Next Up: Food From Air!

The Lempert Report
June 25, 2021

More than 10 times as much protein could be produced via food from air compared with growing soy

Dorian Leger at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology in Germany says that using solar power to turn carbon dioxide into chemicals for growing bacteria that can be eaten – food from air, he says – would let us produce as much protein as we currently get from staple crops including soy on a tenth of the land. Ideally, he told New Scientist, food production would be moved to areas that aren’t biodiversity hotspots. While this might sound a bit far-fetched, there are already companies that are moving to commercialize the concept. Solar Foods of Finland aims to have a demonstration plant running in 2023. Calysta is already producing animal feed made from bacteria fed on methane, but the methane is derived from fossil sources. “This could have very beneficial impacts on the environment,” Leger told New Scientist. “If you have 10 square kilometers of soy bean fields in the Amazon, hypothetically you could make that 1 square kilometer of solar panels and reforest the other nine.” But there is a debate about how it would compare to conventional farming in terms of yields and land use. Leger and his colleagues have carried out the most detailed analysis to date, based on empirical data wherever possible.

For conventional farming of crops including soy, sugar cane, rice and wheat, the team used average yields in 180 countries from 2017 to 2019.

The team’s conclusion was that per area of land, more than 10 times as much protein could be produced via food from air compared with growing soy. Soy is the most protein-rich staple crop and is widely used as an animal feed. In places such as the Amazon, where ever more land is being deforested to make way for soy farms and cattle ranches, harming wildlife and releasing carbon dioxide. Per area of land, they say, the process could also produce food with at least twice the caloric value of crops such as corn, wheat and rice. As the technologies improve, the yields of food from air could improve yet further, says Leger.