The US military has a plan to make food from thin air. No really
The single coolest government body in America must surely be Darpa. The acronym stands for “Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency” and, for those who don’t already know, these are the guys who invented the internet and the computer mouse, wireless technology, unmanned deep-sea vehicles, stealth aircraft, handheld GPS, robotic prosthetics and hundreds of other things that turned science fiction into reality.
And “guys” is mostly right; many of the people who’ve worked here since President Eisenhower founded the agency in 1958 to counter the Russian launch of Sputnik, look straight out of cold war central casting, complete with either thick glasses, white shirts and pocket protectors or camo, lace-up boots and buzz cuts.
There are a few of those types in the lobby of the agency’s headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, on a cold morning in mid-November. But there are also plenty of twentysomethings in hoodies wielding laptops, perhaps part of the agency’s cyber ops, as well as several women and a host of characters you wouldn’t expect to be working in the Defense Department.
I’m here to see one of them: Molly Jahn, a plant scientist, agricultural risk consultant, professor of agronomy at the University of Wisconsin and one of the newest of 12 programme managers in Darpa’s Defense Sciences Office, each of whom heads up a key area of technology development. She’s the one with the rather broad goal of reinventing the entire process by which food gets made.
If that sounds ambitious, it’s only because you don’t work here. As one staffer puts it to me, “If you come to Darpa and don’t invent the internet, you get a B.” People who leave their already lofty regular lives to come and work here for a few years tend to be A students. They also tend to dream big.
The challenge of Jahn’s four-year project, dubbed “Cornucopia”, is to create a new global food system that more closely matches human needs than the one we currently have. “Could we shift our entire food paradigm in ways that could ensure national security, reduce energy usage and produce a healthier system?” she asks, rhetorically. (Jahn, in that visionary professor way, is a fan of rhetorical questions.) “Could the relatively unexplored universe of microbes, bacteria and fungi produce nutrients in hours or days — far more quickly than it takes to grow crops in a field?” Answer: Yes. In fact, some of this is already being done in labs around the world.
But what if you could take that concept of making food not from animals or even plants, but microbes and use it to decentralise food production itself? “What if everyone could produce basic ingredients for household needs?” Jahn continues. “What if food was more like air, so no one could easily control it and everyone could be a farmer in a pinch? If we really want to make the world better, then giving individuals more agency over their food is not only safer but also empowering. Maybe everyone should have a gizmo that can turn air and water into a basic substance, or at least back-up food systems when they fail.”
A gizmo that makes food from pretty much nothing is straight out of Star Trek. But in the aftermath of a pandemic that has shown us just how vulnerable our food systems and global supply chains are, it’s an idea whose time may have come. And Jahn is one of the few people with the résumé and resources to bring it closer to reality.
Jahn comes from a family of famous Canadian plant breeders, studied at MIT and Cornell University, and started her career sequencing genes. She eventually ended up working at Cornell, during which time she was funded by the National Science Foundation and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to do plant-biology research.
Mistakenly diagnosed with a terminal illness as a child, Jahn became “extremely focused” and goal-oriented. At Cornell, her day job was coming up with new plant varieties. “You can’t walk down a supermarket aisle in the US today without seeing my varietals,” she says proudly. These include Delicata squash and Hannah’s Choice melons, named after her daughter.
After a stint as dean of the agriculture school at the University Wisconsin-Madison, she won a multimillion-dollar grant from the Department of Energy to come up with ways to reduce carbon emissions at the “food, water, energy nexus”. In 2009, she was appointed by the first Obama administration to work as a deputy and acting under-secretary within the USDA to turn the department’s internet- and university-based research towards these challenges.
It was there that she began to see how the problems within the system were actually being reinforced by government. As acting under-secretary of research, education and economics, Jahn had two federal statistical agencies in her portfolio, along with both USDA internal and external research agencies. And yet, her budget was less than 1 per cent of the agency’s total. Most of the money was in Snap, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, aka food stamps. She found that reform was vexed by vested interests which, as a result of decades of incremental policy changes, had come to benefit hugely from the programme.
Of the many vulnerabilities exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic, one of most gut-wrenching has been dysfunctions at the heart of our food system. Americans in particular are used to food that is inexpensive and plentiful. Our entire system is designed to “pile it high and sell it cheap”, as the old grocer saying goes. In 1930 the average US family spent 24.3 per cent of its income on food. By 2007 that number had fallen to 9.8 per cent. This is because America’s food system, like most of the world’s, became dramatically more concentrated, industrialised and globalised over that period.
Three companies now control 70 per cent of agrochemicals. Ninety per cent of global grain is controlled by four multinational companies. Nine food companies control what is bought and sold in retail outlets. What’s more, 60 per cent of our food supply comes from just three crops — corn, wheat and rice — the production of which is controlled by a handful of Big Ag and chemical companies. And agriculture has become incredibly efficient: US farmers have nearly tripled their per acre production over the past 70 years.
The costs of these efficiencies were hiding in plain sight until the pandemic exposed them. Take the horrifying labour practices within the highly concentrated meatpacking industry, for example, where some workers have to cut animals apart so quickly they don’t even have time to cover their mouths to cough. The result was that the meat industry has come under more scrutiny than it has since Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle in 1906. In the US, Big Food now rivals Big Tech as a focus of antitrust action. The Department of Justice has begun investigations into Tyson Foods, Cargill, National Beef and JBS SA.
Industry is taking the heat, but it’s just followed where government policy has led since the 1970s. Concentration in food supply chains is part of a multidecade move towards policies that prioritised the global economy over national resilience. It has been a steady process of small tweaks over many years. Often, the changes began in the form of worthy ideas to address legitimate needs and then slowly morphed into incentives that weakened the stability of the entire system.
Snap, for example, came out of a realisation, in the run-up to the second world war, that farm surpluses could be used to feed hungry people in cities. As the programme expanded in the 1960s and 1970s, and became the responsibility of the USDA, it began to fuel a system that is all about minimising food prices. The pressure to keep prices low in part drove the industry to consolidate and pursue efficiency above all.
This is a key reason that, in the wake of the pandemic, farmers had to destroy crops and dump milk, even as there were lines at supermarkets as people hoarded goods in preparation for lockdown. Why? Because a system designed to promote “efficiency” led to two entirely separate supply chains — one supporting supermarkets, the other restaurants and institutions such as schools and hospitals. When demand in the second supply chain collapsed thanks to pandemic-related shutdowns, grocery prices in the first surged.
Jahn notes that the world, and America especially, is now on a “commodities treadmill” that works only “if the costs to the environment are not figured into the equation, which is like pretending that erosion, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico and antibiotic resistance — among other scary things — aren’t occurring”. Her first stint in government convinced Jahn to look elsewhere for solutions.
The size and scope of the agricultural system makes change incredibly difficult. Of course, it’s not just agriculture at play, but supply chains, manufacturing, materials science and so on. Jahn is what’s known in some academic and defence circles as a “systems thinker”. The more complex and multifaceted the problem, the more she’s interested.
As she learnt more about plant genetics, for example, she became focused on the damage that humans were doing to the environment and convinced that the problems within the food system were about more than food. “It was all about energy,” she says. “Climate change was about humans using fossil fuels to support practices like conventional agriculture that were releasing too much energy into the system. Obesity was about too much caloric energy in the biological system.
“I was becoming more and more convinced that humans were driving the planet way, way, outside historical bounds,” she continues. “And agriculture turned out to be one of the primary ways that humans acted thermodynamically on the planet.” The problem, says Jahn, was that we had viewed abundance as a risk-management strategy. While that may have been true early in human history, it now came with its own costs.
As her academic career progressed, Jahn began to notice hubs of risks that were common throughout the US food chain. Most of the country’s fruit and vegetable supply, for example, flows through five counties in California that are subject to earthquakes, wildfires, drought and economic inequality. All of this can exacerbate instability, amplifying small events into big ones. “One of the things that you look for if you are interested in the functioning of a network is, where is the embedded risk hub?” explains Jahn. “Where is the intersection of food poverty, financial insecurity, health and national security?” All of it pointed to just a handful of places.
The doctrine of shareholder “value” had driven this vulnerability, too. And Jahn concluded that the people who could change things fast were in finance, not government. Enter Trevor Maynard, the head of emerging risk at the insurance giant Lloyd’s of London. Maynard had heard of Jahn’s work and requested a meeting. In 2014, she got on a plane to London, and, as she puts it, “came in with all my stacks of research papers”, ready to launch into a lengthy presentation about the risks inherent in the world’s food, energy and water nexus.
Maynard, a crisp British actuary, told Jahn what he needed was a “two-page, extreme and plausible scenario for systemic risk in food systems with the potential to cascade to other sectors”. If she could supply this, he could, perhaps, convince his board that the insurance industry needed to rethink how it covered the food industry and, indeed, a host of other industries affected by climate change. If food companies were at risk of losing their coverage, things might just begin to change.
Jahn went back to Wisconsin, sat down at her kitchen table and began thinking up a scenario that was risky enough to disrupt global food supply and cause all sorts of ancillary damage. The idea was to present Lloyd’s not with something that might happen, but something that surely would happen given a bit of time.
She didn’t have to look back too far in history to come up with something to plug into her model. She realised that if she used an El Niño year, meaning a year in which changes in air and tidal flows lead to strange weather patterns, and “threw in a couple of other one-off events, nothing extreme, just another major flood or fire, then suddenly you have a scenario in which production of all the major commodity crops — corn, rice, soyabeans — are being slashed by 5 to 10 per cent”. After that, the theoretical dominoes begin to fall fast, with plunging stock markets and global famines leading to political instability and geopolitical conflict.
Jahn went back to Maynard to discuss her findings. In 2015, Lloyd’s commissioned Jahn and a colleague, Aled Jones, to do a study on food insecurity and finance, as well as a follow-up report in 2019. These garnered much attention within the underwriting and insurance communities, which began pushing companies for more information about their supply chains, exposure to climate change and general preparedness for extreme events.
Meanwhile, security types from the US, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and other countries were becoming interested in Jahn’s work. Talking to them, she became convinced that defence departments might be another major lever for change. “There’s a relationship between the DoD, food security and humanitarian crises around the world,” says Jahn, who notes that in about 80 per cent of those crises, the US military is deployed in some capacity. Most of them involve food and food-systems security.
Since 2016, Jahn has met with a number of military officials and politicians who are concerned that food could become a weapon in any future conflict. What might have sounded mildly hyperbolic in 2019 now sounds prescient heading into 2022. Food has become a focal point around US-China decoupling and the broader deglobalisation of supply chains. Why did pork prices spike after the pandemic hit? Because the largest pork producer in the US, Smithfields, is owned by a conglomerate with direct ties to the Chinese government, which wanted to export what pork was available to feed its own people. China has also, for the past several years, been buying up ports, farm land, seed banks and key agricultural technology firms around the world.
Food has become central to defence types as part of the changing nature of war, which may be less about missiles and more about the resilience of highly technical, connected systems, like agriculture. All of which leads to Darpa, where Jahn’s newly announced food security programme is launching with the goal of completely upending how nutrients are produced and distributed. If the agency is successful, not only will food security dramatically improve, but agricultural carbon emissions could be cut to a tiny fraction of what they are today — basically to whatever it takes to power the appliances in your home.
A “gizmo” that makes food from nothing is exactly how the crew of the Starship Enterprise fed itself and, even by the standard of 1960s sci-fi, sounds improbable. Except that companies in different parts of the world are already working on it, with prototype programmes that use minimal energy to turn microbes into food. Microbes are, after all, all around us. We ingest trillions of them every day, as part of everything else in our food. Existing private-sector efforts are small-scale because they are almost exclusively focused on using microbes to create complex proteins and thus must rely on industrial equipment that isn’t mobile.
The aim of Cornucopia is to sketch out the necessary technology and science to make it possible, say, for US troops to feed themselves in extreme circumstances in which they can count on nothing but their own power generator, air and water. As the press release about the programme puts it, “carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, and oxygen from air and water” would be transmuted into more microbes that produce food molecules, including proteins, fats, carbohydrates and dietary fibre — in the form of safe, palatable foodstuffs, using mobile power sources.
To do that, Jahn is bringing together some of the existing commercial efforts with other public- and private-sector research, academics and defence personnel. Using the techniques of chemical engineering and synthetic biology, Jahn and her team are splitting water and air into component elements and then splicing them into new types of microbes. These could ultimately be used to generate different types of food, replacing the standard-issue ready meals for troops.
If this is starting to sound pie in the sky, just remember: so did mRNA research when Darpa invested in it years ago. “We want to be able to create different flavours, textures and types of food,” Jahn says. In order to get the project off the ground, Jahn didn’t have to prove a food-from-nothing device was producible. But she did have to show it was mathematically possible. “I push a lot of boundaries,” she says. “But I live within the realm of the laws of thermodynamics.”
Her team has already devised a raw solution of nutrients that could be crucial. That lab work isn’t done at Darpa facilities, but rather among the project’s numerous corporate and academic partners. This is how the agency works so fast; it’s designed to be lean and uses mostly contract researchers it calls “performers”, who want to be involved in cutting-edge research. Jahn will co-ordinate their efforts from her office in Arlington. Aside from the geeks and military types, the only thing that makes the space seem at all out of the ordinary is that I had to hand over my laptop and phone before going upstairs.
Because she’s at Darpa, Jahn has to think about innovations that involve national defence and resiliency. But Cornucopia has tremendous commercial potential. It’s also very disruptive. “This could be as consequential a reanovation in food systems as we’ve had in the last 10,000 years,” she says.
For Jahn, the first step in changing how we think about agriculture and food systems has been to convince people — in government, defence and the private sector — that change is possible. Her inspiration is a 19th-century British school teacher, Elizabeth Heyrick, who was a pivotal force in helping the British see slavery as abhorrent. Heyrick, whose story is told in the 2005 book Bury the Chains, found a blueprint of a slave ship holding container — the block-print picture that became ubiquitous in textbooks around the world, showing slaves lying foot to head, packed tightly and left to vomit, defecate and often die.
“It’s one thing to know something as an idea, another to make a bunch of British women see that picture every time they look into their sugar bowl,” Jahn notes, referring to the role of sugar in the slave trade. As a result of Heyrick’s efforts, Britain ended slavery decades before America did. Jahn’s mission now is to get the global public to see their dinner plates as they really are today. And, slowly, to help us make food healthier, less energy-intensive and, ultimately, a source of resilience.
Rana Faroohar is an FT associate editor and global business columnist
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