By 2050, an estimated 10 billion people will live on Earth. To provide them with a healthy diet, eating habits need to change.
That’s the one-line summary of the World Resources Institute on the future demands of feeding our planet. To expand a little further (and to give this article the illusion of structure) it outlines three major issues that need to be addressed.
- The food gap – WRI estimates that by 2050 we will need 56% more crop calories than were produced in 2010.
- The land gap – we will need an extra 593 million hectares to grow crops (majority being used as pasture crops to feed animals). That’s an area twice the size of India.
- GHG mitigation gap – the diﬀerence between the annual GHG (green house gas) emissions likely from agriculture and land-use in 2050, which is estimated to be 15 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent (Gt CO2e), and a target of 4 Gt that represents agriculture’s proportional contribution to holding global warming below 2°C. The gap is therefore estimated to be 11 Gt.
Creating a sustainable food future by 2050
1. The food gap
So how do we decarbonise the agricultural industry? It’s a question that many policy makers find hard to swallow. Agriculture has a huge environmental impact, generating around 24% of global greenhouse gas emissions and it’s also a huge drain on land and water resources. But what we eat is a personal choice and will remain so.
Attempting to take such a personal choice away would be political suicide to say the least! In fact, only China has come out with any kind of policy directly aimed at what the population eat – their government now plans to half the average meat consumption of its citizens by 2030.
The way to tackle the issue then, is to provide consumers with more choice and more information around their choices.
The alternative milk market has proven that change is already well underway, with the sector growing rapidly over the past decade, accounting for roughly 14% of global sales volume in 2020, according to Statista.
Environmental impact of one glass (200ml) of different milks
The alternative meat category is less mature, but investment has been pouring in to scale up plant-based solutions. Companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are here to save us from our excessive meat demand with meatless meat. Even the largest meat-processing company in the world, JBS, are now making plant-based burgers.
Equivalent of miles driven (in terms of GHG emissions)
While many plant-based substitutes are already present on our supermarket shelves, widespread availability of cell-based meat is still a few years away. Cell-based, or cultured meat, uses animal cells to grow the real thing but without the cruelty, emissions and land use of traditional meat farming. One estimate by the consulting firm Kearney in Chicago, suggests that 35% of all meat consumed globally by 2040 will be cultured.
Memphis Meats has produced chicken nuggets and beef meatballs. Finless Foods, is currently working on developing bluefin tuna, and BlueNalu is working on several types of cell-based seafood with the aim of becoming a global leader in cellular aquaculture. Last year, the world’s first cell-based meat was approved for public sale in Singapore by a US start-up called Eat Just.
I’ve mostly focused on how the current system must change or be replaced but we can also do a lot more with the food that is produced today. Almost a quarter of what we currently produce goes to waste according to the WRI. Inefficiencies can be tackled all along the food chain. For example, consumer recycling company Tomra, offers sorting and grading solutions that can “help increase the yield of produce by between 5-10 per cent, which when put into context equates to as much as 25,000 trucks of potatoes every year.” Investment and implementation of such solutions could chip away at the problem.
2. The land gap
In truth, the three issues covered in this article are not separate challenges, they are very much intertwined. If we start to reduce meat consumption in its current form, then the land gap starts to solve itself. It is estimated that livestock occupy 30% of the planet’s land surface and account for 78% of all agricultural land use.
But we are now seeing the emergence of Precision Agriculture as a major sustainability theme. Precision agriculture uses technology and data to optimise the efficiency and productivity of farming. It covers a range of different approaches including satellite data, drones, sensors, automation, and robotics.
Along with reducing land use, Precision Agriculture can also reduce the need for water and chemicals.
An example of this is Blue River Technology, acquired in 2017 by Deer&Co. Blue River utilizes machine learning and computer visioning attached to tractors and drones to manage crops at the individual plant level. The company has been able to reduce the usage of herbicides by 90% through targeting and dosing each plant rather than inefficiently spraying entire fields.
Vertical farming is another interesting area that’s worth keeping an eye on. It requires a controlled, indoor environment with crops grown on a series of stacked layers. This new technology-enabled farming means crops can be grown reliably, built in urban areas and other agri-challenged places, running 24/7, and growing crops regardless of the changing climate. Some studies suggest we can generate a 516 times higher yield per vertical layer than in conventional field farming.
However, it should be said that the industry is still at a very early stage (mostly focused on micro-herbs & leafy greens at present) and does face its own environmental challenges such as the amount of electricity it uses to keep the lights on.
3. GHG mitigation gap
Providing more choice and introducing new and more efficient farming methods will start to bridge the GHG gap. Maybe the last piece of the puzzle is to inform consumers about the environmental footprint of their choices.
A 2020 survey, commissioned by the Carbon Trust, surveyed a large number of consumers across Europe, and found that more than two-thirds would support the introduction of carbon labelling on products. Several brands have already begun carbon labelling, or are planning to introduce the idea, and perhaps this is something policy makers could get behind? More informed choice is on the way.
Quorn the meat substitute, is already using carbon footprint labels on its most popular products; Oatly, a popular brand of oat milk, began using the labels in 2019 and even Unilever, one of the world’s largest consumer goods companies, has set an ambition to eventually include them on everything it makes.
So with all this in mind, I’ve put together a completely fictitious menu of the future;