Why Vegemite for Cows Might Save Us From a Tasteless Vegetarian Future

Microbial proteins could make raising livestock cheaper and better for the environment


We clear-cut a lot of land as a species just to grow the feed for our cows, chickens, pigs, and even fish. They eat that stuff — for example, hundreds of millions of metric tons of protein-rich soy each year — so that we can eat them later. It’s not an especially efficient system, with enormous environmental costs.

Mercifully, some researchers from Queensland, Australia have a proposition: Maybe we could feed these animals some yeasty, protein-rich microbes instead? The same microbes astronauts eat? Space Vegemite.

“Breeding microbes like bacteria, yeast, fungi or algae could substitute protein-rich crops like soybeans and cereals,” according to Ilje Pikaar, an environmental engineer from the University of Queensland in Australia, in a statement accompanying the new study. “This method was originally developed during the cold war for space travel and uses energy, carbon and nitrogen fertilizers to grow protein-rich microbes in the lab.”

Research like this has been going on since the Cold War. Earlier this year, a group at Penn State’s Astrobiology Research Center unveiled some NASA-funded research showing that they had developed a batch reactor that used microbes to break down solid waste (astronaut poop) into clean, pathogen-free protein paste.

“It’s a little strange,” as Geosciences professor Christopher House put it in a collosal understatement of a statement to Penn State’s news apparat, “but the concept would be a little bit like Marmite or Vegemite where you’re eating a smear of ‘microbial goo.’”

Small wonder then that Pikaar — and his fellow Aussie researchers — would suggest feeding something like this to livestock.

As published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, their study found that swapping out just 2-percent of the current livestock feed crops with microbial protein material could help return 6 percent of cropland area back to nature and curb 7 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. It would be welcome news to vulnerable plant and animal species in areas like the Amazon, the Congo Basin and the Himalayas, where clear-cutting for big-time agribusiness has been a major threat to global forest cover and biodiversity.

There are other similar proposals in the works too. Scientists at companies like Entocycle — but also me and my 12-year-old cousin, Brad — would like to feed the cows a bunch of gross bugs.

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