June 2, 2022 -- By 2050, we will need to produce as much as 56% more food than we did in 2010 to feed the world’s growing population. While experts agree we can do it using current farming and production practices, it could be catastrophic for the planet. So how will we meet the demand?
Picture this: Instead of a farm taking up thousands of acres of land, crops grow upward, inside climate-controlled warehouses. New technologies help farmers know precisely when to fertilize and harvest crops, producing higher yields with less loss. On store shelves and in your home, packaging innovations keep food fresher, longer, reducing waste. In the next few decades, each of these could help feed the world sustainably.
In the past, big players in the agriculture industry had one main goal: to grow as much food as possible. And they got very, very good at it. Here in the U.S., agriculture claims about one-fifth of the land. But farmers are so prolific, the whole country could live on the output of an area roughly the size of Indiana, Illinois, and half of Iowa combined.
But these mega-yields come at a price. Globally, food production accounts for 70% of all freshwater usage and 26% of greenhouse gas emissions – and it takes up half of all the habitable land on the planet. If we’re going to be able to feed billions more people decades from now, the solution can’t be to just keep farming the same way.
“These practices are not sustainable,” says Raj Khosla, PhD, a professor of precision agriculture at Colorado State University.
Precision agriculture is a relatively new practice, using technology, artificial intelligence, and automation to manage small parts of a field differently, right down to individual rows. Adding precise amounts of water, pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers (including nitrogen, an essential nutrient for plants that has dramatic negative effects on the environment) produces higher yields using less of each, which means smaller amounts of runoff polluting waterways and lower greenhouse gas emissions from farm equipment.
“At the research level and among early adopters of new practices and technologies, we’re seeing significant improvement in water use efficiency, in nitrogen use efficiency. But there are millions of farmers in the world, and not all have the resources to reinvest in new production practices,” Khosla says.
Precision agriculture isn’t the only way scientists and food producers are trying to grow more while using less. Among other efforts, they’re improving irrigation systems to use less water, reintroducing cover crops to help improve the soil, and using innovative methods to get seeds into the ground.
In many cases, the seeds themselves are changing. All over the world, farmers are planting genetically engineered crops that reduce agriculture’s environmental footprint.
“For many plant biologists, that’s what got us interested long ago – seeing if we could use less land for agriculture, to have more for native ecosystems,” says Pamela Ronald, PhD, who runs the Ronald Laboratory for Crop Genetics Innovation and Scientific Literacy at the University of California, Davis. “At the start of my career, we had no genetic sequences; and now for rice alone, we have sequences for three thousand varieties.”
There is now a huge database of genetic diversity being used to create more resilient crops.
Farms Have to Change, Too
What farms look like is changing, too. Some of the leading innovations don’t need vast amounts of land. They don’t need any land at all, since they grow crops indoors, often in urban areas. Not only do these practices save water, soil, and other natural resources, because food is grown close to where it’s sold, they also reduce the greenhouse gas emissions related to transportation.
Take vertical farming, which grows crops upward, inside climate-controlled, warehouse-type buildings. It’s projected to become a nearly-$10 billion industry by 2026. Vertical farming combines technology and systems that preserve resources, like hydroponics (in which plants grow in water plus liquid nutrients), aeroponics (in which plants grow with roots suspended, with nutrients applied via fine mist), and aquaponics (in which hydroponic plants grow in naturally nutrient-heavy wastewater from farmed fish).
For some crops, vertical farms can yield 10 to 20 times as much per acre as a traditional field. And growing indoors eliminates climate-related restrictions. For instance, Driscoll’s, a major berry grower, recently announced plans to build a vertical farm for the Northeast region. Residents may soon have local strawberries, even in the depths of winter.
The Future of Meat
Crops aren’t the only agricultural threat to the environment. Livestock are also a major contributor to climate change. A whopping 80% of the world’s agricultural land is used for growing animals, but the creatures only contribute 18% of the world’s calories. All those animals need a lot of water, too – it takes nearly 450 gallons to produce a single quarter-pound burger. Remember how food production accounts for 26% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions? Of that 26%, more than half comes from raising animals. Among all animals raised for food, cattle do the most damage.
If all that isn’t bad enough, cattle ranching drives most of the deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, the largest rainforest on Earth. The tree canopy absorbs carbon emissions and helps hold down global warming. If current trends continue and more of the trees are replaced with cattle grazing lands, within a decade, the Amazon’s ecosystem may collapse.
One obvious solution is to reduce our consumption of animal products. A new study in Nature Food found that simply eating less meat could reduce the environmental impacts by as much as 60% – and replacing 80% of animal products with plant-based substitutes could take that up to 75%. But projections from the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization says global consumption is expected to keep growing over the coming decades.
“The first part is demand from more people as the population grows. The second is we expect that people’s incomes will continue to rise and people will be lifted out of poverty,” says Jack Bobo, JD, director of global food and water policy at the Nature Conservancy. “The first thing people choose to do when their incomes increase is to buy more protein.”
In order to meet the demand sustainably, farmers will have to find ways to produce more meat and dairy products without needing more land and using less harmful methods.
To a certain extent, that’s already happening.
“How we feed animals has changed dramatically,” Bobo says. “We've had precision nutrition for animals for decades. A cow today produces a lot more meat than a cow would have in 1980.”
“So herds of cattle have declined while production of beef has been relatively steady. That's been good for the environment.”
Perhaps as a result, the amount of land dedicated to raising animals globally is on the decline.
New Ways to Raise Animals
Scientists and farmers are working on new ways to reduce the environmental impact of raising animals for food. Those include adjusting cattle feed so cows burp and fart less methane, a harmful greenhouse gas; using integrated systems that include crops, aquaculture, and animal agriculture to reduce waste and use fewer resources – for instance, turning livestock droppings into compost to fertilize crops; silvopastoral systems that put trees and grazing livestock on the same land, where the trees neutralize a good portion of the greenhouse gases; using genomic tools to screen livestock for preferable traits and grow more resilient animals; and using technology to make all parts of the growing system more efficient, like monitoring pastures to know when they’re ready for grazing.
And then there are the agricultural-adjacent solutions – new ways to create protein that either mimics meat or is meat. Many of those are plant-based, like the burgers at some fast-food chains and in grocery stores that could pass for the real thing, while others are cultivated in a lab – that’s right, scientists are figuring out how to grow animal protein without animals. (Read more on these alternative proteins.)
Here’s a startling fact: If food loss and waste were a country, it would be the world’s third-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Globally, almost one-third of all food produced doesn’t get eaten. More than half of that waste happens at the individual level, inside our homes. Meanwhile, in 2020, as many as 811 million people didn’t have enough to eat.
In the U.S., researchers estimate that cutting our food waste in half could reduce food production’s environmental impact in substantial ways: We’d save 3.2 trillion gallons of water – as much as 28 million American homes use annually. We’d reduce energy consumption enough to power 21.4 million U.S. homes for a year. And we’d slash greenhouse gas emissions in an amount equal to the emissions from 23 coal-fired power plants.
One approach that seems to be working on the government level is called “Target-Measure-Act.” It calls for setting a reduction target, measuring food loss and waste to identify hot spots, and acting to address those hot spots. The U.K. pioneered the practice and has seen a 27% reduction in waste from 2007 to 2018.
Technology plays a role here, too, from the farm to your home. Here are just a handful of recent innovations:
- A moisture meter called the GrainMate helps farmers in Africa make sure their grain is thoroughly dry before storage, reducing spoilage.
- The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations introduced sustainable bulk packaging crates to transport fresh produce. In Southern and Southeast Asian countries, it has reduced losses by up to 87%.
- Apeel has created a coating for fruits and vegetables that helps them stay fresh twice as long.
- Wasteless uses artificial intelligence to help retailers sell perishables before they can spoil.
- Coexshield packaging uses food-safe antimicrobial and antiviral substances to keep things like ground beef fresh 7 to 12 days longer.
- Bluapple sits in your crisper, absorbing the ethylene gas given off by fruits and vegetables – the gas that makes produce go bad faster. It buys you time to eat everything.
Of course, each new innovation has the potential to introduce a different sustainability challenge – think about how until recently, anything that helped farmers grow more was considered beneficial. It took decades for the world to wake up to the damage some of those practices were causing.
“How do we make sure we’re systematically thinking through the unintended consequences of our actions? It’s such a complicated, interconnected system. Small changes have ripple effects,” says Sarah Sha, a researcher and strategist with KitchenTown, a Silicon Valley food industry incubator. “Everyone who’s working in food has to get more comfortable understanding their connection to the bigger picture, and then taking action with that longer-term vision in mind.”