Hunters like to say they only kill what they can eat. Can you imagine a world where oil company executives say they only drill what they can eat? Me neither, but it could happen soon as a California biotechnology company is building the first ever large-scale factory to turn natural gas into a high-protein food. It will initially be only for animal feed but there’s plenty of methane and a lot of people on this planet who will eat anything, especially if it’s deep-fried or covered in ketchup. Could McDonald’s already by planning a Big Meth?
We want to take it all the way to cats and dogs, and potentially even humans.
Alan Shaw, CEO of Calysta, based in Menlo Park, has already opened a small plant in Teesside, England, to make methane-based food for fish farms. The technology was developed in the 1980s but it’s taken until now for natural gas to be cheap enough and governments to be open enough to approve it.
The methane-to-food process requires the help of Methylococcus capsulatus, a bacteria that eats methane. They’re found hanging around in wet places where methane is seeping out of the ground, like on the ocean floor or in marshes over methane pockets. Unlike in the wild, these bacteria live comfortable lives in vats of water bubbling with methane … until the vats are drained and they’re dried and formed into pellets.
The plant in Teesside produces 100 tons of food annually – enough for catfish but not for cats, cattle and chickens. The plant in Menlo Park will produce 200,000 tons of feed a year. The feed, called FeedKind, is described as “a nutritious, high protein feed that is a sustainable alternative to fishmeal..”
It’s a long way from fishmeal to fish sandwiches, but Shaw says turning methane into food is the wave of the future and he’s already talking to the man who knows all future things – Elon Musk – about using it to feed humans on Mars. The process is also attracting competition as Unibio has opened a similar small factory in Denmark.
This all sounds great – using a harmful greenhouse gas to make useful food for fish and Mars explorers. Unfortunately, there’s a downside and it’s related to fracking. While bio-methane from organic sources is safe, it’s hard to get and expensive. Natural gas is cheap due to fracking but bacteria eating fossil fuel methane emit CO2 and lots of it. Are we trading one problem for another? Shaw tries to put a positive spin on it.
I’m addressing a food security issue and saving the oceans and not cutting down rain forests for soya. Taking fish out of the sea that you then feed to other fish, that is unsustainable.
Like elections, it looks like eating food made of methane may just trading one problem for another.