Food without agriculture

November 06, 2023 | Nature Sustainability 

Introduction: The global production of food through traditional agriculture has significant environmental impacts, including extensive land use, water pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions. Researchers from University of California, Irvine and Orca Sciences and Carnegie Institute of Science in USA, University of Waterloo in Canada, and Tsinghua University in China explore synthesis of edible molecules through chemical and biological processes as alternatives to conventional agricultural production, focusing on dietary fats as one of the simplest nutrients to produce thermochemically and have a considerable environmental footprint in traditional agriculture. The study compares the environmental impact, particularly in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and land use, between conventionally produced agricultural fats and synthetically produced fats. 

Key findings: The results suggest that synthetic fats, produced using various carbon feedstocks and low-emission energy sources, could potentially reduce emissions and land use significantly. While synthesizing food without agriculture could offer environmental benefits, the transition would require addressing challenges such as economic viability, societal acceptance, and potential social impacts on agricultural workers to ensure a just transition. Additionally, the study emphasizes the need for renewable energy sources and innovations to enhance the sustainability of synthetic food production.

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Fig. | Schematic of potential pathways to synthesize food without agriculture. Proteins, fats and carbohydrates can be synthesized from a range of carbon feedstocks via multiple chemical and biological pathways (arrows). The weight and colour of the arrows indicate the scale at which the different processes have been demonstrated and the energy required per mass unit output, respectively (see Supplementary Fig. 1 and Supplementary Table 1 for references). Dashed lines indicate where energy requirements remain highly uncertain. Circular labels on each arrow further indicate whether the process is typically continuous (C) or batched (B). NH3 is ammonia, H2 is hydrogen gas, MeOH is methanol and AcO- is acetate. In the context of this study, we exclude agriculturally produced carbon feedstocks.