Our Food Choices today will affect all of us in the future.
Eating is a deeply intimate experience. More than just being required to live, consuming food is an integral part of life’s rituals –from the daily routines such as the evening family meal or a pizza evening with friends, to some of our largest and most important life events such as weddings, and religious festivals. Sharing food binds our social connections while a solitary meal of favourite dishes comforts us when we are feeling down. Food excites our senses, raises our passions, and defines our social standing. Our food choices are intertwined with our culture, social environment, values and our religion. We are even entertained by food on TV and celebrity chefs are treated like rock stars in our food obsessed society.
So – given the outsized role that food plays in every part of our lives, recognising that our current consumption rates, coupled with the methods of producing and managing our food supply are completely unsustainable, and causing huge damage to our environment, is something many of us would perhaps rather not have to face up to.
Take for example, our biggest environmental threat of climate change. The three sectors of our modern economy that contribute the most to climate change are sometimes summarized as “cars, coal and cows”. These are just shorthand for transport, power generation and food – and of the three, it may be the “cows” / food part that is the hardest for us to change.
With the agricultural sector contributing approximately one-third of total greenhouse gas emissions according to the IPCC, any plan to reach net-zero clearly must address agriculture and food as part of the solution.
But it’s not just the climate that is being impacted by our lust for food.
Since 1900, the amount of land being used for agriculture has nearly doubled – from 2.5 billion hectares to 4.9 billion hectares in 2016. Such a huge increase in land use has come at enormous cost to the world’s ecosystems. Not only have over 500 unique species become extinct in the same time period, but a recent UN report also shows that the extinction rate is accelerating – with over 1 million species now threatened with extinction and huge declines in populations of almost every species on the planet – many ecosystems on land and in water are now either collapsing or are in serious danger of collapse.
Agriculture is – by far – the largest consumer of water on the planet, using 70% of all water used across the world. Not only does over extraction of water degrade and deplete our rivers and aquifers, run-off from agricultural land, containing fertilizer, pesticides and livestock effluent cause even further environmental damage and health impacts for people who live nearby or downstream.
But the problems of our food production go way beyond agriculture. Plastic pollution, much of it from food packaging, is now ubiquitous across the entire globe, causing even further environmental degradation and health problems for all species, including humans. Our use of plastics in the food industry now forms a toxic chain from fossil fuel production, through our environment leading directly back into the food we are consuming.
And yet – despite the huge environmental cost of the food we produce, it is shocking to realise that over one third of it is wasted. From crops left in the ground because it is uneconomic to harvest them, through the mountains of out-of-date products that supermarkets dispose of, to the weekly clear out of fridges across the world, every part of our food supply chain is contributing to this enormous pile of waste. And with nearly 700 million people in the world going hungry each year , such appalling waste is even more difficult to accept. Furthermore, rotting food will produce methane; a potent greenhouse gas that delivers 30-50 times more warming than CO2.
When you take these statistics and add the facts that the world’s population set to grow by 25% to 10 billion over the next 30 years and that huge increases in demand for animal protein in the developing world are expected in the same time period, it’s clear than not only is our current path unsustainable, but it is also a road to utter destruction both for our environment and for us.
Then, of course, there are the ethics of our food production. Since the 19th century, our view of non-human animals has developed from seeing them as mindless automata through to recognizing them as sophisticated sentient creatures, capable of a wide range of cognitive capabilities once considered the sole preserve of humans. We now know, beyond doubt, that all vertebrates can experience a wide range of emotions and, most importantly, suffer pain and emotional distress in ways that are physiologically identical to us. Yet, despite this, as a society we tolerate the treatment of domesticated agricultural species in ways that, were they applied to pets or humans, would generate outrage, horror, and revulsion.
So it is clear that our current system is unsustainable and unethical and in need of urgent change – but where do we start to look for solutions?
None of this is going to be easy.
Firstly, we have known for a long time that animal agriculture is an extremely inefficient means of producing food. Producing one kg of animal protein can use up to 10kg of plant crops – which could instead go directly to feed people. One hamburger’s worth of beef (100g) requires 163m2 of land –just a little bit less than the land taken for a single house! The same land could produce 40 times as much rice, grains or root vegetables.
So animal protein production is an obvious place to start, but we know that giving up meat is something most consumers will not accept. Here in Australia, over the period from 2012 to 2018, people choosing a vegetarian diet increased from 9.7% of the population to 11.2%. While it’s encouraging to see vegetarianism and veganism increasing, such a slow growth is not nearly enough to make a significant dent in the problem – especially since Australia is still one of the largest consumers of meat per capita in the world. With the increases in demand in the developing world for meat, such modest change in behaviour cannot be expected to make a significant enough difference.
Recognising this fact, new areas of protein production instead aim to eliminate the need for conventional animal production but still produce products that consumers will recognise as meat. Collectively known as ‘alt-protein’, these new technologies are producing meat analogs and novel protein sources using plants, fungus, insects or, most interestingly, growing animal meat and other products such as milk in a bioreactor to produce a product that mimics conventionally produced animal products (cellular agriculture). These new technologies are attracting the interest of investors, who have now invested over a billion in cellular agriculture startups, but to date, have attracted minimal interest from consumers. While there are virtually no cellular agriculture products available today, there is distinct wariness to something which many consumers see is intrinsically unnatural, particularly within the older generation. Furthermore, like any new technology, these products will command a significant price premium – and it is unclear when – or if – these products might achieve price parity with conventionally farmed animal products.
Those who oppose such high tech means of food production are fond of quoting Michael Pollen, author of such books as The Omnivore’s Dilemma who said “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” On the face of it, that sounds like good advice – but had he instead said “Don’t drive any car that your grandmother wouldn’t go in”. Or don’t use any source of power that your great-grandfather hadn’t heard of” then we would have laughed at such a backwards looking and nonsensical view.
While protein production may be the first area where we need to rapidly develop more sustainable solutions, it is definitely not the only area. Food waste, packaging, water and land use all need to be considered and addressed if we are to build a truly sustainable food supply system for a global population.
Clearly with problems so urgent and universal, we need imagination, investment and most critically, a desire for change from consumers, governments and commercial interests. From where we stand today, it may be hard to see how the juggernaut of our food production system can be shifted far enough and fast enough to make real progress on the problems outlined above. But there is hope, and there is a belief held by many that we can achieve real and lasting change.
One small glimmer of hope in the overall downwards spiral of agricultural environmental destruction is that the actual land needed to produce the same amount an of arable crop has been steadily decreasing as crop yields increase though improved variety breeding and other improvements. In fact, it now takes just one third of the land to produce a kilogram of food crops than it did in 1961. While such increase in productivity has come at the cost of the use of huge amounts of greenhouse gas emitting fertiliser not to mention converting massive areas of land into monocultures, it does show that we can do more with less – we just need to redirect our thinking and research to address the right problems.
But if the scale and pace of change is going to be enough, we need many hands on the tiller, and this is where Food4Tomorrow comes in.
Our mission is to trigger discussion, debate, and education – we want to provide a forum where those who believe they have solutions can be heard but also be questioned and challenged. For to take the wrong path now could be as damaging as doing nothing. But we believe everyone deserves a voice and should be heard. Everyone, that is, except those who wish to deny the problem, or believe that the current systems should remain unchallenged. For we now know that business-as-usual will eventually mean no business at all.
But we believe that there is much to be hopeful and excited about – and we want to be able to share that excitement over how we can improve the sustainability and ethical standards of our food supply. We hope you will join us on this journey.
“You must be the change you wish to see in the world”