This feature story was first published in print and online by The Medical Republic on the 2nd December 2015
We’ve all seen the dystopian sci-fi movies, the fields barren from drought or disease while people fight it out over scarce resources. Meanwhile the inhabitants of some sealed citadel eat uninspiring synthetic foodstuffs.
“Yeast vats, fungal mats and algae ponds” was Isaac Asimov’s prediction for addressing food insecurity in the future. How close are we to this dire outcome and what are our options to avoid it?
There are currently 795 million people in the world who are undernourished, meaning they don’t receive the minimum daily energy requirement of 1700-1900 calories. Five million people die every year as a result of malnutrition and 70% of those are children under the age of five.
The world population is on track to exceed 9 billion by 2050, so food production will need to increase by 70% to keep pace according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). But in Africa, where almost a third of the world’s hungriest people live, climate unpredictability could hit agricultural output by up to 30% by the end of the century.
But it’s not all bad news.
There is already enough cereal produced in the world to provide everyone on the planet with 2900 calories a day, reports the best-selling World Hunger: 10 myths. But this food simply doesn’t reach the hungry mouths due to waste and misallocation. Even the FAO “is cautiously optimistic about the world’s potential to feed itself by 2050,” predicting that 75% of the food demand can be met by increasing crop yields rather than expanding the area of production.
FIXES IN THE FIELD
A leading agricultural scientist from the University of Queensland echoes this sentiment. “There are a lot of ‘doom and gloom preachers’, but there are also many opportunities to improve our systems,” says Associate Professor Daniel Rodriguez. He leads research into the ‘sustainable intensification’ of agriculture, or “how to do more with less.”
Of his work in sub-Saharan Africa Professor Rodriguez says, “Present levels of productivity are so low and agronomic practice so poor, that there is some very low-hanging fruit to improve upon.”
It’s not just about increasing production but also something as simple as silos to store grain or roads to better distribute it to market. In areas where the rainy season lasts only a few months, “farmers have to grow all the food they need for the year at that time. If anything goes wrong in those months they won’t get another chance,” says Professor Rodriguez. And since all the produce ends up at the market around the same time, supply and demand cause prices to fluctuate a lot around the year.
Better silage can stabilise prices and protect against the 30-40% loss of produce that results from pests or spoilage, as calculated in a 2011 FAO report. This has contributed to Malawi’s turnaround from the brink. “You can see big silos just near the airport that are the national reserve for periods of drought,” says Professor Rodriguez. “At one point in time Malawi was the poorest country in the world, but after the problems of land rights in Zimbabwe, Malawi became an exporter of grain.”
Many African soils have simply been leached by out-dated tilling techniques and lack of fertilisers but these problems can be addressed by agricultural education, says Professor Rodriguez. “The technology is there, we are not waiting for super innovations.”
He and his collaborators have also been trialling in Australia the practice of overlapping two crops on the same field. “For example you plant a wheat crop and then later on in the cycle you plant inside that a legume crop. So basically you can squeeze an extra two months out of the growing season and get an extra crop in the year. You can double production very easily and benefit from the synergism between species,” says Professor Rodriguez.
Understanding how plants interact with each other and with microbes can reduce our reliance on external fertilisers and pesticides. Legumes from the pea family, for example, can fix atmospheric nitrogen into the soil via bacteria that live on the roots. Meanwhile some fungi help plants extract nutrients from the soil or shrug off pests and “there are also beneficial insects that can be used to control pests rather than chemicals,” says Professor Rodriguez. The American Academy of Microbiology calculates that harnessing plant-microbe interactions could within two decades increase crop yields by 20% while reducing fertilizer and pesticide requirements by 20%.
“We are trying to promote systems that are a little bit more like nature and are able to recycle the elements in the system without losses,” explains Professor Rodriguez. There is little choice but to embrace this ‘ecoefficiency’ since water and nutrients are not in short supply. For example, global demand for phosphate fertilisers is predicted exceed supply from mines within 30 years. Australia too, with its ancient leached soils, relies heavily on imports of phosphorus but over three quarters of it is lost through inefficiency in the system.
Farmers will also have to branch out from monocultured crops that are vulnerable to specific pests plagues or weather events. In Africa, the nutritious and drought-tolerant bambara groundnut was largely abandoned during the colonial period for cash crops of peanuts. As these are less resilient to environmental stressors, a bad year can mean that people go without food as well as income. Similarly Australia, is heavily invested in “sheep and wheat in the south and sorghum and beef in the north,” says Professor Rodriguez, but market forces limit the incentive to diversify.
Australia too will not be immune from food security concerns despite currently exporting over two thirds of what it produces, according to research presented last week by the SUSTAIN ARC Linkage Project. “Australia is currently self-sufficient but this modeling suggests that not too long in the future, we will become less food secure, with a substantially reduced capacity to export,” said ANU researcher, Dr Sarah James. “It also suggests that some of the foods which we take for granted, we will have to import in the future.”
TOO MUCH MEAT
One of the biggest inefficiencies in global food provision, however, is meat production. A third of all cereal produced is consumed by animals rather than people according to a current review in the journalScience of The Total Environment.
FAO figures state that 80% of the world’s agricultural land, and 27% of its potable water supply goes towards supporting livestock production. Beef in particular, is a very inefficient way to invest resources,according to a 2014 study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. On a per calorie basis cattle grazing requires 160 times more land than crops of grains or legumes, and 28 times more land than feedstock-raised chicken or pork.
This is bad news for forest cover and bad news for the atmosphere. Methane released from the smelly end of livestock make up 14.5% of global greenhouse gases emissions, which is bigger than impact of all the world’s cars and trucks. Or the chilling figure from the Centre for Disease Control that 70% of antibiotics used in US are for animals, a recipe for farming drug resistant bacteria instead.
As the world’s emerging middle classes adopt richer diets the demand for meat is expected to double by 2050. In China, animal products made up only 5% of the average diet in 1960, but this has increased to 20% today and will climb to 30% in the next decades. On the tail of this trend will be mind-boggling public health costs of a hamburger lifestyle.
“But we can’t just say, ‘You’re not going to be able to eat animal products,’” says Professor Rodriguez. “We have to support these emerging economies to transform their systems in a way that can increase livelihood.” Livestock is actually one of the main steps to increased livelihood in Africa, he says.
It’s not the village herds of Africa that are doing the damage but the massive industrial grazing estates of Brazil, the US, Australia, Canada and South Africa. On paper, if all this land were switched to produce cereals there would be a leap of 70% in calories produced, enough to feed an additional 4 billion people. But how this extra harvest would feasibly make it to the hungry regions of Africa and Asia where it’s needed is another logistical headache.
MAKING IT HAPPEN
Whether such calculations are just a thought experiment whether they will end up helping solve global hunger remains to be seen. For the time being, the work Professor Rodriguez and colleagues is vital to helping developing countries increase their crop yields and trade.
But reducing meat consumption in the industrialised world is a compelling ecological responsibility if not an ethical one. Surveys show that western consumersare largely unaware of the impacts of the livestock industry, or the fact that we waste on average 100 kilograms of food per person.
There are several options for high-protein foods of the future (see ‘Foods of the Future’ below) that could replace our demand for flesh. Cultured beef is not too far away. Insects have started to appear on the menus of a few niche western restaurants, and some American entrepreneurs have even been pushing ‘cricket flour’ on a larger scale. And Algae are a favourite at the health food store and concoctions with soy protein are marketed under tenuous puns on the sci-fi film ‘Soylent Green.’
But European surveys show that consumers are still unaware or queasy about such ideas and for the moment they remain a twee idea like carbon offsets on airline tickets. Perhaps we will eventually change our eating habits once ‘real-life’ steaks become a luxury product rather than a cheap pub meal.
Foods of the Future
Winston Churchill predicted that “we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium,” in a 1931 essay Fifty Years Hence. And he wasn’t far off. For those not ready to give up their hamburgers, there is hope on the horizon.
In 2013, Dutch scientist Professor Mark Post made headlines with the well-staged launch of beef culturedin vitro, quickly dubbed the ‘Frankenburger.’ Muscle precursor cells were harvested from a living cow and then incubated in a broth of foetal-calf serum for three months. Twenty thousand of the cultured muscle fibres were then ‘woven’ to make a hamburger patty, which reportedly had the texture of meat although lacked the succulence and flavour that comes from fat and iron content.
According to researchers, cells taken from just one cow could seed 175 million burgers. If cultured meat were to replace even half of all meat consumed, it’s estimated that greenhouse emissions would halve and forest cover could increase by 50%.
The original project cost $500,000 although Professor Post recently indicated that costs could fall to $80 per kilo of meat within a few years. It’s a strategy that is been taken very seriously and in October the First International Symposium on Cultured Meat was held in the Netherlands.
Start-up labs in Europe and the US are also trying to culture milk in a bioreactor and produce ‘chicken-free’ egg whites. The strategy in both cases involves modifying baker’s yeast to produce caseins and albumin proteins. Along the way they may resolve once-and-for-all the classic adage ‘What came first?’
But since it will be decades before we see large-scale production of such synthetic staples, we would do well by considering insects. There are 1900 edible species in the world according to a 2013 report from the Food and Agriculture Organisation and already they contribute to the regular diets of two billion people. In Thailand alone there are more than 20,000 registered insect farms producing 7,000 tons of food in a year.
Insects are more efficient protein factories than conventional livestock. Crickets and grasshoppers, for example, require 12 times less feed than cattle and half as much feed as pigs and chickens for the same output of protein. They’re also good sources calcium, zinc and vitamin B12 and you can find them fried on menus from Mexico to Laos. Roasted beetles were a rich source of digestible fats for Native Americans and are said to taste like popcorn. And very our own witchetty grubs have a nutty flavour; virtually the Snickers bars of the outback but without the refined sugar.
Down the food chain
If the world’s arable land is a contested resource, the oceans are even more poorly understood and managed. About 400 million people in Africa and Southeast Asia rely on fish as their source of protein and minerals but the fish stocks in these areas are some of the most battered. Fifty seven percent of fisheries are fully exploited and another 30% of fisheries are being depleted at unsustainable levels according to a 2010 report by the FAO.
However, one easily grown and under-appreciated resource is seaweed, which has long been a part of coastal Asian diets. Kelp can grow half a metre a day and contains 60 essential vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C, riboflavin, iron, zinc and iodine.
At a 2010 symposium International Society for Reef Studies, researchers were toying with an idea to counter acidification of the oceans by having beds of sea lettuce take up extra carbon dioxide. They suggested that as a bonus, the protein demands of the world’s population could be satisfied by ‘marine gardens’ of 180 000 square kilometres, about twice the area of Tasmania.
If that sounds like a lot, bear in mind that 200 times as much land is currently used to raise livestock and 100 times as much to grow crops. That’s three South Americas all told, or 35% of the world’s ice-free land area.
Added two weeks after publication
Some interesting caveats to the argument here.
Though I would dispute that all grazing land didn’t have some other ecosystem on it beforehand (in SAmerica even moreso than Australia). And I’m not sure how much carbon grasslands would really sequester given than even young growth forests are sometimes net emitters of CO2.
Other counter-arguments worth a read, though a little less rigorous: