New technologies have enabled us to biochemically produce food from some unlikely sources. In an extreme food supply shock, it could be useful to apply methods that allow us to obtain calories and nutrients from sources which don’t normally produce food. These could include plant fiber, CO₂, and potentially even resources typically considered fuels, such as natural gas or petroleum.
Today we know how to produce high-quality protein from natural gas or CO₂ and sugar from forest biomass. Since they are chiefly independent of food trade or agriculture, these food production methods are very resilient to many different types of food shortages, including those in which typical solutions could prove insufficient.
If traditional food supplies are unavailable over a longer time span, factories based on these technologies could be built to alleviate long-lasting supply shortages, once stored foods had run out. Large-scale production facilities could take around two years to build, but fast construction methods could potentially reduce the time down to about 7–8 months. These products have not yet been approved for human consumption, but some, such as protein from CO₂, are on track for approval.
Another possibility would be building some of these factories now, so that they’re available if a catastrophe occurs. While this would require an upfront cost, it would decrease costs during the catastrophe; building now would also bring some present-day benefits related to economic resilience and sustainability. Repurposing existing factories, especially paper factories, to produce food is also one of the more effective options ALLFED is looking into.
Single cell protein from CO₂ and hydrogen
Certain single-cell organisms—some species of bacteria, microalgae, and fungi—have an incredible capacity to convert materials that are inedible to us—such as hydrogen and CO₂—into nutrient-packed products, namely protein. The single-cell organisms are cultivated in bioreactors in a process known as cellular agriculture, and they produce the edible nutrients, single cell protein (SCP). SCP is typically 50-80% protein and can be packed with vitamins, such as B1, B2, B3, B7, B8, and B12.
SCP is already being mass produced as an alternative protein for food. The most well known of the SCP companies is Quorn, whose fungi-based products can be found in over 20 countries. Now, a new generation of SCP companies -- including Solarfoods, Air Protein, Avecom, Deep Branch, Lanzatech, and more -- is looking to tackle environmental problems via the cultivation of proteins from CO₂ and hydrogen.
We have found significant potential in hydrogen SCP to contribute to a resilient global protein supply even during the most extreme food shortages (see: Potential of microbial protein from hydrogen for preventing mass starvation in catastrophic scenarios). The SCP could be produced from hydrogen sourced from splitting water electrolysis or via gasification of solid fuel, while the CO₂ could be obtained from industrial sources, from fuels, or directly from the atmosphere.
SCP typically takes the form of a protein rich powder, which could potentially be used as an ingredient in foods such as bread, pasta, plant-based meat and dairy, and as a protein supplement similar to whey protein shakes. As SCP development continues, new textures and products will provide alternative options for food, including but not limited to meat substitutes.
Food from plant fiber
Existing technology can be used to break the components of plant dry matter into simple sugars which can be safely consumed as food, even in the case of plants that humans can’t normally digest (see: Rapid repurposing of pulp and paper mills, biorefineries, and breweries for lignocellulosic sugar production in global food catastrophes).
First a pretreatment is applied to the plant biomass—a process similar to making paper. Hot steam or biological catalysts can then be applied to break down the pulp into simple sugars. This way, sugar can be obtained from paper or plant wastes such as corn stalks or wheat straw, and even from leaves and trees. Leaf protein concentrate can also be extracted from leaves, either at industrial or small, decentralized scales (see: Preliminary Automated Determination of Edibility of Alternative Foods: Non-Targeted Screening for Toxins in Red Maple Leaf Concentrate and Global distribution of forest classes and leaf biomass for use as alternative foods to minimize malnutrition). These two solutions may complement each other by extracting the concentrate first and converting the remainder into sugar.
Existing infrastructure could be repurposed to speed up these food production processes. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, distilleries were repurposed to produce hand sanitizer and automotive factories were repurposed to produce face masks. During an extreme food shortage, existing pulp and paper factories, breweries and biorefineries could potentially be repurposed to expedite sugar production.
Single cell protein that uses natural gas
A potentially even more promising gas-to-protein technology leverages microorganisms capable of digesting methane (the largest part of natural gas), from which they obtain both the energy and the carbon they need to create protein (see: Methane Single Cell Protein: securing protein supply during global food catastrophes). Methane can be obtained in very large quantities from natural gas reservoirs and biogas facilities.
Unlike their hydrogen SCP counterpart, methane SCP products are not yet on track for approval for human consumption, but this will likely change in the near future. Companies including Calysta and Unibio have developed technologies for production at scale, and large industrial factories are on the horizon thanks to Calysta and Unibio. These companies are interested in using their methane SCP as a food ingredient.