How We Can Save Our Food from Climate Change

How We Can Save Our Food from Climate Change

How We Can Save Our Food
from Climate Change

Most of us would like to enjoy olives and mangoes and cacao and Pinot Noir for the rest of our lives. But if that seems like a given to you—that you can count on enjoying a hot mug of single-origin coffee in twenty or thirty years—it’s a future you should stop to consider, says environmental journalist Amanda Little. Specialty crops need very specific conditions to grow and thrive, especially at the scale we produce them. Climate change poses a significant threat to those conditions. “It’s essential to recognize how diverse, abundant, and exceptional—but also how fragile—our food systems are,” Little says.

The way we currently produce food—with inputs like water, fertilizer, and pesticides—is energy intensive, environmentally taxing, and grossly inefficient. The ways we approach agricultural issues with natural solutions, like growing tomatoes on the porch, buying from local biodynamic farms, and going vegan, are appealing and easy to talk about. They matter. But they are also deeply reliant on individual choices and privileges, and the broader issue is a macro-level design problem.

Little spent four years visiting aeroponic farms, algae labs, and factories full of bioreactors to investigate how we might eat as our planet heats up and the population swells. She began with a question: How do we build a fully sustainable food system that’s inclusive of the vast majority of eaters?

In her latest book, The Fate of Food, Little discusses the technologies that may create a future in which Pinot Noir isn’t a wistful memory. What she saw makes her optimistic. “Bad design got us into this mess,” Little says. “Better design can get us out.”

A Q&A with Amanda Little

When we talk about the future of food, how urgent is the conversation?

The global population will increase to nearly 10 billion people by midcentury. And we won’t only need to feed more people; growing middle classes around the world are demanding increasingly diverse and protein-dense diets, which is a much more environmentally intensive way to eat.

So we have an increased demand and a growing desire for certain foods on the one hand. On the other, the International Panel on Climate Change projects that we’ll lose 2 to 6 percent of farmland every decade in the foreseeable future, due to drought, flooding, invasive insects, heat, and other environmental pressures. That’s millions of acres of arable land going offline as the population climbs.

Can technology and good design save us?

Throughout human history, environmental pressures have driven innovation. In the food world, we’re seeing a lot of this innovation already. Scientists are using breeding tools to create nutritious heirloom crops that can withstand drought and heat; they’re developing new weeding robots. Engineers are creating drones and soil sensors to grow crops with greater precision and less input, in ways that mimic natural systems and are better for the soil. Farmers are growing leafy greens and berries with 90 percent less water using drip and microsprinkler systems.

And some scientists are drawing on the wisdom of traditional agriculture. They’re reviving ancient nutrient-dense plants, recycling water in our drainage systems for a drought-proof water supply, developing microirrigation systems, eliminating food waste, farming fish in sustainable ways, and building up sustainable protein supplies in famine-stricken regions.

What are the current risks of GMOs, and what are the potential benefits?

I came into the reporting on GMOs with a sort of involuntary gag reflex anytime I heard the term “GMO.” It’s like: How is this right? You’re tinkering with the essence of nature. You’re tinkering with the genomes of plants. There’s nothing good about that. Right?

What I learned was that most of the ways in which we’re applying genetic engineering and genetic modification in agriculture today are really harmful and also, in some cases, totally ineffective. For example: Roundup Ready crops have been designed to tolerate herbicide. So we’ve designed plants to tolerate industrial chemicals, and then we tend to overuse those chemicals. That means we’re dumping more herbicide into farmland, which is a threat to the surrounding ecosystems. And because the conversation around GMOs, at least in the United States, is centered around this issue of toxic chemicals, it’s become a justifiably emotional and charged subject.

On the other hand, there are parts of the world that really do need to be able to adapt to new pressures, new invasive species, intense droughts, and even flooding. They need to be able to continue growing food in areas where it’s becoming increasingly difficult to do so.

When I began to investigate GMOs outside of the United States, I met Kenyan scientists who are working on developing corn crops that have inherent resilience to climate pressures. The crops are able to grow successfully using less water, can tolerate unexpected or sustained droughts, and can withstand invasive insects. The people developing and using these GMOs aren’t in it for a massive profit margin. These GMOs are about surviving a new normal. And that was a very different way for me to understand this huge controversy we’re having back home.

Pesticides are a huge issue in industrial agriculture. How is new technology mitigating pesticide use?

You’ve seen those images of crop dusters just dumping millions of gallons of herbicide on giant fields of crops. It’s environmentally disastrous. But thanks to precision agriculture, that is very quickly becoming an archaic approach.

When I think about the most promising technology I’ve seen, I inevitably come back to this guy I met, Jorge Heraud, a Peruvian-born, Silicon Valley–based engineer. He’s invented artificially intelligent robots that can weed crops with sniper-like precision by spraying tiny jets of herbicide onto the weeds when they’re very young. The robot has cameras mounted inside it that allow it to see, identify, and distinguish between a baby weed and a baby corn plant, cotton plant, tomato plant—whatever—in milliseconds.

What’s so exciting about this technology is that it could end the practice of broadly casting herbicides across millions of acres of crops. Right now, it can consistently cut the use of herbicides on a given field by 90 percent. And Heraud’s company is beginning to find ways to adapt this technology to insecticides and fungicides and fertilizers.

Not only that but this robot can essentially learn how to do what’s called plant-by-plant farming rather than field-by-field farming; it can care for each plant individually. It will be able to make snap decisions about what each plant needs, whether it’s herbicide for a threatening weed or a little fertilizer for a tomato sprout. What that means is that farmers can start bringing diversity and intercropping to larger farms; instead of having to plant an entire 10,000-acre field of corn, you could have a field with companion plants that work well together.

Diversified farms are a principle of sustainable food production that has until now been impossible for industrial agriculture, because we’re using machines that can only do one thing at a time. But if you have these intelligent machines, it’s a whole different ball game. You can bring in the principles of sustainable agriculture while also feeding a lot of people and keeping costs down.

Why is meat such a huge issue in our food future?

Of all the different aspects of our food system, meat production puts by far the most pressure on the environment. According to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, the human population has doubled in the last fifty years—and meat production has more than tripled.

This is all a connected story. Over 70 percent of the fresh water on earth flows to farms. We use a huge amount of that water to grow grains, like wheat and corn, and about a third of the grain we grow goes to feed livestock. And we’re growing more livestock because meat is in greater and greater demand. So, because making meat is so resource-intensive, when we talk about shifts in the food system, we usually—appropriately—jump to: Will we continue to eat meat? And what will that look like?

I explored this at local farms that are using very traditional methods of cattle and grain production, growing the crops the cattle eat in the same field where the cattle are rotating, so they’re nourishing the field with their own animal waste. It’s a closed-loop system—a very low-carbon, wonderful approach to meat production. But it’s also very expensive, and it’s hard to do at scale.

I buy my meats from this great farm just outside of Nashville, but it’s expensive. It’s not a solution for my middle- and low-income neighbors. The public schools source chicken and meat from the massive producers because they need to get the cheapest option. As lovely as small-scale farms are, large-scale meat production can’t rely on them.

Where do meat alternatives come into play?

Historically, it’s been hard to buy into meat alternatives. I personally love the taste of real meat. I think the longest I’ve gone without it was sixty-seven days. I had vowed to go vegetarian, and then someone literally brought me a plate of carne asada tacos with this incredible creamy dill sauce and slaw on it, and I just tore it apart. Like a starved hyena.

We’ve seen Pat Brown at Impossible Foods and Ethan Brown at Beyond Meat come up with one of the most popular and promising answers: plant-based proteins that are tasting very much like actual meat. I’ve tasted the Impossible Burger over a couple of years as it’s evolved, and it’s amazing to see how much better and more convincing the flavors and the textures have become. Same with the Beyond Burger. And five years from now, they’ll likely be even more convincing.

There’s an even stranger realm of innovation in the meat-alternative space: cultured meat (also called “clean meat”). They’re calling it cell-based meat: They actually grow the meat without the animal by taking biopsies (little samples of tissue from animals—they can barely feel it) and growing those cells in bioreactors (basically, very sophisticated slow cookers) to produce different kinds of tissue, whether it’s muscle or fat or connective tissue. That allows them to produce any kind of meat they want: beef, chicken, duck…and, now, at a start-up in San Francisco, yellowfin tuna. It’s meat that is, on a cellular level, identical to the meat we’re all used to, but it is grown without the organs, bones, hide, brain, and so forth. It’s much more efficient in terms of waste, there aren’t issues with antibiotics and contamination, and you also do not implicate a sentient being in the process.

There are still concerns about how much energy cell-based meat takes to produce and what we should use as a growth serum. But the process could allow us to produce meat with fewer inputs, less environmental harm, and less concern about humane conditions for animals.

Are there limits to what we can solve just with technology?

The problem is only partially solved with better machines and technology and design. We also need a shift in consciousness. We have to renew a sense of respect for and understanding of sustainable farming systems and agroecology. And we have to become far more self-aware and rein in our behavior. We can’t look at it as one or the other, a systems approach or an individual one. We need both.

Food waste is one of the most crucial ways that all of us at home can begin to build awareness, and it’s especially important for those who buy a lot of high-nutrient perishable foods. Don’t buy what you don’t need or what you won’t use. Sometimes composting makes us feel less bad about wasting food, so we waste more of it. We should certainly compost, but we should also think about wasting less.

We live in the most extraordinary moment in food history. We have never had greater access to wonderful, flavorful, high-nutrient foods than we do today. We take abundance for granted, and that’s why it’s hard to see our food system’s vulnerability.

I’m an optimist. I believe that we can maintain this beautiful, abundant, diverse food system. But it’s going to take a significantly greater awareness and a much more realistic and vibrant discussion, and we’re all going to need to participate.

Amanda Little is an environmental journalist and a professor of investigative journalism and science writing at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World and Power Trip: The Story of America’s Love Affair with Energy. She has received the Jane Bagley Lehman Award for excellence in environmental journalism.

This article is for informational purposes only, even if and regardless of whether it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.