How do you feed 9.7bn people and cool the planet?
Business-as-usual model of agriculture and food is not sustainable globally.
Fast-food chain Burger King has introduced the soy-based Impossible Whopper in US outlets. Photograph: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
Several high-level analyses of the global challenge to the human food supply have been issued of late, most recently the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). All recognise the dual need to reconcile the conflicting challenges of reducing carbon dioxide emissions while at the same time finding food for the human population, predicted to grow from its present level of 7.7 billion to 9.7 billion in three decades’ time.
The report of the EAT-Lancet Commission, published earlier this year, recognised that a reduction in meat and dairy intake would require a compensatory increase in alternative protein sources.
Thus their reference diet includes an average daily intake of 25g of nuts. The feasibility of this is challenged by researchers from the University of British Columbia. At present, the global average nut intake is 5 g per day and thus, to meet the commission’s targets for a world population of 10 billion, would require global nut production to grow from 18.3 to 89.2 million tonnes.
That latter figure is theoretically possible if land use and crop yields for nuts both grow by 200 per cent. That would require the present land use for nuts to treble to almost 40 million hectares and, since four countries or states dominate global nut production (China, Iran, Turkey and California in the US), it is difficult to see where an additional 30 million hectares would be found.
All in all, the commission’s target looks quite unrealistic. In trying to match actions to curb global warming and at the same time meet the nutritional needs of the growing global population, some trade-offs will be needed. There is no win-win scenario.
Experts are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. To fail to provide some detail to their projections would merit as much criticism as occurs when they attempt the very difficult task of providing some detail of what the future human food chain might look like. But one thing is certain: the business-as-usual model of agriculture and food is not sustainable globally.
All of these studies which make projections for food availability in the future recognise that their predictions can be altered with technological developments. Time after time, the human race has shown that necessity is the mother of invention. And so it will be for the global food supply.
I was surprised to learn that there wasn’t an ounce of real chicken it. The ‘meat’ was made entirely of plants
Vertical farming uses multi-storey buildings to grow various plants under very precise conditions of light, gases, nutrients and water. Urban vertical farming will continue to grow, particularly in Asia primarily because of land-mass limitations. Singapore is committed to land- and sea-based vertical farming of fruit, vegetables, mushrooms and seafood. This system uses 95 per cent less water than conventional farming and one acre of vertical farming can provide the same yield of crops as 10-20 acres of conventional production. There are big start-up costs but these can be reduced if derelict urban buildings are used.
Technology will also play a major role in making plant foods attractive to a market that would prefer to continue to enjoy convenience in food choice. Companies such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are producing meat analogues that are simply a magnet to the younger generation. Ocean Hugger Foods, in New York, is making a plant-based raw tuna substitute using tomatoes, water, soy sauce, sesame oil and sugar. LightLife in the US produces a Smart Bacon product based on soy and gluten proteins. Even the food giants such as Nestlé are entering the meat analogue market with their Awesome Burger product.
Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Alphabet, the parent company of Google, has placed plant-based meat analogues as the number-one game-changing technology of the future. Indeed, Google attempted to buy out Impossible Foods but their offer was rejected. Bill Gates, an early investor in Impossible Foods, tried their chicken analogue, which is based on plant protein, and commented: “The meat certainly had the look and the smell of chicken. I took a bite and it had the taste and texture of real chicken, too. But I was surprised to learn that there wasn’t an ounce of real chicken it. The ‘meat’ was made entirely of plants. And yet, I couldn’t tell the difference.”
Asia continues to be a growing market for our beef and dairy products but there is every reason to believe that plant-based meat and milk alternatives will be serious competitors to these exports in the not too distant future.
There is far too much blinkered thinking and a tendency to protectionism in relation to Irish agriculture
The IPCC and the EAT commission reports point out the challenges to the human race in ensuring a sustainable and nutritious food chain, abundant enough to feed all of humankind. It is up to each country to examine how its food chain can be adopted to meet these needs. That has not really happened yet in Ireland. We have the Department of Agriculture’s Food Wise 2025 report, a 10-year plan for the development of the agrifood industry; and in June we saw the Government’s long-awaited Climate Action Plan.
What is missing is a sense of joined-up thinking, linking our food sector, our nutrition and health policy and our climate policy. We need the formal establishment of a high-level and adequately resourced multi-disciplinary expert body representing agriculture, the environment, meteorology, nutrition, social science, economics, engineering, forestry and food technology and it needs to be protected from undue pressure from interested stakeholders. Its output should consist of several scenario analyses and some direction for investment in the support and infrastructure that will be needed for future generations to continue to function in the global food market.
There is far too much blinkered thinking and a tendency to protectionism in relation to Irish agriculture – sow trees on farms to sequester carbon dioxide to allow cows to continue to belch methane. There is not enough thinking on what way markets will change in response to the needs for a sustainable diet. If the gurus of Google and Microsoft can see this future, we ought to be thinking of the survival of Irish agriculture in a rapidly-changing food market.
Mike Gibney is professor emeritus at the UCD Institute of Food and Health