More people, demand for meat and climate change will force massive changes to agriculture, author says
A growing world population plus declining crop yields due to environmental stresses will trigger radical changes to what we grow and how we eat in coming decades, Amanda Little says.
“Climate change is becoming something we can taste,” she said in a speech to MEDA’s annual convention. “This is a kitchen table issue in the literal sense.”
Little is an author and journalism professor at Vanderbilt University, a private research institution in Nashville, Tennessee. Her second book, The Fate of Food- What we’ll eat in a bigger, hotter, smarter world, is an ambitious look at the global food system. Little spent three years travelling through a dozen countries and 50 US states to understand the future of food, and how food production needs to change to feed 10 billion people who are expected to live on the planet by 2050, compared to seven billion currently.
Not only is the population increasing rapidly, but growing middle classes around the world are demanding more diverse and protein-dense diets. This challenge will be exacerbated by crop yields that are expected to drop by two to six percent every decade this century, and water supplies that are in jeopardy in many regions.
Many specialty foods are produced in sub-tropical and equatorial nations, areas most vulnerable to climatic disruptions, she said. Climate models from Stanford University show that countries that are already hot and dry will become even hotter and drier.
Coffee, which thrives in weather that is neither too hot nor too cold, will be the most disrupted by changing conditions.
Whether they are growing coffee, tea, papaya, bananas, nuts or other crops, small-scale farmers in developing nations need better connections to markets, she said. They also need “a greater depth and breadth of information about how to grow their crops in new and changing circumstances.”
Some experts have predicted that by mid-century, current agri- cultural practices will not be able to support the population, she said.
Little believes that a race to re-invent the global food system is on. The world needs to solve the problems of industrial agriculture while also preparing for the environmental pressures ahead, she said.
While agriculture is a major contributor to climate change, the industry also has great potential to become crucial to environmental solutions going forward, she noted.
Seventy percent of the world’s fresh water flows to the world’s farms, and one-third of the world’s grains go towards feeding livestock. Over the past 50 years, there has been a doubling of the world’s population and a tripling of meat consumption, she said. “I am myself among those consumers.”
Little calls herself a lapsed vegetarian who has been vegan but loves the taste of meat. She grew up in a family that ate a lot of red meat, with a parent who considered chicken and fish to be vegetable matter.
Her family tries to grow its own food in their backyard. “It’s a wonderful project, and we’ve done it year after year, but the truth is, we aren’t very good at it.”
Recognizing that the question of how to fix the world’s food problems will not be fixed by vegetarians and backyard gardeners led her into a three-year project of observing the food space, investigating old and new ideas around the world.
Little visited apple orchards in Wisconsin, computerized food chains in Shanghai China, Norwegian fish farms, and famine-stricken regions of Ethiopia. She interviewed farmers, scientists, activists, and engineers, including Kenyans growing the country’s first GMO corn as a solution to pests ravaging crops across much of Africa.
“I began to see that farmers, entrepreneurs and academics are radically rethinking national and global food systems,” she said.
These pioneers are marrying old-world notions around agri-ecology with state-of-the-art technologies to create what she calls a third way to the food future. This involves taking the opportunity to marry old world wisdom with very sophisticated technologies.
In Arkansas, a company is using artificial intelligence to develop See & Spray, robotic precision sprayers that target weeds while sparing the crops. This approach, employing cameras and computer vision, helps farmers cut their herbicide use by more than 90 percent.
“I learned how robotics can end the practice of broadcast spraying chemicals across millions of acres of crops.”
More significantly, use of intelligent machines will allow precision spraying of pesticides, fungicides, and fertilizers on a plant by plant and field by field basis, she said. “Eventually, that kind of hyper-specific robotic farming can allow for more diversity and intercropping on fields, so that larger farms can begin to mimic natural systems and improve soil health.”
Little admits to initially being skeptical of the idea of integrating the old and the new. She thought there were two camps: on one side the tech investors like Bill Gates, who has famously said that “food is ripe for re-invention,” and on the other there are sustainable food advocates wanting to return to pre- industrial agriculture and keep technology out of food.
Eventually she came to see the debate as false opposites, that there is no need to choose one way or the other.
Concerns about water scarcity in many areas of the world are leading to a variety of efforts to create drought-proof water supplies.
Desalination technology, which removes salt from ocean brine, is energy intensive but is gaining ground as costs come down, she said.
Toilet to tap is another water reclamation effort being used. This process is similar to desalination technology, but at half the cost because there is much less salt in sewage. Orange County, California is now using the technology to provide a drought-proof water supply. Little visited the facility, drank water that hours earlier had been raw sewage, and found that it tasted as good as bottled water.
In water-scarce Israel, attention is turning to advances in smart water networks. Between 40 to 60 per cent of water in municipal systems is lost to underground leaks and bursts in antiquated water systems, she said. New systems use sensors to prevent, detect, or repair leaks.
Plant-based, alternative meats have been eagerly embraced by consumers, she noted. In recent months, demand for plant-based meats has increased by more than 250 percent.
There is promise in the future of lab-grown, cell-based meat that is grown with up to 85 percent less CO2 emissions in decentralized, indoor facilities that are less susceptible to environmental disruption, she said.
Little ate a piece of bio-reactor grown duck breast as part of her research. “It actually tasted like meat, because it was meat, just grown outside the animal.”
“This might be a much cleaner, much more environmentally friendly approach to high-protein meat production.”
Scientists and engineers are embracing third way thinking around food production, exploring the intersection of the ancient and the radically new, in many areas of production, she said.
Animal-free dairy products that are nearly indistinguishable from conventional dairy, artificial intelligence efforts to make aquaculture sustainable, and efforts to scale cover crops to turn farms into carbon sinks are all part of this trend, she said.
“Human innovation which marries new and old approaches to food production can… redefine sustainable food on a grand scale.”
“There is no doubt that the future of agriculture is regenerative agriculture.” What it will take to get us there is the big question, she added.
Governments need to put economic signals in place to scale regenerative ag, to improve soil health, allow farmers to plant crops that contain carbon in the soil and limit use of fertilizers that end up as nitrous oxide, she said. “There needs to be incentives for this.”
At the same time, Little notes that leaders in the industry are recognizing the need to transition from being “climate sinners to climate saints.” The problems are on North Americans’ doorsteps, not just in some far away land.
In Iowa, winds from increasingly severe storms have flattened soy and corn fields. In 2019, too much rain too quickly resulted in $7 billion in losses because it was too wet to put machinery on fields.
“Big agriculture cannot survive if they don’t figure out how to solve it.”
Decentralized food production less susceptible to disruptions, author says
The COVID-19 pandemic illustrates the challenges posed by centralized food production; Amanda Little says.
“Decentralized food production will become increasingly important to resilience,” she predicts.
Little, author of the book The Fate of Food – What we’ll eat in a bigger, hotter, smarter world, and a journalism professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, made the comment in a speech to MEDA’s annual convention.
At the beginning of the pandemic, meat supplies were disrupted in the US when workers fell ill at a facility that processes 20 percent of the nation’s pork, she noted. Farmers had to euthanize animals because they couldn’t deliver them for slaughter.
The pandemic also posed significant challenges in vegetable and potato production. Half of the North American supply goes to the food service industry, but banquet halls and restaurants closed or reduced capacity, often due to government restrictions, in order to limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
Rigid supply chains lacked the infrastructure to shift and divert supplies to where the food was needed. At the same time, 95 percent of US foodbanks were reporting increased demand and significant funding shortfalls.
Antiquated laws governing food chains and centralized food production resulted in the disconnect, she said.
“Resilience comes with decentralized production, bringing food production close to urban centres, the towns and cities that need to eat it.”
In one of many visits she made to food producers in doing research for the book, she toured vertical urban farms, with aeroponic systems used to grow greens. These farms use 95 per cent less water than in-ground crops, and the crops grow 40 per cent faster.
While this approach is not a grand-scale solution, it can work to provide more local sources of some high-flavor, very perishable food that other-wise require long-distance refrigeration and trucking. Such farms will also be good for regions that are vulnerable to drought and other climate impacts, she said.