In this day and age, one could easily make the argument that the world runs on crude oil. Petroleum is the basis for a number of products that we use every day.
Crude Oil is processed into gasoline that is used to “feed” our cars, boats, military vehicles, and farm equipment. However, in the 1970s, the Soviets researched the possibilities of using crude oil to grow single cell proteins (SCP) that would ultimately be used as a synthetic protein supplement in livestock feed.
Crude oil was seen as the best substrate to use for this research because it was readily available in the USSR. The Soviet plan was to process crude oil into paraffin; and then, uses yeast to process the paraffin into proteins.
Once dead the proteins would be added to livestock feed in order to stretch out grain reserves.
Single Cell Protein Program
In a CIA Document titled The Soviet Hydrocarbon-Based Single Cell Protein Program, the U.S. government evaluated the progress the Soviets made in their research and how that research could affect the Soviet livestock production.
According to the document, the Soviets were committed using petroleum to cultivate the single cell.
“They have established research and development facilities dedicated to growing yeasts on hydrocarbons and have built or plan to build two pilot plants and eight large-scale production plants for cultivating yeast SCP on petroleum hydrocarbon.”
The document contends that the Soviets had the potential to produce 1 million metric tons of SCP. The production of this much SCP would have greatly benefited the Soviet Union and other countries began to take notice of the Soviet progress and followed suite.
However, this was not a secret endeavor on behalf of the Soviets. The years prior to the CIA report, the Sydney Morning Herald reported on the increase use of hydrocarbon in the production of SCPs. (2)
According to the article, the U.S., Italy and Japan were in impressed with the Soviet progress into the field. So much so, that Italy and Japan began their own SCP research. The article contends that the U.S. only dabbled with hydrocarbon based SCPs because it was still economical to use natural fodder.
However, it was a good thing that the U.S. held off on full-scale production because, although synthetic SCPs appeared to be beneficial; it was later discovered that the benefits came at a steep price.
Skin Disease and Mold Infections
In a 1990 article published on Grain.org, the production of SCPs had consequences for not only the animals that ate the supplemented feed, but also for the people who worked in the production facilities. It seemed that the production and use of SCPs caused a number of medical issues in facility workers and people living near the factories along with genetic effects in livestock.
Grain.org contends that since the manufacturing process was not enclosed, “a striking rise in the number of bronchial asthma patients in the neighborhoods of the production sites.” (3) Furthermore, factory workers seemed to be more “susceptible to derivative skin diseases and mold infections.” (3)
It is easy to argue the fact that the Soviets were quite successful in growing animal feed from crude oil. They could have produced enough SCPs that would have helped to mitigate the deficiencies in the Soviet meat and grain reserves.
However, it seemed that the country, along with several others, was so taken back by the success that the process itself was not fully researched. As a result, citizens of the Soviet Union along with the livestock the SCPs were supposed to feed became extremely ill.
The Soviet Hydrocarbon-Based Single Cell Protein Program is a prime example of how just because something is technologically possible, does not mean it should be done.