• Minnie Rous

Food for thought

By Minnie Rous, Yasir Aheer, Rahul Rao and Varun Rao


Summary:

  • Our current dietary preference and approach to food production are putting tremendous pressure on the environment.

  • Even at the current population level, we consume more than 1.7 times what the Earth can provide sustainably. The problems are only going to grow given we will need to produce 70% more food to feed the close to 10 billion people estimated to inhabit the Earth by 2050.

  • We need innovative solutions now to address the challenges ahead.

Agriculture is considered the cornerstone of human civilization. Domesticating animals and plants allowed previously nomadic hunter-gatherer bands to build settlements and a stable food supply, which enabled the human population to thrive. Agriculture allowed small egalitarian groups to turn into kingdoms and gave rise to towns and cities that flourished for centuries. Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of farming villages that existed as far back as 11,000 years.


Ancient societies were limited to what they could produce locally: they were constrained by their local terrain, bound to follow the seasons, and were at the mercy of local weather conditions for their food supply. Our modern society has none of these limitations. Enabled by a complex global supply chain, most items are available all year round. Figure 1 illustrates the globalized nature of the humble cheeseburger. In this example, as simple an ingredient as garlic powder can be sourced from nine different countries. With such a high degree of interconnectedness, we are dependent on others more than ever before. To make this point, in a social experiment a German supermarket removed all foreign-made products from the shelves. Surprised shoppers entered the store to find it near empty, demonstrating how reliant we all are on our global partners for everyday products.

With the global human population set to hit 8 billion in a few years, the effectiveness of the food processing and handling (FP&H) industry is more important than ever before. McKinsey & Company categorises the food industry into three sub-sectors: processing, packaging, and commercial foodservice equipment. The FP&H industry collectively represents a market of roughly $100 billion globally and is expected to grow, driven by population growth.


To understand the challenges within our food production ecosystem, it is first important to mention the most important driver: diet preference. Our global diet preference is heavily skewed towards meat, and this trend is not looking to slow any time soon. As developing economies mature and gain wealth, their populations’ diets shift toward higher meat consumption. According to a study by McKinsey & Company, meat consumption stabilizes at higher levels of income compared with less costly food products that are based on sugar. As an example, China’s booming middle class and rapid urbanization has been accompanied by a rise in meat consumption.

In recent years the food industry has come under greater scrutiny from a sustainability perspective. For much of human history, most habitable land (ice-free and non-barren) was dominated by forests, grasslands and shrubbery. It is estimated that 1000 years ago less than 4% of the world’s habitable land area was used for farming. Fast forward to today and over half of all habitable land is used for agriculture. Wild habitats have been squeezed out and replaced by agriculture. Agriculture and aquaculture are listed as threats for more than 24,000 of the 28,000 species evaluated to be threatened for extinction.


Our preference for meat is also reflected in the uneven distribution of land between livestock and general crops for food, with livestock accounting for over three quarters (77%) of global farming land. It is estimated that 94% of all mammal biomass (excluding humans) is livestock and only 6% represents animals in the wild. The challenge with all that livestock is not merely land usage, but greenhouse gas emissions also. It is estimated that over one-fifth of the world's greenhouse-gas emissions are associated with agriculture, and animal farming represents half of that. To bring the point home with an analogy, if cows were classified as their own country, it would be the second highest emitter of greenhouse gas.


Looking at the greenhouse gas emissions across the supply chain (Figure 3), it becomes clear that the culprit is neither transportation, nor the processing component in the cycle. The lion's share of greenhouse gas emissions is attributed to land use and farming. So buying local produce to limit transport emissions will simply not be enough to tackle the emission challenges posed by the current food production industry.

Solutions

Since meat is such a significant portion of the food industry’s greenhouse gas emission, it is only natural that some of the greatest efforts toward sustainability within the industry are looking to replace meat. As an example, Impossible Foods is on a mission to shift from animal to plant-based meat; they believe using animals to make meat is prehistoric. According to the company, heme is what makes meat taste like meat. Heme is an essential molecule found in every living plant & animal and something we’ve been eating since the dawn of humanity. Impossible Foods makes their plant-based heme via fermentation of genetically engineered yeast, as explained in more detail in the video below.


Another company pushing to reduce our reliance on animals for protein is Beyond Meat. They believe reducing or replacing animal-based meat from our diet can positively impact four growing global issues such as human health, climate change, constraints on natural resources, and animal welfare. According to the company, a peer-reviewed Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) conducted by the University of Michigan compared the environmental impact of the Beyond Burger to a ¼ lb. U.S. beef burger and found Beyond Burger uses significantly less water, land, energy, and generates fewer greenhouse gas emissions than a beef burger.


While some of the bigger players such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have made great strides in innovating and leading the “alternate meat” revolution, there is also a vibrant start-up ecosystem pushing the limits. In early development, Air Protein pitch sounds like something straight out of science fiction. The US-based start-up is on a mission to “feed the planet’s growing population with an ultra sustainable solution: air-based meat.” Their approach is quite similar to brewing beer or making yogurt and uses the probiotic production process to combine the air elements, like carbon dioxide, oxygen and nitrogen, with water and mineral nutrients to make a nutrient-rich protein. Air Protein’s concept uses many of the same inputs as traditional crops but doesn’t require as much land.

Parting thoughts

Our current dietary preference and approach to food production are putting tremendous pressure on the environment. Even at the current population level, we consume more than 1.7 times what the Earth can provide sustainably. The problems are only going to grow given we will need to produce 70% more food to feed the close to 10 billion people estimated to inhabit the Earth by 2050. We need innovative solutions now to address the mammoth challenge ahead.


In the end, we would leave you with this beautiful short video from Impossible Foods

Co-Authors:


















Disclaimer: This article is based on our personal opinion and does not reflect or represent the views of any organisation that we might be associated with.

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