08 Oct 2019
Can we stop eating up the planet?
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Food is currently the largest reason for the energy imbalance on earth. The statistics are terrifying, yet there is cause for hope.
The statistics speak volumes. Food is the single largest source of greenhouse gases, with 31% attributable to food and its associated distribution chain. Food is also the single largest consumer of freshwater, the largest user of land and the single largest cause of biodiversity loss and soil nutrient depletion.
But just as the current food system drains the earth of resources at an unsustainable rate and drives climate warming, it will have to cope with the challenges of the coming climate.
For example, globally, grains account for about 40% of the human diet. Add soybeans and corn, and you’re up to two-thirds of all human calories. But the UN estimates we will need nearly twice as much food like that in 2050 as today.
More heat, less yield
However, just as we need to grow more grains and other related foodstuffs, planetary warming steps in. For every degree of warming, yields decline by a startling 10%.
We need to urgently produce food in more resilient, sustainable and efficient ways. This means reducing emissions and pollution, minimizing waste and improving our soil.
Drought could also be another fundamental problem for food producers.
At two degrees of warming, a highly-likely scenario given the current rate of carbon emissions, droughts will decimate the Mediterranean and much of India. At three degrees, it has been claimed that Central America, Pakistan, western US, and Australia will be almost permanently drought-stricken and unable to grow food.
Oceans in crisis
Turning to the oceans, the source of fully one-fifth of all animal protein we eat, the picture is no less bleak. Acidification, warming, oxygen starvation and pollution have undermined this source of food. Many have described a mass extinction of species.
Off Australia, for example, fish populations have plummeted by 32% in just a decade.
Can we face this challenge to our most fundamental daily need? Is there such a thing as a sustainable food system? We have less than a decade to act. And find out.
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Reasons for hope
There are a number of solutions to the challenge of feeding a warming planet. From preventing nearly a third of all food going to waste, for example, to grow more efficiently thanks to new technologies. From ecological farming methods to changing to a more plant-based diet.
Here’s a selection of ideas.
- Emerging technologies, incorporating data and AI are at an early stage, offering visions of ‘vertical’ urban farms, soil-less growing, and replacement of intensive meat raising. The question is, can these technologies scale quickly to make a global impact?
- High-Pressure Processing could extend the shelf life of food by ten times. The technique effectively inactivates micro-organisms to guarantee food safety. This combination of high pressure and low-temperature environment safely maintains the taste, food, appearance, texture and nutritional value of food.
- Kickstarter companies like Exo are hoping to make insect protein bars commonplace in our diets. Insect protein tends to contain about 60% protein, is packed with vitamin B12 and has more calcium than milk.
- Lab-grown meat, otherwise known as in vitro animals or ‘clean meat’ could be on sale very soon. It could also make meat production a new form of sustainable engineering.