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The food we eat in Sheffield will be totally different in ten years' time

South Yorkshire is ideally placed to lead a new gastronomic revolution – and it might just save us from extinction.

The global food system is on the brink of collapse.

The old models of farming and food distribution are at breaking point. Scientists now predict that climate breakdown is accelerating simultaneous crop failure in many of the world’s major growing regions.

This news would be bad enough if it was affecting just one area – you’d assume others could step in and meet our nutritional needs (in the global north, at least). But the way we’ve streamlined our food system over the past fifty years using the neoliberal logistics of ‘just in time’ means that there’s no slack in the system, no resilience. Just one weak link can have a disastrous effect on this ultra-fragile system, and send prices spiralling upwards – as we’ve seen over the past two years with the cost of olive oil more than doubling.

Veronica white b Q6 Yb KQ Lv A unsplash

Huge quantities of land worldwide currently devoted to agriculture could be rewilded in future.

Veronica White on Unsplash.

But we’re not just looking at one weak link. We’re looking at the serious possibility of multiple crop failures across huge swathes of the planet’s agricultural land, all at the same time. If this happens, as crop experts now predict it will, the consequences for us as a species will be beyond dire.

What’s the beef?

At the same time, here in Sheffield, the city’s food culture revels in its own unsustainability. If you walk around town, you’re bombarded with adverts for burgers topped with bacon, fried chicken, pulled pork, onion rings and several types of cheese. Our food culture is obsessed with red meat, despite it being bad for our health and even worse for the planet.

The council has recently introduced a ban on adverts for “foods… that are high in fat, salt and/or sugar” but this only applies to the outdoor advertising boards it owns directly, not the hundreds in the city owned by big advertising companies, who profit from persuading us to buy things that at best we don’t need, and that at worst actively harm us.

The food that is marketed at us without our consent vastly exceeds our nutritional needs. But it’s no surprise that advertising convinces us to eat with our eyes rather than our stomachs when you look at our food culture. Broadsheet newspapers regularly review restaurants where the bill comes to several hundred pounds and who make a point of using the most expensive and difficult to source ingredients possible. At the same time, thousands of children in Sheffield go to bed hungry. What should be a simple part of daily life, and a potential point of connection with other people, has become another fetishised play-thing for the well-off.

In the global south, fragility and a lack of resilience is already causing the food system to fail – in 2015 the long-term trend of declining hunger rates went into reverse, and has been rising steadily ever since. At the same time, the food culture in global north cities like Sheffield is encouraging us to put our foot on the accelerator of total systems collapse.

Protein power

The celebration of waste and excess that we see all around us probably represents a last hurrah for our existing food culture. We’re not having an honest conversation about the fact that the way we eat in Sheffield will be radically different in a few years’ time. But this doesn’t have to be a calamity. Instead, it could allow us to not only reset our food culture and eat in a more nutritionally rich way, but also to rewild vast areas of the world’s land that are ecological dead zones because they’ve been devoted to agriculture.

In his book Regenesis, veteran environmental journalist George Monbiot outlines the route out of food systems collapse and the mass starvation it entails. At its core is what has been crudely termed by the media as ‘lab-grown meat’, but would be more accurately described as a new way of meeting the world’s protein needs while replicating the taste of meat and fish. This would complement other sources of protein that could still be grown in the traditional way, like beans, lentils and soy, while freeing up vast amounts of land currently used for grazing.

This is a technique that is currently being pioneered on an experimental basis, mostly in university-backed laboratories, but could one day be rolled out at scale. Unlike rearing animals, it requires no agricultural input like grain. Instead it uses (renewable) electricity, water and air to create protein and fat that can replicate animal products like milk, eggs, meat and fish. At the moment, as with many prototype products, the production costs are high with each burger costing around $10, but this is expected to fall steadily over time as the process is refined.

Change is brewing

This technique shrinks the amount of land we need to produce our food by an astonishing amount. One scientific paper estimates that lab-grown protein requires a staggering 1,700 times less land than soy grown in the United States – the most efficient way of producing protein that we currently have. Compared to producing beef and lamb on a farm – the two most inefficient and environmentally catastrophic ways to meet our protein needs – this new technique uses 138,000 and 157,000 times less land respectively. And Sheffield is the best-placed city in the UK to lead this new gastronomic revolution.


Sheffield has dozens of breweries which could be adapted to also create lab-grown protein.

Ian S on Wikimedia Commons.

Why? Because ‘precision fermentation’ as it’s technically known is, in essence, a brewing process. It uses good bacteria to multiply microbes and create fat or protein without the need for it to be grown in a field or reared in an animal. Despite the sci-fi sounding terminology, it’s not a particularly futuristic process: it’s very similar to brewing beer, which we’ve done for thousands of years in this country, and uses similar equipment.

Sheffield is the beer capital of the UK. We have nearly five times as many breweries per person as London and we brew 1,000 different beers in the city every year. We could easily adapt some of the vast amounts of brewing equipment in our city, even if just on a temporary basis, to demonstrate how precision fermentation could work in practice. We have the technology and it works. What’s now needed is a determined effort to commercialise it – to work out how to bring costs down so that it’s competitive with, and eventually much cheaper than, farmed food. With its centuries of brewing and commercial know-how, Sheffield is the ideal test bed for this grand project.

The potential benefits are not just enormous – they could save us as a species. Making traditional agriculture redundant would allow us to rewild most of the earth, and start to reverse catastrophic climate breakdown by creating powerful new carbon sinks. At the same time we could, for the first time in human history, meet the nutritional needs of every person on the planet – all without exceeding planetary boundaries. Finally, we could invent new forms of food, if not whole new cuisines, and create a food culture built around wellbeing and human needs, not excess and waste. Let’s start in South Yorkshire.

With special thanks to George Monbiot, whose book Regenesis inspired the ideas in this piece.

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