The future of food
Feeding the planet while avoiding climate disaster
While no lion was consulted while making the chart above, it’s fun thinking about what a lion’s life may revolve around. A whole lot of eating and sleeping is my best guess. Interestingly, until we figured out agriculture, we weren’t far off from that lion or any other animals. While our hunting days may be behind us, it’s not that food has not been a challenge. In fact, not so long ago, we were unsure if we had enough food to feed everyone on earth.
The Pursuit of Shit - (The 1800s)
In the 1800s, farmers tried their best with crop rotation to increase yields to feed a growing population but that simply wasn't enough. This had led to the pursuit of "guano". Guano is nothing but the excrement of seabirds and bats.
Guano was an incredible fertilizer as it was rich in nitrogen and phosphorus. Keep in mind that at this time, we had not figured out how to use the nitrogen in the air to create a synthetic fertilizer and so "shit" is all we had! Islands like Peru saw a boom and bust cycle due to "guano" as the world’s largest supply of bird excrement was in Peru.
Due to this, for the next four decades, Peru controlled the entire world's fertilizer industry. To give you an idea about just how crazy this "pursuit of shit" was, the Guano Islands Act, was passed as a United States federal law in 1856. It enables citizens of the United States to take possession, in the name of the United States, of unclaimed islands containing guano deposits. (Wikipedia)
Despite all this at the turn of the 20th century, there were fears around the world about mass starvation.
The Birth of Synthetic Fertilizer - (The 1900s)
The earth simply couldn't yield enough food to keep up with the rising population even with guano. Fortunately for us, in 1908, 2 scientists figured out a way to create synthetic fertilizer by converting the nitrogen in the air to ammonia.
Now famously known as the Haber-Bosch process, this was an enormous breakthrough. To give you some context on just how crazy this innovation was, between 1900 and 2000, the world population increased from 1.5 to 6.1 billion. Thanks to synthetic fertilizer coupled with some other innovations we did not see mass starvation which was otherwise expected at the start of the 20th century.
That brings us to 2022.
What is up with food today?
So we figured out synthetic fertilizers and hence all is good right? Not quite.
Bill Gates perfectly sums up the issue with food production when he says “We need to produce much more food than we do today, but if we keep producing it with the same methods we use now, it will be a disaster for the climate.”
While population growth has slowed down it is still increasing and is expected to hit 10 Billion sometime this century. While we need to feed this increasing population we need to be careful about the harm our current practices are doing to the climate.
Close to 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the food and agricultural sector. Below I mention 4 practices that are responsible for some of this increase in greenhouse gases.
Deforestation has some obvious issues and some not so obvious.
The Obvious - Cutting trees leads them to release Carbon Di Oxide into the atmosphere which is not ideal.
The Not so Obvious - When trees are cut the soil is disturbed. The soil too has Carbon which is then released into the atmosphere. Again not ideal.
Deforestation is hard to curb as the reason it is being carried out differs from country to country. For some, it is linked to more land for grazing. For others, it is linked to more land for growing crops.
Vertical farming is a type of farming with some potential to help reduce the land requirement for growing crops. It allows crops to be cultivated in urban areas by planting them in vertically stacked layers in order to save space and use minimal energy and water for irrigation. The question remains if it can hit scale quickly, especially in developing nations.
2. Enteric Fermentation
Of the total agricultural land on earth, nearly 77% is used for livestock. Despite using 77% of the land, livestock produces only 18% of the world's supply of calories and 33% of the global protein supply. (Source: Our world in data). Furthermore, livestock directly releases a lot of methane into the atmosphere.
To extract the fibers from the food that they eat, cows (and other livestock) periodically bring their food back up from their stomachs to chew again. This is known as "chewing the cud."This constant chewing and digestion lead to a lot of burping and this would have been fine, if not for the composition of those burps. When burping, cows release methane, into the atmosphere.
The methane cows release is impacted by the type of food the cow eats. Better food quality will lead to easier digestion and hopefully lower methane emissions. Genetic breeding or food additives are being experimented with to reduce this methane, but their success or their ability to scale is yet to be seen.
Livestock poop is a problem as that when decomposed, releases nitrous oxide which is also a greenhouse gas, causing global warming.
This is what makes plant-based meat alternatives interesting. Companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods offer plant-based options in the beef, pork, and poultry categories.
The basic business idea beyond plant-based meat is to take proteins from plants and convert them into products that taste like traditional animal products. It is a vegetarian and dairy-free alternative to animal protein.
According to Beyond Meat, one of its alternative meat burgers produces 90% lower greenhouse gas emissions than the traditional beef equivalent.
3. Manufacturing and usage of fertilizers
While synthetic fertilizers have saved the day, they aren't necessarily climate-friendly. To make them we need to burn natural gas which creates greenhouse gases. Furthermore not all the fertilizer that is applied gets absorbed. A lot of it gets washed away or gets absorbed in the air further creating greenhouse gases.
Finding a suitable replacement for synthetic fertilizers is quite a task. Matching the yield they provide while not harming the environment is the problem.
Precision agriculture will obviously help here. It is the way forward for as it relies on improving crop yields and assisting farmings decisions using technology. Think satellite imagery, GPS, drones, etc. Precision agriculture allows farmers to manage fields not as a single block but by dividing them into separate areas. This segregation helps in better management as different parts may require different fertilizer amounts which can be monitored better. Ofcourse affordability and scalability are questions that are yet to be answered.
Genetically modified seeds are also very interesting as they can contain specific characteristics making them resistant to certain pests. Currently, though there is a lot of debate going on regarding their usage and safety. (Europe Vs USA)
4. Transport of Food
Food is not always a production problem. It is also a logistical issue. A whole lot of food is wasted as it did not reach the person who really needs it. Apart from wastage, transporting food still requires petrol/disel which is ofcourse emitting green house gases. Hopefully over time as we transition to EV, some of these issues may improve.
So if you have read so far I’m sure you have a bunch of questions.
Are we really going to see a slowdown in deforestation?
Are we really going to see a drastic increase in artificial meat products over time?
Can precision agriculture and vertical farming hit scale quickly? Can it really be an option for countries like India? What will happen to the farmers who cannot afford it?
Could direct air capture for Carbon Di Oxide become affordable, solving a lot of these problems?
Unfortunately, I am far from a climate or food expert, to answer any of those questions with any sort of confidence. I’m just someone fond of finance, who wanted to try to get up to speed on the basics of the food industry.
If you want to read up more on food and climate I would recommend checking out the incredible books -
The Alchemy of the Air by Thomas Hager
How to avoid Climate Disaster by Bill Gates
How the World really works by Vaclav Smil
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