Microbe Scientists Are Preparing Us to Eat in a Post-Plant World
‘We are bringing a completely new harvest to the humankind’
By 2050, food production is expected to fall short of the needs of a growing global population, both in terms of output and sustainability. The race to find the next alternative protein source is intense. Plant-based alternative meats, such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, are becoming ubiquitous in fast-food restaurants. Lab-grown, cultured meat is steadily getting closer to becoming commercially available, though it needs to come down drastically in cost. But edible microbes — food derived from microorganisms like bacteria, yeasts, fungi, or microalgae — are a uniquely promising contender, owing to their resilience, minimal production costs, and attractive nutritional properties.
One of microbial food’s biggest proponents is Tomas Linder, an associate professor of microbiology at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. In a review for the journal Food Science this April, he didn’t merely argue that we should eat more mushrooms. Instead, he made a compelling case for moving toward an entirely new, primarily microbe-based food production system.
“It has the potential to prevent climate change,” Linder tells OneZero, “but it also has the potential to feed humanity.”
Linder argues that we have relied on photosynthesis, the process by which plants make food using sunlight, as the foundation of our food system for too long. Our dependence on it hinders food production, for both humans and livestock, in regions with limited daylight, and is also highly contingent on climate, which will become increasingly unpredictable as global warming advances.
But microorganisms do not require sunlight to grow. They are not at the mercy of shifting climates and can be grown virtually anywhere, eliminating the need for arable land and irrigation. They are remarkably self-sufficient, incredibly resilient, and grow extremely quickly. And they’re not picky eaters, consuming common organic compounds like hydrocarbons, alcohols, and organic acids.
“There’s only so much space on the planet where you can actually grow crops. And we basically, more or…