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Future food: feeding 9 billion in 2050

Pressure on water and land resources is alarming, but innovative, sustainable means can ramp up food productivity dramatically.
Andrew Brentano

24 June 2018

Preparing for the future is always exciting and challenging. In times like these, we must rely on human ingenuity and look for technology solutions, inventions, and discoveries to deal with current and expected challenges. Food is one such area.

So what is the future of food? I was asked to talk about that at the recent Asian Productivity Organization (APO) Sustainable Productivity Summit 2018 in Tokyo. The future-focused APO has a clear mandate: with conventional production methods in agriculture reaching their limits, the organization is working with member economies to help them get more crops per drop and per hectare while also improving baseline efficiencies and capturing more value in the food supply value chain. The APO is also exploring alternative options to conventional crops and how the world can meet its challenges of future food.

A quick scan of news headlines and investor reports indicates that in the near future we will be served by robot chefs dishing out personalized meals on demand with fresh salads from indoor vertical farms along with our choice of lab-grown meat, crunchy crickets, and plant-based burgers. Supply chains will be tracked using blockchains, and drones will work with connected hardware to oversee farms and deliver targeted doses of fertilizers and pesticides, while smart tractors plant intricate patterns of seeds chosen to thrive in specific soil chemistry. CRISPR gene editing will let us tailor crops to resist drought and blight. Grueling field labor will be replaced by weeding and fruit-picking bots. Through this lens, the future of food looks bright.

However, the situation is far more serious than the glossy headlines indicate. Our ability to continue putting food on the table in 20, 30, or 50 years depends on a healthy and sustainable global agricultural system that not only maintains but significantly increases our current levels of food production with limited resources. In the current mode of operation, we will not make it to 2050.

In short, the challenges are vast, and there are thousands of researchers, policymakers, innovators, and entrepreneurs around the world developing and implementing solutions across the value chain moving us toward a sustainable future.

The future food challenge
At the existing rate of growth, it is predicted that the world population will touch nine billion by 2050. At the same time, many countries have growing middle classes, which means more money to spend on food, especially meat. Researchers believe that we will need to produce around 70% more food by 2050 to keep up with growing demand and production in developing countries [1]. Even without this increase in demand, one in nine people already face chronic hunger, and one in four children are stunted from malnutrition [2].

Feeding this growing demand will entail increased production, i.e., growing more grains, fruit, and vegetables; raising more livestock, harvesting more fish; and collecting more eggs and milk. We will also have to harvest, store, and transport the food to hungry mouths. These activities will require a proportionate increase in the use of land, water, and fish stocks for food production, along with significant manual labor and supply chain logistics to get food from field to fork.

Not only must we increase our food production, we must do so with dwindling resources, particularly water, arable land, and wild fish stocks, in the face of climate change and with increasingly expensive labor. These issues are addressed in turn below.

First, in terms of resources, our current agricultural system is already using all of our available basic resources for food production at an unsustainable rate, rapidly depleting our agricultural land, fresh water, and fisheries.

We simply do not have any more arable land available to expand our farming. Since 1992, the amount of farmland under cultivation has been roughly stable around 49 million km2 according to the World Bank [3], but even this seeming stability is misleading. We are actually losing arable land at an alarming rate and maintaining this amount of active farmland has come at the cost of over 1 million km2 of forest. The land that we are living on and farming is rapidly being degraded. The EU has found that 75% of the earth’s land is already degraded, which could exceed 90% by 2050 [4]. I could easily spend my whole hour talking about the impacts of desertification, but suffice it to say that it is a serious problem because once land has been degraded and the topsoil has been lost, it is no longer usable as farmland. Conventional farming methods that involve tilling are key contributors to soil erosion and land degradation, a vicious cycle in which the very practice of farming destroys its own essential medium [5].

Second, the other key ingredient in farming food is water. Seventy percent of all freshwater on earth is used for agriculture according to the World Bank [6], and many key aquifers around the world are starting to dry up [7]. This raises serious questions regarding how billions of people will continue to grow their food in coming decades.

Third, growing food on land is only part of the equation. The ocean provides a significant amount of the protein we eat: 15% of the animal protein consumed by 4.3 billion people and 10% of everyone on earth depends on fisheries for their livelihoods according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization[8, 9]. Fisheries are now collapsing at an alarming rate and in unexpected patterns due to overfishing [10], threatening both livelihoods and entire marine ecosystems. One alarming study even predicted a complete collapse of all commercial fisheries by 2050 [11].

Fourth, the next major challenge is climate change, and the impacts are deeply intertwined with resource scarcity, as highlighted above. Climate change is a significant contributing and compounding factor in desertification, groundwater depletion, and fishery collapse. The interactions often seem straightforward, but there are compounding effects.

We can look at the example of droughts, which are increasingly common and severe as weather patterns shift and temperatures rise. Increased temperatures and droughts dry up reservoirs and streams, which necessitate increased groundwater pumping to irrigate crops, in turn depleting the underlying aquifers. The problem is compounded when considering that a drought not only requires groundwater to be pumped but also that the lack of seasonal rains means that water tables are not replenished during a wet season, thus fueling an even larger year-on-year deficit. And there are even longer-term effects. A lower water table often causes land subsidence, which may permanently shrink the available space underground for future water storage after a drought ends. That means that even when a drought is over and rains return, the ground is less able to hold that water.

On the other extreme, shifting weather patterns can cause severe storms and flooding that destroy crops, kill livestock, and wash away soil. Warming temperatures are enabling the spread of agricultural pests to new latitudes[12],  and rising CO2 levels are resulting in ocean acidification, which among other effects reduce the productivity of shellfish like oysters [13], thus endangering whole ecosystems and valuable food sources. Unfortunately, agriculture is also a top contributor to climate change, with 7% of global greenhouse gases produced by livestock [14], while deforestation for grazing and crop production results in another 25% of greenhouse gas emissions at the same time as it destroys one of the most important carbon sinks, according the Climate Institute [15].

One final challenge is labor. Populations are increasingly shifting to cities, with 54% of the world population currently living in urban areas, which is expected to reach 66% by 2050 [16]. Continuing economic development is also driving up wages in many countries, and these trends hit farming hard. Traditional farming relies heavily on cheap labor for planting, thinning, weeding, and harvesting. Increasing labor costs immediately hit farmers’ profit margins and drive up the price of food.

The picture that I have painted here is not optimistic. Without significant change and investment in innovative solutions, we will not achieve sustainable productivity. The only way that we can succeed is by drastically increasing the efficiency of our agricultural production. We can achieve this by reducing waste, closing the nutrient loop by capturing and upcycling by-products, switching production to more efficient crops, and optimizing production.

Role of animal agriculture
There is one sector of our agricultural production which deserves extra attention and that is animal livestock production. Livestock production is the most resource intensive of all our agricultural practices and the least efficient. Twenty-six percent of ice-free land on the planet is used to graze livestock, and another 33% of all our croplands grow feed for animals [17]. This is an incredibly inefficient use of resources based on the feed conversion rates of animals, that is, how much feed an animal eats in order to grow to size before slaughter. Even with high-quality feed, livestock must eat several times their own body weight during growth. Poultry and fish have the best conversion rates, while sheep and cows have the worst and pork lands in the middle.

Yet people love eating meat. It is highly nutritious and tastes good. Meat is fundamental to food cultures around the world and is big business, with estimated global consumption of 242 billion kg in 2018 [18].

It is not just people eating meat, but also pets. In the USA alone, dogs and cats eat around 15 billion kg of meat every year. Pet ownership is also increasing around the world, fueling growth in the global pet food market at a rate of 5% CAGR from 2010 to 2017 [19].

Given the massive and growing global demand for meat and the outsized concentration of agricultural resources dedicated to its production, livestock rearing should be the top priority in efforts to improve the sustainability of food production. Fortunately, there are exciting, high-impact solutions that are shaping the future of food.

High-impact solutions
We have the technology and resources to deploy high-impact solutions that can shift the global food system onto a sustainable track. It will only require will and investment. These high-impact solutions increase resource efficiency for growing crops and forage (the base rung of the agricultural food chain) and lighten the impact of traditional animal agriculture, while closing nutrient loops in the food production system.

The first set of solutions optimizes our crop production. Broadly, we can categorize the most promising solutions into the categories of precision agriculture, indoor agriculture, and crop genetics.

Precision agriculture basically means “data meets farming.” A combination of aerial imaging from drones, aircraft, and satellites, plus data from in-field sensors, is used to make fine-grained decisions about nutrient application and irrigation. Planting decisions are based on soil chemistry, in particular on sections of fields, and water is saved by only irrigating exactly where and when it is needed.

Indoor agriculture removes nature from the equation altogether, and Japan is a leading pioneer in this field with the world’s largest indoor plant factories producing tens of thousands of heads of lettuce every day. Indoor agriculture can be practiced in cities, is extremely productive, and impervious to weather. It requires a bare fraction of the water used to irrigate field crops and zero pesticides. The tradeoffs are higher energy use (after all, the sun powers photosynthesis for free), and limited crop options. Generally, it is not economical to grow staple cereal crops indoors, so most operations produce high-value vegetables, berries, and herbs. However, this is a new sector and developing very rapidly.

The third big solution for crop production is improved genetics. New CRISPR gene-editing tools offer the potential to quickly and easily develop whole lines of designer crops, optimized for resilience in shifting environments, higher yields, and resistance to pests and blights. Advances in machine learning and big-data analytics will enable scientists to quickly screen genomes for the loci of specific traits and turn them on or off as desired.

Lightening the impact of animal agriculture involves developing nutritious and desirable alternatives to traditional meat and finding more efficient sources of feed for the livestock and fish that we do raise. Our work at Tiny Farms sits at the intersection of these approaches.

Developing alternatives to meat follows simple logic and thus has received significant attention and investment. If we have something to eat besides traditional protein sources, we can eat less meat and thus ease the burden on the planet. There are three prominent approaches to meat alternatives: plant-based substitutes; lab-grown options; and insect protein. Plant-based meats are now widely available and include products by “chicken” and “burgers” by Beyond Meat [20], “burgers” by Impossible Foods [21], eggs by JUST, shrimp by New Wave Foods [23], and sashimi by Ocean Hugger Foods [24], among many others.

Lab-grown meat is still years away from the market, but companies like Memphis Meats [25], JUST, Finless Foods [26], and others have raised tens of millions of dollars to develop commercial processes. The meat cultures still need to be “fed” but have significantly higher growth efficiencies than raising whole animals.

Insect protein offers another great option. Insects such as crickets are much more efficient to produce than livestock animals, requiring a fraction of the space and water. Many cultures already include insects in their diets, and innovative companies are marketing a wide range of high-protein products ranging from snack foods to pasta to bread and even burgers. There is also a huge opportunity to replace the meat used in pet food with insect protein. Pet food is one of our primary target markets for the cricket protein we produce at Tiny Farms.

Dried crickets: alternate source of protein (Photo: Tiny Farms Inc.)

While plant-based meats are already widely available for consumers to reduce their meat intake, lab-grown meat is still years away from commercialization. Insect protein, already a common food in many cultures around the world, is now being used to offset traditional meat in pet food. There is an opportunity to replace billions of kilograms of meat and fish in pet-food products, freeing significant quantities of resources for human food production.

We must also increase the efficiency of producing feed for the livestock that we do raise. With 33% of the crops grown already heading to animal feedlots, there is little room to grow, and it would be much better to divert some of that cropland back to human food. We also catch a huge quantity of wild fish to produce fishmeal fed to pigs, chickens, and, ironically, to farmed fish.

There are interesting technologies in development to produce algae- and even bacteria-based proteins for use in animal and fish feed, and once again insects provide a great option. With a nutritional profile similar to fishmeal, insects like crickets can be raised on waste streams like cassava leaves, almond hulls, spent brewer grains, and more. We can take the inedible surplus of our existing crop production and efficiently concentrate those nutrients into insect protein that can be used instead of fishmeal and even soy. This is particularly important to support the booming aquaculture sector that relies heavily on fishmeal.

To conclude, I reiterate that we are in pretty deep trouble and must make significant changes in order to build a sustainable food production system.

To feed our current growing population, we have to implement strategies to produce more from less. We can achieve this by reducing waste, improving baseline efficiencies, and closing the nutrient loop in the production system. In particular, it is crucial that we focus on solutions for reducing the footprint of animal agriculture.

It will take a lot of hard work, significant investment, and the dedication of business leaders, policymakers, and innovators working together to achieve sustainable, bountiful food product for the future.

Brentano is co-founder and CEO of Tiny Farms Inc., an agritech precision-farming company that combines natural systems, proprietary production methods, and processing technology to produce cost-effective cricket protein at scale. He has been a thought leader in sustainable food systems and insect protein production since 2012, regularly speaking on the topic. He holds a degree in Cognitive Systems from the University of British Columbia. Before founding Tiny Farms, Brentano ran a web development firm and worked to optimize and commercialize artificial intelligence systems for automating mission-critical customer service systems for small businesses and Fortune 500 companies.



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