August 20: Best of Quirks & Quarks - Feeding the Future
How we can feed 10 billion people without killing the planet
This episode originally aired February 26, 2022.
By many estimates we're going to have 10 billion people on the planet by the year 2050. That's a lot of mouths to feed.
As it is, we have over a billion people going hungry, while at the same time we throw 49 billion dollars worth of food in the trash, every year. Land is being worked to the bone, degrading the soil and water supply needed to sustain production. Our demand for protein is growing, and our ability to satisfy that demand from traditional animal sources – from fish to chicken to beef – is hitting the wall. Oh, and don't forget climate change wreaking havoc on everything we do.
The way we eat - and what we eat - has to change.
In this one-hour Quirks & Quarks radio special, we'll unpack the latest science showing what the future of food should look like: from climate-change proof agriculture, to sustainable food systems that curb waste, and even meat grown without ever having to kill an animal.
There is a growing body of research showing that it is indeed possible to feed all the people of the world - even 10 billion of them - without killing the planet.
- More from this series: Feeding the future: Feeding the world without destroying the planet will mean farming smarter.
In this special, we spoke with:
- Evan Fraser, director of the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph
- Martin Entz, professor of cropping systems and natural systems agriculture at the University of Manitoba.
- Brenda Hsueh, owner of Black Sheep Farm.
- Stewart Wells, owner of Penny Lane Organic Farms.
- Arzeena Hamir, owner of Amara Farm.
- Jennifer Grenz, assistant professor and Indigenous scholar in the department of forest resources management at the University of British Columbia.
- Dave Kranenburg, owner of Kendall Hills Farm.
- Tammara Soma, research director of the Food Systems Lab at Simon Fraser University.
- Marney Isaac, professor and Canada Research Chair in Agroecosystems and Development at the University of Toronto, Scarborough.
- David Isaac, CEO of W Dusk Energy Group.
- Lenore Newman, director of the food and agriculture institute at the University of the Fraser Valley, and a Canada Research Chair in Food Security and Environment.
- Aryé Elfenbein, cardiologist and founder of Wildtype foods
Produced and written by Amanda Buckiewicz
Hi I'm Bob McDonald, welcome to a special edition of Quirks & Quarks.
Today we want to talk about the future of food. Because we may have 10 billion people on the planet by the year 2050. That's a lot of mouths to feed.
We already have a hard time feeding the world's population. Many experts say that our food systems are at a breaking point, and that the way we eat - and what we eat - has to change.
But there are solutions.
In this special edition of Quirks & Quarks, we'll tell you about the latest science showing what the future of food can - and probably should - look like.
We'll hear from science-minded farmers across the country who are experimenting in their fields to help cope with climate change.
Entz: we're thinking, how can we do this the way nature does it? How can we mimic nature to create a solution to a problem?
Plus, we'll look at the technologies that could help turbocharge local food - so people can grow food where it was never thought possible - from concrete jungles to remote northern villages.
Fraser: in the next very small number of years, we will see even a northern country like Canada become food sovereign throughout much of the year.
We'll look at sustainable food systems that could help us feed more people by getting a handle on the massive amount of food that we just throw away.
Soma: It's a system that designs waste out of the equation. So there's no such thing as waste.
And we'll hear from the people who could be creating the future of protein - with meat that is grown in an industrial vat instead of a living creature.
Elfenbein: So I had this question of: do we need animals to have meat?
We're calling it: Feeding the future: How we can feed 10 billion people without killing the planet.
The first thing we're going to talk about today, is that the way we grow much of our food now simply isn't sustainable. It's environmentally destructive and vulnerable to catastrophic disruption from natural and human pressures. It has to change if we want to feed the future.
Dr. Martin Entz is in his field just south of Winnipeg.
Here, he grows wheat, oats, and alfalfa. But this isn't an ordinary farm - this is a massive, long term science experiment.
For the past 30 years, Dr. Entz has been exploring alternative ways of growing crops. He knows that we need to change how we grow things - and soon.
The planet works using biological and ecological processes. That's how the planet works. And if the planet were a factory, then factory thinking could dominate and would be just fine. But the planet is not a factory. The planet is a living organism.
Unfortunately our food production system has been treated like a factory – for decades now. And as a result, we've pushed it to - perhaps past - some fundamental biological limits.
Many farmers know this - they see first hand that our food system is teetering on a knife edge.
I do consider that the global food production system is completely broken.
Brenda Hsueh grows organic vegetables and raises sheep on her farm in Southern Ontario.
Our entire industry is made to be just in time. And so it actually doesn't take very much to throw everything off by, you know, a day or two.
One problem is the pressure on farmers to shoe-horn farming - a natural process - into the ill-fitting model that suits other kinds of modern economic activity.
I've had arguments with bureaucrats who will argue that farming is just another business, that it's just like creating software. It's just like computer coding. And, you know, people need to understand that's not true.
That's Stewart Wells, a third generation farmer in Southwestern Saskatchewan. On his 3500 acre farm, he grows wheat, peas, lentils, and oats – and a whole range of other crops.
Food production requires a certain set of conditions. They don't happen every year and when they don't, there's a lot more trouble than just not being able to buy the new fancy phone. And the environment getting to a place where the weather is so much more unstable, and that you can't rely on averages anymore, that makes the whole business of farming that much riskier. And so anything that adds that risk for farmers is very bad news.
Which brings us to climate change – the straw that could break the camel's back when it comes to agriculture. The thing that could push us into disaster – or, drive us to create a new and more sustainable farming system.
We spoke with dozens of farmers, and climate change came up a lot.
For many, it has made their jobs that much more difficult. Like Arzeena Hamir, whose farm on Vancouver Island suffered severe losses during last summer's heat dome.
On our black currant crop, it literally cooked the berries on the plant. They turned pink, as if they'd been boiled, and then they fell. So we lost a good third of our production.
And it wasn't just extreme heat - but extreme weather.
We had over four feet of snowfall on our farm during the month of December. And it fell on our greenhouses. And we were literally digging out our structures every two days because of the pressure that that amount of weight of snow was putting on them. It was a very, very stressful time.
And ironically, farming is not only being affected by climate change, it's also in many ways a contributing cause of it.
We're just jamming all sorts of fossil fuel energy into one end and getting increased production out of the other end. But with that increased production comes a whole bunch of pollutants. And the natural environment cannot deal with the toxins and the pollutants that you're producing.
Many suggest that the way we grow our food has to change, from the ground up - including Evan Fraser, director of the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph.
Dr. Fraser, welcome to our program!
Hi there, Bob, thank you very much.
Do you think we're at a tipping point when it comes to how we farm at the moment?
I mean, the short answer is yes. And the global level statistics are really pretty depressing, but worth quickly rehearsing. A quarter, or a third of the world's greenhouse gases come from food and farming. It's the leading driver of our, what seems to be a losing fight to protect the world's biodiversity. It's the largest source of water pollution, it's the biggest user of freshwater in the world. And that is completely unsustainable. So yes, the future has to look different than the past, Bob.
Well, that's the bad news. So let's talk solutions. What do you think needs to be done to fix agriculture?
Well, I mean, despite the doom and gloom of the beginning of our conversation, despite the high level statistics, I'm actually incredibly optimistic about the future of food and farming. The first reason I'm optimistic is that I think we can relearn farming practices that, say, were common in early, earlier generations farming practices that will help us steward the land better. And by relearning those farming practices, we can turn, say, farming from a source of carbon emissions into a part of the solution to the climate crisis.
The second part of my optimism is found in looking forward and looking forward to what I can only describe as Jetson-like technologies. These incredibly innovative uses of things like artificial intelligence and robotics that are right now reshaping food and farming systems. And so it's sort of a weird combination of embracing the past and embracing the future at the same time where I think we find a pathway forward and ultimately make me feel very, very optimistic about how the future's going to unfold for us.
OK, well, let's take the first part of that looking to the past. What do we need to change like some of the basics, like soil and seeds?
We know, for instance, and we've known, you know, farmers have known for 10000 years that rotating different kinds of crops one year after another in what's called the crop rotation, can really help build the soil up. Planting what some people call winter cover crops, which basically protect the soil from erosion during the winter. Carefully integrating livestock and grain or field crops so that the livestock recycle nutrients. You know, these are basic soil science and agronomy practices, and they really do work. They really do turn fields from being a source of greenhouse gas emissions into what's called a carbon sink. In other words, with careful management, farmers can become our frontline in combating climate change rather than being a big contributor to it.
BREAK IN INTERVIEW
As Dr. Fraser said, embracing the technologies that helped humans grow food for the past 10,000 years could very well be one of the keys to fixing our agricultural systems.
One of the things that I like to remind people is that we are actually the original farmers.
This is Dr. Jennifer Grenz. She's an assistant professor and Indigenous scholar in the department of forest resources management at the University of British Columbia. She's also a farmer, and a proud Nlaka'pamux woman whose family is from the Lytton first nation.
Grenz: When settlers arrived on our shores, you know, it looked like this great wilderness. But what they didn't recognize is that they were looking at incredibly sophisticated food systems. These systems have been shaped since time immemorial to provide food, to provide medicines, to provide technology.
One big key to the success of Indigenous food systems is looking at the interconnectivity of all the parts.
Grenz: We have to find ways to do this that include acts of reciprocity and we have to see the food systems relationally. That it's not just about food and me, you know, it's about all the different plants that are sustaining all of the different relations that we are reliant upon. You know, plants, animals, insects, fish.
Dr. Grenz says that one aspect of Indigenous food systems that she'd like to see incorporated more widely, is this idea of everyone - not just farmers - doing the work to help maintain food systems around us. And that's going to require us all to take a bit more responsibility for understanding nature, and where our food comes from.
It might mean as little as pulling invasive species as we go for a walk, or planting berries around the trees in our yard. Or it might mean much more.
We have this colonial understanding of what nature is, right, that it doesn't involve people, but it actually does. A lot of work went into purposefully shaping these systems in the past. So we have to recognize that we can't just have this sort of distant relationship or disconnected relationship with our forests and food systems.
We're not talking about going back to pre-colonial landscapes. We're talking about taking that pre-colonial wisdom and integrating it with the best of modern biology and agricultural science.
But what does this look like when applied to modern, large scale, high productivity farming?
Well, for one thing, according to experts like Dr. Martin Entz, many farmers are shifting away from chemical-laden farming practices, and looking to these more traditional, natural practices, to use nature and biology to fortify food systems.
So we've gone from the mechanical to the chemical era, and now we're entering the biological era of agriculture where we're thinking, how can we do this the way nature does it? How can we mimic nature to create a solution to a problem?
Dr. Entz is a professor of cropping systems and natural systems agriculture at the University of Manitoba.
Just south of Winnipeg, in Glenlea Manitoba, he's been running a 30 year experiment, comparing both organic and conventional growing techniques. He and his team have been trying to understand how to get the most out of our crops. But they're doing everything they can think of to minimise the chemical inputs - synthetic fertilisers, pesticides and the like - that modern industrial agriculture has come to rely on.
"We can look at the wheat, it looks nice and clean, the edges are bigger, taller…"
On his YouTube channel, he has a series of videos showing off some of the techniques they're testing. In this particular patch, they're growing some alfalfa, which infuses the soil with nitrogen, so the soil ends up needing less than half of the fertiliser to remain healthy.
"How would you characterise the look of this crop versus the one where you don't have alfalfa in the rotation?" "Yeah it definitely looks a bit taller…" "It also looks to me a little darker greener, yeah? You would agree? So that's a reflection of more nitrogen…"
Alfalfa also suppresses weed growth, so again, fewer chemicals are needed to maximise food production.
We're working with nature's biological ecological processes. In nature, things are diverse. In nature, nutrients are recycled, carbon is recycled and in nature, perennial plants are the dominant plant species as opposed to annual plants.
This field at Glenlea is far from the only science experiment like this.
On farms across Canada, farmers are running experiments of their own, doing the work to adapt their ways of growing, to try and change with the times. They're breeding resilient seeds, experimenting with new kinds of crops and crop rotations, using animals to help maintain soil health, and maintaining biodiversity on grazing lands. They're also bringing back trees and more diverse landscapes to farms that used to be uniform fields.
Dave Kranenburg is one such farmer-scientist. He grows mushrooms, raises chickens, and does his own agricultural experiments on his farm in Orono, Ontario
Well I'm getting more and more curious about the soil science and soil health. And as we learn more about soil health, we're starting to realise and appreciate more that there is like mycorrhizal relationships, so like fungal relationships between plants and fungus in the soil that are mutually beneficial and contribute to the overall health of the soil. But that also translates into plant health.
This is working with the environment instead of fighting it. This kind of "regenerative farming" includes things that smaller farmers have done in the past – but it's against the grain of so-called modern industrial agriculture.
Like, farmer-led research, it's a lot of practical lived experience. It's not going to ever be in a published academic journal, but it's the things that we're sharing and learning as we go to kind of constantly improve, like how we farm and how we work with nature.
So the basics of how we grow our food is going to change, but for Dr. Evan Fraser, the food scientist at the University of Guelph, there are some more futuristic advances he's interested in as well.
BACK TO EVAN FRASER INTERVIEW
This is one of the things that I'm growing so excited about, because even a couple of years ago, I wouldn't have been as extremely bullish about these technologies. And in particular, let's just take something like vertical farming, which refers to, say, producing green leafy vegetables in a completely controlled environment, setting, so in a box, essentially, in a factory with LED lights, with hydroponic solutions, with specially bred seeds. And over the last few years, a combination of things have happened that have made this a viable way of producing certain vegetables, even in a country like Canada that's got our winter with it. And really it's it's low cost LED lights and and energy saving and labour saving technologies, robotics, which are allowing us to imagine a future where pretty much any crop could be produced anywhere at any time.
Now I'm exaggerating a bit there. And right now, vertical farming, for instance, are only being used for green leafy vegetables or microgreens. But in Ontario, we now have year round strawberries out of our greenhouse sector, which is a remarkable accomplishment, I think, and all the indications that I've seen suggest that in the next very small number of years, we will see even a northern country like Canada become food sovereign for fresh fruits and vegetables throughout much of the year.
Technology is moving us to a point where we can start to imagine doing that within vertical farming operations in the middle of winter, in the middle of Ontario.
But if we do move some agriculture indoors into vertical farming, wouldn't that use up a ton of electricity, which brings about a whole new set of problems?
Oh, so that's a super question. First of all, we save a lot of energy by not moving things all the way across the continent. So there's a lot less diesel in the terms of the trucks being used to transport the stuff. Secondly, and this is an important point, we can't be thinking about these technologies as single technologies, but I think we need to take a little bit more of a what's called a systems view or holistic view of these things.
So let's imagine that we think, OK, well, we need a clean source of energy to run a vertical farm, maybe a dairy operation that produces a lot of manure, needs to put a biogas collector on their manure lagoon, trap the methane, turn the methane into the power source for the vertical farm down the highway. We design those things such that the waste in one section becomes valuable inputs in another, like a dairy farm and a vertical farm, operating together as part of an ecosystem.
What about our diets? Do we have to change that to ease the problem?
Well, I've come to the very strong belief that from a consumer perspective, being discriminating about what you can eat is a really important way of mediating or affecting your impact on the environment. So I'm not saying you can't eat meat and livestock. I'm saying we have to be careful about when we eat meat and livestock, which on average has a pretty big environmental footprint. So I think that consumers absolutely must play a role. But it gets back to that issue, though, of food insecurity.
We have a major crisis of food insecurity in our country and increasing the cost of food by being good environmental stewards will exacerbate that problem. I think what we're doing there is actually moving out of the realm of farming and food and science and into the realm of social justice and policymaking.
I think that if we want consumers' dietary choices to be good for the planet, we also we have to reduce the costs of these things. We have to have sustainable food at scale and at cost. And we also have to address the issue of low minimum wages and very high cost of housing and cost of living because we will never have a situation where low income people are able to afford a good diet if most of their income is going to pay rent, for instance.
Dr. Fraser, thank you so much for your time.
Oh, it's my pleasure.
Dr. Evan Fraser is director of the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph.
There are two ways to think about the cost of food. One, and it's a critical one right now, is the cost to consumers - to the people who need to be fed.
But we can't discount the costs of our food production system to the people who work in it.
After all, the farmers who feed us, like Brenda Hsueh, will be on the front-lines of fixing our food system, and resolving our sustainability issues.
It's always farmers who are at the bottom of the totem pole in terms of economic success. And meanwhile, food itself is actually necessary for every single human being. I would like people to know that growing food is an absolutely wonderful job to do, and it is just soul satisfying and I just wish that as a culture, we would just really honour what farmers do each and every day.
END OF PART 1
You're listening to a special edition of Quirks & Quarks: Feeding the future - How we can feed 10 billion people without killing the planet
This brings us to Chapter 2 in our story today. As we've just heard, we can grow our food differently - working with nature, and using innovative technology, to maintain food production without sacrificing the environment.
But that's only part of the problem. We also need to overhaul the way that food gets from the farm to your fork - because it's a system that's wasteful of both food and energy, and disturbingly fragile.
And lately, it seems we've been getting some stark reminders of this fragility.
News clip montage - supply chain issues/Suez canal ship blockage/El Nino affecting crops
This is something that Dr. Tammara Soma hopes to change. She's the research director of the Food Systems Lab at Simon Fraser University.
Dr. Soma, thank you for joining us!
Thank you for having me, Bob.
What is the problem with the food system that we have now?
Environmentally, we have, you know, a food system that is not sustainable, that is exploitative of natural resources and of biodiversity. And there's also, on the economic side, we have a food system that does not truly value the cost of producing food, and it does not necessarily reflect the price of producing food. And then there's the social aspect. So in terms of the social aspect, we have this paradox, these contradictions where we have food waste on the one side and then food insecurity on the other side. We waste approximately 49 billion dollars worth of food annually. The food is being wasted all across the food supply chain.
So, for example, I have studies with farmers here in B.C. and there's a lot of things that are beyond the control of the farmers, for example, when they have crops and they are ready to sell. And then it turns out that the buyers will say, Well, these crops are not fitting our aesthetic standards, you know, whether it be the size or the colour or the shape. And so that goes to waste, even though it's perfectly edible. There are also issues with weather and labour disruptions because, you know, we are reliant on a very precarious system in terms of our labour with migrant farm workers. And then at the consumer stage, there's over consumption. There's, you know, things left in the fridge and forgotten. All across, we see a lot of waste.
So given these problems with the food system, do you think it's possible to grow enough food to feed the billions of people on this planet, billions that are increasing in number every year?
Currently we grow more than enough food to feed nine billion people. We have seven billion people right now. And actually, there are some studies that show that we have more than enough food to feed 10 billion people, in fact. We are over producing food already and we're not actually being efficient with the way that we produce food, with the way that we distribute food and the way that we buy and sell and trade food.
What we have right now is a system sometimes where we might grow apples in B.C. and then it would be sent to another country to be packaged only for then to be sent back to B.C., you know, so we have those examples of, you know, inefficiencies in terms of long-distance, complex food supply chain.
OK, well, let's look at some solutions here. Take me through your research. What does a sustainable food system look like?
So it's not just sustainability, but I also like to ensure that there's the word equity or justice. A sustainable food system is something that can last long and it can last long because it's benefiting people equitably.
I like to think of this concept called circular food system or circular food economy, or another term used, maybe you've heard of it is closed loop, closed loop food system. And so this idea of a closed loop food system is a system that designs waste out of the equation. So there's no such thing as waste. It's either prevented or anything that is of like a byproduct or what have you is recycled back into the system to to nourish, you know, the entire food system.
Now what we have right now in our system is a situation where it's not circular anymore. It's linear. So we might, for example, buy a mango from Indonesia. It would go, I would say, to a city in Canada. That city in Canada might not have a composting program. And so that mango is going to go in the landfill, it's going to rot in the landfill, generate methane and then contribute to greenhouse gas emission and therefore global warming, climate change.
You mentioned mitigating climate change, how would an improved food system do that?
Well, the thing about the long distance food supply chain is that it takes a lot of energy, a lot of fossil fuels, resources to actually move food around from one country to another country.
And so we can think about opportunities to shorten the food supply chain, to make it so that it is more efficient in how we move it, move the food from the farm to say a shop. You know, then we can actually have that closed loop food system that we were envisioning.
BREAK IN INTERVIEW
A big part of a less wasteful, less transportation intensive, closed loop food system is, and I'm sure you're familiar with this - more local food. And producing food in a more local way can take many forms - even in the concrete jungle of Canada's largest city.
Toronto was the first city in the world to enact a green roof bylaw on new developments, and there's actually over 700 green roofs in Toronto. And they do provide various services in the urban environments such as stormwater capture, regulating building temperatures and habitat for urban wildlife.
This is Dr. Marney Isaac, a professor and Canada research chair in the Department of Physical Environmental Sciences and the Department of Global Development Studies at the University of Toronto, Scarborough. On the rooftop of her lab, she and her group grow crops ranging from beans, to herbs – even watermelons.
On these green roofs, we're monitoring everything from greenhouse gas emissions to crop production. Remember, these are very harsh environments, a lot of sunlight, a lot of rainfall, a lot of wind. And so we're taking what we know about how plants behave in other environments and using that to select and predict which crops are going to do best on these very constrained green roof environments.
All very well in the urban South. But what about areas where the weather just isn't hospitable to growing food for most of the year?
People, particularly Indigenous people, in Canada's North, historically harvested and hunted local foods, and these continue to be an important part of their diet. But technology is enabling a new kind of local food – to replace foods that have needed to be trucked or flown in at enormous expense.
For the first time in history, really, we've got an emerging sector in technology that's actually in alignment with Indigenous worldview perspectives in that it's using abundant natural resources, renewable resources, and also looking at modernising food systems.
David Isaac is the CEO of W Dusk Energy Group, which develops community-owned solar farms and greenhouse projects throughout Canada. He brings an Indigenous lens to his projects, which focus on food systems, renewable energy, and infrastructure development.
When you see a greenhouse in a community or, or a solar farm in a community, it's symbolic of change. It's symbolic of progress. And it's symbolic of resiliency. It's an act of decolonization and it's doing it in a way that's basically setting up a community for success and for self-sufficiency.
So, we have the technology now to basically design systems and redesign communities to work more towards a closed loop system, to work more towards a circular economy. So again, working with nature, not against nature, using what's most abundant in your region or your backyard.
Researchers like Dr. Tammara Soma from Simon Fraser agree that local food can be a key to food sovereignty, ending food waste, and increasing food security.
BACK TO TAMMARA SOMA INTERVIEW
So I'm a big believer, I mean, as a scientist that we can't just put all of our eggs in one basket. And so while I definitely do not promote the, you know, the idea that we should stop international trade, certainly I would not recommend that. I also think that we need to think about what can we grow, you know, locally and how we can nourish the local population, especially with things that are seasonal and grow amazing, you know, in Canada and the different provinces that we live in.
Well, how much of this has come down to just changing consumer behaviour and our current diets?
That is a big piece here. And so in my studies, we've done a lot of studies around this and a consumer might have the education, they might have the awareness, they might have the capacity to do something. But if the surrounding environment is not providing them with the opportunity to do so, they might not actually do it. So an example would be someone who knows that wasting food in the landfill is not good. But then at the end of the day, the composting infrastructure in their city is not available or it's not very good.
And so I think that it's so important to not only just focus on the consumer, but it's also important to think about how the system shapes the consumer.
And what about agriculture itself? Should we be changing what we grow and what we eat?
Well, I think the important thing about agriculture is that there is a lot of focus on agriculture, particularly on exports. And so this is something that's called comparative advantage in a lot of cases. So, for example, thinking about my home country of Indonesia. An economist might say, while Indonesia is a tropical country, so your comparative advantage is growing bananas or mangoes. And so therefore you should just focus on growing bananas and mangoes.
What happens is countries around the world then start to focus simply on like one type of food or like key food commodities for exports, and then forget about that self-sufficiency question. And so I think that it's important for us, not again, to not put all of our eggs in one basket on just export commodities, but also think about, well, how can we increase self sufficiency locally and within our own borders.
It's funny you mentioned mangoes. I just had one right here just before this interview.
Do you remember where it came from?
I think it was from Mexico, but I got it at the supermarket across the street, and I was thinking, here it is, February in Canada and I'm eating a mango.
I grew up with the mango tree. And so mango is very seasonal. Mango doesn't grow all year round. And so when we would pick the mango, it would be so special because it would be the Mango season. So that's the one thing that we've kind of lost too is that seasonality aspect. And so there is that expectation, 'Well, if I'm going to go to the grocery store, twenty four, seven, you know, I need to have those strawberries even though it tastes like potatoes.'
Dr. Soma, thank you so much for your time.
You're very welcome Bob, thank you.
Dr. Tammara Soma is the director of the Food Systems Lab at Simon Fraser University.
END OF PART 2
You're listening to a special edition of Quirks & Quarks: Feeding the future: How we can feed 10 billion people without killing the planet
So we've heard about our need to change the way we grow our food, and how we get it from the farm to the fork.
Our third and final chapter today is about what we eat - what's on that fork. And we're going to focus on the problem of protein.
Protein is an essential part of any diet. And yet, we have a twisted relationship with this particular nutrient. Our demand for protein is growing, and our ability to satisfy that demand from traditional animal sources – from fish to chicken to beef – is hitting the wall. Practically, ethically, sustainably, we can't keep using animals for food in the same way anymore.
But the future could look — like this….
At a nondescript, converted industrial building in the middle of bustling San Francisco, is the world's first cultivated seafood pilot plant.
Inside, there are several rows of massive metal vats. It looks more like a microbrewery than a fish processing plant. But these vats hold rapidly reproducing salmon cells - destined ultimately for sushi restaurants.
Demand for seafood is expected to double by 2050, and we need to completely reimagine how we source our seafood to sustainably keep up with that demand. And this is where Wildtype comes in.
Wildtype is a startup that is using cellular agriculture to make meat in a vat - without using animals.
They're one of at least 70 companies currently working on developing this 'protein of the future.'
It's a shift that Lenore Newman, and many like-minded researchers, say is desperately needed.
Dr. Newman is the director of the food and agriculture institute at the University of the Fraser Valley, and a Canada Research Chair in Food Security and Environment.
Dr. Newman, welcome to our program!
Oh, great to be here today.
First of all, how did you get involved in studying food?
Well, you could say I was born into the industry. My family are all fishermen. We had a fishing company and so I grew up on a halibut boat and my dad didn't like to see idle hands, even if it was his small children. So my sister and I got a very early introduction to 'On the dock marketing.'
In your mind, what are some of the biggest problems when it comes to protein consumption on this planet?
Well, I think it's safe to say, Bob, that protein is our biggest challenge in the global food system right now, in that demand is skyrocketing all around the world. And the problem is, animal agriculture is so intensive that we can't scale that. And of course, animal agriculture has a lot of climate impacts. There are a lot of ethical questions about how we produce animals in bulk. And what we're really seeing is we just simply can't meet demand. We need to find better ways.
And what about the animals themselves and both in the way we treat them, but also, I mean, have they modified or been modified over time?
Yes. And for the last 50 or 60 years in particular, coming into its own after the Second World War, the driving force has been to make protein very cheap. And if we really look at the impact of that, it's huge, both environmentally in conditions for animals and farm workers.
So if we look at the 1950s chicken, a broiler chicken today is about three times bigger, and it doesn't even live very long if it doesn't isn't processed because the chickens can barely support their own weight, they're so large to try and meet that demand for chicken breast. So we focused on making animals bigger, on producing more of the meat desired. And we've also really focused on dropping costs, which means around the world we're seeing dairies with 10 and 20 thousand cows in terrible condition, similar for chickens with battery cages. We're seeing animal conditions decline. We're also seeing farm worker conditions decline because price has been king, and we can't keep doing that.
Do you think we're at a tipping point?
I think we're past a tipping point. If we really look at it, the climate impact of the animal agriculture system is simply too large for the amount of calories it produces. If we compare it to, you know, the fruits and vegetables and the grains, it's just, it is inordinately large. The environmental and ethical and labour impacts are too big to be ignored. And we're kind of past that point. We need to figure out better ways to meet the rising demand for protein because it's not going away.
OK, well, then take me through some of the solutions.
Well, it's a very exciting time in protein because we are expanding how we do things. And the one most people are familiar with is plant based proteins. And of course, they're not new. Plant based proteins have been around for thousands of years, but we're getting better at creating substitutes that taste like animal derived products and also behave like them in recipes. So plant proteins are expanding greatly. But what's really emerging in the next few years is going to be precision fermentation and cellular agriculture, where we use technologies similar to brewing, to prepare animal proteins with no animals at all.
And these technologies have been developing over the last decade or so. They're really getting ready for prime time, and it's going to totally shake up how we do things.
OK, so you're talking about not just doing vegetable products that look like meat, but you're talking about actual meat products, but they're made without just the animal, like take me through that. You have these two term cell based agriculture and precision fermentation. Let's start with precision fermentation. What is that?
It is one of my favourite technologies in this area just because people have overlooked it a little bit. So precision fermentation, what we do there, we take yeast or bacteria, which are very useful little critters, and they produce outputs. And so the oldest one and best known is, of course, brewing, is if we want an alcoholic beverage, we feed sugar to yeast and starch to yeast and it produces alcohol. Well, we can modify yeast and bacteria to produce other things, and we do. We make medications this way, such as insulin. We also make food products this way, such as the rennet that allows us to make cheese.
We can use that exact same technology to make just about any protein, including the two major milk proteins, casein and whey. And so basically, we can set up a brewery, but instead of beer, we get milk. And these technologies are much easier than some of the other ones because number one, they exist, they scale well, because it's a liquid. It's easy to do at scale. And we're seeing that. And if we were in America today, we could go to the store and buy ice cream that had dairy protein in it, but it had never seen a cow. And to me, that's just mind blowing.
It certainly is. I'm trying to imagine milk coming in a keg with a tap on the front of it.
Well, exactly, exactly.
OK, now you also mentioned cellular based agriculture. What's that about?
Yes, and it's the one most people have heard of, and I usually describe it in the shorthand burger in a vat in that, because customers don't actually want a cow or a chicken. What they want is a chicken breast or a hamburger. They don't want the horns, the moo, the skin. They just want the product. And so what we can do is we can take cells and culture them in a growth medium, and literally grow the exact product the customer wants. It's quite old technology. It's at least 100 years old that we've been trying to culture cells, but it hasn't really been practical at scale until recently. And that's for a number of reasons. We're getting much better in the area of genomics, at manipulating cells. And we're also just getting a lot better at creating growth media, at scaling the process.
About eight years ago, Mark Post in the Netherlands created a burger using this technology and cost about one hundred thousand Euros. Well, now we can do the same thing for about 10 Euros. So massive decrease in the cost. And this technology is absolutely groundbreaking. It's going to really change how we engage with meat at scale.
Now this lab grown meat or meat in a vat, as you say, how close is it to a simple cut of meat from an animal? I mean, is it just as healthy?
Yes. And in fact, it can actually be more healthy. We know cholesterol is a problem. We know that saturated fat is a problem. Well, there's a group at Tufts University in Boston that's culturing beef cells that don't have cholesterol. They don't give you cholesterol. And so we can actually tailor these products to be healthier than the biological product, because it's a technology.
The other really fascinating thing is we really only eat a half dozen or a dozen animal products from about that number of species. And that's purely because those were the species we could domesticate. Well, we don't have to stick with those cell lines if we're working in the lab. So it might turn out that a giraffe steak is much more healthy for us, and we don't have to have a giraffe farm to do that anymore. We can grow it in a vat. And so it opens up a wide technology where protein will be healthier. It will be cheaper, ultimately. And, of course, incredibly less environmentally intensive.
On the other hand, it sounds incredibly industrial. I mean, when you want to grow a pig, I mean the pigs doing a lot of work for us, right? You just stick it outside and you feed it.
Oh, it is. But of course, we don't stick a pig outside and feed it. I mean, my job, I spend a lot of my time deeply connected to the animal systems. And you know, the reality isn't pretty. And I'm a fisherman's daughter. I'm pretty tough. But if you walk into a barn and there's 100,000 chickens, six to a cage and they can barely turn around, no one can tell me that's more natural than brewing it in a vat.
These aren't natural industries. They haven't been natural industries for a century. So I really feel, you know, the public will ultimately make the decision. But at the end of the day, if we can produce the same product that is cheaper, healthier, more environmentally friendly and we don't have to kill a large animal to do so, why on Earth wouldn't we do it?
BREAK IN INTERVIEW
Wildtype meats made a big splash in San Francisco when they opened the world's first cultivated seafood pilot plant.
We grow seafood outside of the animal just directly from the cells of fish and crustaceans.
This is Dr. Aryé Elfenbein, who is actually a cardiologist. But he started a sideline in cultured meats as one of the founders of Wildtype.
The process begins, as you can imagine, with fish cells. And so there's a lot of trial and error involved, and we had to learn how these cells respond to certain nutrients, what they require and what keeps them happy and growing.
For 6 to 8 weeks the cells multiply on a proprietary diet of fats, proteins, sugars and other nutrients. Then they get printed out onto a plant-based scaffold, where they grow into their final shape. The result is a fatty pink salmon brick perfect for vat-grown sashimi.
Cells are exquisitely sensitive to their environment. And by that, I mean, if you grow cells on these very narrow aligned fibres, they will take on the same shape as a muscle fibre and in many ways, even mature, just like a muscle fibre. If you grow them on soft surfaces and a high fat environment, for example, they will behave a lot more like fat.
Those who've had a chance to try Wildtype's product say it tastes similar, but milder, than the real thing. And it's important to note - this isn't a meat substitute. On the cellular level, it's the same as salmon.
These are salmon cells producing what they know how to produce, which is salmon proteins and salmon fats and everything else that is part of normal salmon physiology.
And Dr. Elfenbein doesn't suggest that it will replace fish altogether, but provide another option on the market, so that we relieve some of the current pressures on our fisheries.
We envision a future where consumers are able to have far more options than they do today, where wild caught salmon hopefully is caught by people who are true stewards of the oceans and rivers and care about the numbers of fish that are taken out of our system and really give our oceans and the salmon the time to recover.
And as Dr. Lenore Newman from the University of the Fraser Valley says, that's the whole point. This cellular based agriculture is not meant to replace meat altogether.
BACK TO LENORE NEWMAN INTERVIEW
I think what we can safely say, knowing that we can't entirely predict the future is that what we'll see is, a lot of the animal products we eat are already quite heavily processed. So about 60 percent of beef in America goes to hamburgers. And in the milk line, about as much as 70 percent of the milk we produce is already turned into milk powder that's then used as an ingredient. So we replace that low hanging fruit first. And what we'll probably find is that the high end, so you know, your Stilton cheese or, you know, a really, a really aged, dry aged steak. That's hard. That's hard to do.
We'll probably see that come along a little later. So I think that's how we'll see this come along.
So what do you think are the biggest roadblocks when it comes to changing our food systems?
There's a few, definitely. I mean, right now the biggest one is scale. It's getting the costs down and figuring out how to produce enough food to go around. And so getting through to that point where we bring the cost below the cost of animal agriculture, and we will get there. And we've seen that with other substitutes for animal products over the years.
Some people feel there might be some consumer resistance, but to be honest, I think that's transient. My group has done studies on this. Younger generations are very concerned about animal ethics, about health, and about environmental impact. So once these products really start to win on those three determinants, we'll see adoption be pretty quick.
So do you have hope, then, that we can feed all the people on the planet in the decades to come?
I really do, and I'm very, I'm an optimist and I really feel we're moving into an era where we're going to just see food be more plentiful, cheaper and also much more healthy, but taking up much less area of the planet as well. And to me, the ultimate wonderful goal of this would be much less animal cruelty, but also being able to return 20 or 25 percent of the Earth's land surface to primary forest. That would be such a win for our climate goals and just for benefit, for biodiversity, that it's worth pursuing for that alone.
Dr. Newman, thank you so much for your time.
Very happy to be here today.
Dr. Lenore Newman is the director of the food and agriculture institute at the University of the Fraser Valley, and a Canada Research Chair in Food Security and Environment.
As we've heard, to feed the future we need to change what we grow, and how we grow it, to work with nature, rather than overrun it. We will need to recover traditional ways of thinking about growing food – but also harness new technologies to grow in ways and places we've never grown before. We may need to change our expectations about what we eat, when we eat, and how each of us participates in the food system, maybe even by growing our own food, wherever we may be.
These are all big challenges. They'll transform agriculture and the food system ecologically, economically and socially.
But ask those who are responsible for thinking about the present and future of feeding the world, they'll tell you, they're challenges we're ready for.
I mean, we cannot feed 10 billion people in a sustainable way using the current production systems we can't. We need to be much more thrifty with our land and we need to boost our productivity. But we know how to do that so that we produce more food on less land.
I feel incredibly hopeful about the future of food. I'm seeing a resurgence of interest in it from everyone. There's a lot more talk and a lot more interest and support in people knowing where their food is coming from, how it's being grown.
I think farmers are inherently hopeful people. I mean, every year we put our faith in seed. These little tiny packets that somehow grow into the food that you and I eat. I can't farm if I don't have hope.
The challenges are great. There's no question about it… But then, on the other hand, people are very ingenious, and when people turn their minds to something, they can make great strides.
If we talk about all of these things together, we can start imagining some very clear pathways that will mean that we produce enough healthy food to sustain the world's growing population without destroying, you know, the ecosystems that we're all dependent on.
This has been a special edition of Quirks & Quarks - Feeding the future: How we can feed 10 billion people without killing the planet. It was written and produced by Amanda Buckiewicz.
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I'm Bob McDonald, thanks for listening.