thoughts on “Techno-optimism run amok… George Monbiot’s latest delusion

      1. I wouldn’t bother watching it. The science is weak and as you have so eloquently put it, the actual implementation would be all but impossible and environmentally damaging to boot.

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  1. I feel like if Monbiot is being taken for a ride by the Finnish scientists trying to turn captured CO2 into bacteria. The technology isn’t too different from what the Carbon Engineering guys are trying to do in capturing co2 and turning it into fuel, and even attempting to capture co2 from a direct source instead of the air isn’t the panacea it’s made out to be.
    https://cleantechnica.com/2019/04/12/chevrons-fig-leaf-part-1-carbon-engineering-burns-natural-gas-to-capture-carbon-from-the-air/

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  2. Thanks so much for this – I instinctively felt Monbiot to be off his rockers but don’t have the expertise to back it up, although I did look at the Nature article he uses and the authors admit that a/ they have not looked at soil health and pesticides and b/ they don’t really have enough data to draw firm conclusions. Telling that his article didn’t mention the millions/billions of people dependent on food they grow themselves with subsistance farming, and which mining and Big Ag are violently displacing. I fear there’s more food psychosis coming this year!

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