Making an entire crowd gasp can be quite rewarding. Jennifer Holmgren got the satisfaction of an entire crowd gasping at the recent BIO World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology. During her acceptance speech for the Rosalind Franklin Award honoring an outstanding woman in the field of industrial biotechnology, Jennifer explained the current understanding of how greenhouse gases will impact future climate. Jennifer focused on the impact of her native Columbia, showing current and future temperature maps, explaining that coffee will no longer grow in Columbia a century from now if steps are not taken. The thought of Columbia without coffee made the entire crowd gasp.
Jennifer drew in the crowd by linking coffee to climate change. Most crowds, it seems, love their coffee. Coffee, like many food items is emotional. Studies like the one by Kammen and Jones (no relation) [Christopher M. Jones and Daniel M. Kammen; "Quantifying Carbon Footprint Reduction Opportunities for U.S. Households and Communities", Environ. Sci. Technol., 2011, 45 (9), pp 4088-4095; DOI: 10.1021/es102221h] directly link food choices to a personal carbon footprint. They also concluded diet change was both good for the planet and for the wallet. To maximize this benefit, non-essential food items are eliminated. That means things with a relatively high cost and low nutritional benefit which are energy intensive - like coffee. Changing our diet had the largest economic benefit of any of the carbon reduction options examined.
The underlying reason was summed up by Al Bartlett in 1978[Bartlett, Albert A.; "Forgotten Fundamentals of the Energy Crisis", NPG Academia Series, April 1998.]:
“A far more fundamental problem becomes apparent when one recognizes that modern agriculture is based on petroleum-powered machinery and on petroleum-based fertilizers. This is reflected in a definition of modern agriculture: ‘Modern agriculture is the use of land to convert petroleum into food.’”
The food we eat in the U.S. has a lot of embodied fossil energy in it. Fossil fuels enable the planting, fertilizing, harvest, conversion, transportation, refrigeration, distribution, preparation and more. Vegetable protein uses less fossil energy than meat; fish uses less fossil energy than poultry which uses less than beef. Beans cost less than beef and eating beans instead of beef saves you money while saving the energy that beef production requires.
The food-to-fuel debate was a popular topic at the BIO World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology a couple of years ago. Attendees split between finding alternatives that didn’t use food, but rather non-food crops or wastes, to make fuel and those that wanted to argue that it didn’t matter. The consuming public, it seems, doesn’t like the idea of burning perfectly good food. If you want to make a city crowd gasp, show a picture of a corn stove. All across the farm belt, corn was burned for heat because corn was less expensive on an energy content basis than fuel oil. Current oil prices and the return of abundant oil and gas changed the landscape considerably, largely silencing the food-to-fuel debate and reducing the amount of corn burned.
The public doesn’t like the idea of chemicals in their food either. A good example is the furor over “lean finely textured beef”. That was the product produced by extracting fat away from beef trimmings and chemically decontaminating the result using things like ammonia and citric acid. “Lean finely textured beef” got nicknamed “pink slime” in the news media. Food is an emotional topic and things didn’t go well for “pink slime”.
This brings me back to this year’s BIO World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology where I encountered several companies that are adapting to a world of abundant and low cost natural gas. The power of biology is now being harnessed to do transformations, and the feedstock doesn’t have to be biomass. Technology exists for converting fuel directly into food. In a twist that I doubt Al Bartlett saw coming, fuel is now cheap enough that people want to make food directly from it.
That’s right. Microbes have been domesticated that take natural gas and make food directly from it. Partners Statoil and DuPont proved the technical viability more than a decade ago, resulting in the marketing of BioProtein. The process took gas that would otherwise be wasted, flared, and turned it into fish food. Human testing indicates that at least some think that moving up the food chain, literally, would be good. They also must think consumers won’t mind food coming almost directly from a gas well. The technology is a way to monetize remote gas that would otherwise be flared. In the flare, fossil carbons are burned, releasing CO2 into the atmosphere and doing nothing of consequence. That’s bad. Taking the same gas and converting it to microbial protein, then fish protein and ultimately human food looks to be a better alternative. Fossil carbons are released into the atmosphere, some by the fish, most by humans when the protein fuels the body. Making fish from flare gas seem like a much better alternative. The fossil carbon makes its way into the atmosphere either way, but it hasn’t been wasted if we get sustenance out of it. There may still be a “yuck factor” due to the perception of eating fossil fuel. Pink slime was too “chemical”. This might be, too.
The cheap gas situation has changed the discussion. Using pipeline natural gas means that a plant can be as big as imagination will allow. There is no scale limitation imposed by the availability of the feedstock as on a remote flare. Taking gas out of the ground for any reason can be viewed as unsustainable. We are depleting a resource that will not replenish, not leaving it for future generations. We do have Dr. Bartlett’s quote to ponder. The question, aside from the potential “yuck factor”, is whether microbial conversion of gas is more sustainable than the agriculture system that we have today, a complicated analysis. Fuel-to-food is the surprising outcome of natural gas cheap enough to eat.
Mark Jones is Executive External Strategy and Communications Fellow at Dow Chemical since September 2011. He spent most of his career developing catalytic processes after joining Dow in 1990. He received his Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry at the University of Colorado-Boulder doing research unlikely to lead to an industrial career and totally unrelated to his current responsibilities.