Clean energy journalism for a cooler tomorrow

3 smart ways the US can grow more food while emitting less carbon

A climate-friendly national food strategy would start with accelerating alternative proteins, reducing food waste and investing in agricultural innovation.
By Michael Grunwald

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Impossible Burgers sit on a tray. (Photo by Gao Yuwen/VCG via Getty Images)

The Eating the Earth column explores the connections between the food we eat and the climate we live in.

I don’t pay much attention to the circus that is British politics, but before Boris Johnson’s government suddenly and weirdly imploded, I did follow the debate over its new U.K. Government Food Strategy.

Basically, almost every British interest group (except the farm lobby) got angry that the government watered down its final strategy (to appease the farm lobby). It didn’t include salt or sugar taxes, fruit or vegetable subsidies, or meat reductions, all of which had been floated in a draft report.

The general consensus was that the strategy didn’t take sustainability, obesity or affordability seriously. A feeble to-do list,” complained the food advocacy group Sustain. Not just piecemeal and weak,” but unethical,” groused the Food Ethics Council.“ Plan shows no stomach for bold action,” The Guardian summarized. Only the National Farmers Union hailed the strategy for recognizing the importance of domestic food production.”

Now that the government is in shambles, it’s unclear what happens to the Government Food Strategy. But how cool is it that the U.K. even bothered to create one?

The U.S. certainly hasn’t. It’s got a global food security strategy for fighting hunger abroad, but there’s no coordinated plan for how we produce and consume food in America.

This is a food-and-climate column, so I won’t presume to say how Washington should promote more nutritious or affordable diets. But since I keep howling into the wind about our food-and-climate crisis, and I wrote a whole column complaining that U.S. biofuel mandates make it worse, I thought I’d take a whack at what a sensible national strategy to address it might look like.

One obvious place to start would be to ditch those famine-inducing, forest-destroying biofuels mandates, because most biofuels are even worse for the climate than gasoline, but that won’t happen. America’s farm lobby has even more political clout than Britain’s, so we’re going to keep using a third of our corn harvest to fuel our cars instead of ourselves. In fact, the otherwise climate-conscious President Biden is pushing to expand the federal biofuels mandate, and the otherwise climate-friendly Inflation Reduction Act unveiled by the all-powerful Senator Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) includes several new biofuel boondoggles.

Similarly, beef is our most emissions-intensive food, but the backlash to a beef tax would make the Boston Tea Party look like a tea party, so why waste time dreaming about it?

We can all hope the politics of food will evolve, but hope is not a strategy, so I’m going to focus on policies with at least some tenuous connection to political reality.

The problem

Before proposing solutions, it makes sense to outline the problem — the problem of feeding the world without frying the world, the repetitive theme of this monthly Eating the Earth column.

To recap: The global food system generates a third of all greenhouse gas emissions. By 2050, we’ll need to reduce those emissions 75 percent to meet the Paris climate accord’s targets. But we’ll also need to produce 50 percent more calories to feed our growing population. Unless things change, we’ll have to deforest at least 14 Californias worth of land to produce all those extra calories, which would make it impossible to meet those climate targets.

So things better change. Somehow, we’ll have to grow far more food while clearing far less land and emitting far less carbon.

In the words of one influential proponent of activist government: What is to be done?

The U.S. government can help shrink the eating-the-earth problem — by promoting more efficient consumption that reduces demand for land and more efficient production that increases the supply of food per acre. Not only is America a disproportionately large consumer and producer of food, we’re also an economic and technological superpower with disproportionate power to spread innovations around the world.

I’ll focus on three things the feds could do: accelerate alternative proteins, attack food waste and invest in agricultural innovation. There’s lots of good climate stuff in the Inflation Reduction Act, but not that stuff.

1. Accelerate alternative proteins

Governments have helped rein in energy emissions by promoting cleaner alternatives to climate-ravaging fossil fuels — solar, wind, electric vehicles. A great first step to rein in food emissions would be to promote cleaner alternatives to climate-ravaging meat and dairy products. With virtually no government help, American entrepreneurs have taken the lead in creating a trendy but relatively tiny alternative-protein industry. Federal aid could help it grow into a jobs-producing, land-saving, emissions-slashing powerhouse capable of competing with animal agriculture.

In fact, a new Boston Consulting Group study found public investments in alternative proteins are the most cost-effective climate investments. But the Inflation Reduction Act doesn’t make any of those investments, even though livestock generates one-seventh of global emissions and U.S. meat consumption is at an all-time high.

The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that the current trajectory of global meat consumption, which is on track to almost double by 2050, would create a glide path to climate hell. Despite $5 billion worth of private investment in alt-protein startups last year, despite all the hype over plant-based unicorns like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, meatless meat is still barely 1 percent of U.S. meat sales. Plant-based milks are a more impressive 16 percent of the U.S. milk market, but they’ve had a three-decade head start. The climate can’t wait that long for the alt-meat market to ramp up.

Bruce Friedrich spent years masterminding PETA’s radical anti-meat campaigns, but he no longer thinks shaming and screaming can reduce meat consumption. He now runs the Good Food Institute, the alternative protein industry’s trade group, because he’s convinced the only way to beat meat is to develop cheaper substitutes that taste just as good. The young industry isn’t there yet — only 64 percent of consumers who try today’s plant-based meats come back for more — and he doesn’t believe it can get there without the same kind of aggressive government support for research and manufacturing that’s jump-started renewable energy and electric vehicles.

This industry has made astronomically fast progress on its own, but it will stay niche if it’s got to keep asking people to pay more for products they don’t like as much,” Friedrich says. If we’re serious that we don’t want the world to burn, government has to step up.”

Last year, Biden’s USDA did announce an unprecedented $10 million to research cultured meat” grown from animal cells. But that’s still a rounding error in a federal budget of over $4 trillion, or USDA’s budget of over $200 billion, or even its agricultural research budget of $3.5 billion.

The good news, for the climate at least, is that the governments of Singapore, Israel, India, China and, yes, the U.K. are making more serious efforts to promote an alternative-protein future. American politicians ought to invest in that future, too, if only for competitiveness reasons; our solar and EV-battery industries have already drifted overseas, and it would be a shame to outsource another green investment boom. If that’s still not enough motivation, as Ezra Klein of The New York Times noted in his call for a meatless-meat moonshot,” a shift toward alt-proteins would reduce air and water pollution, animal suffering, deforestation and even pandemic risk.

Of course, meat and dairy producers aren’t excited about greener alternatives to their products, and they’re not shy about using their political clout. They’re already pressuring governments to prohibit food from being labeled as meat” or milk” unless it comes from slaughtered or lactating animals, a literalism they’ve never supported for hamburgers that don’t come from ham or hot dogs that don’t come from dogs.

An alt-protein moonshot wouldn’t cost much, and it could help stop the expansion of livestock that already use more than a quarter of the land on earth. But powerful interests wouldn’t appreciate the competition.

2. Attack food waste

There’s no pro-food-waste lobby, so a moonshot to reduce food waste might be more feasible. A third of all food never reaches our mouths, which means a third of the land, fertilizer, water, energy and other resources used to grow that food is wasted as well. It just seems dumb that the world’s farmers use a land mass the size of China to grow garbage, and that the average American family throws out $1,500 worth of food every year. Not doing that would save a lot of money and forests.

It can be not done! The U.K., before it had a national food strategy, launched a Love Food Hate Waste” campaign that helped eliminate a fifth of its food waste in five years. Even the Trump administration, which didn’t care at all about climate or much about food policy, set a goal of reducing food waste by 50 percent by 2030. The anti-waste group ReFED has a roadmap for meeting that goal with just $2 billion in public investment that would avoid 75 million annual tons of emissions, the equivalent of taking 15 million old-school gas-powered cars off the road.

ReFED lays out dozens of ways governments can help: consumer education and composting campaigns, incentives for donations to food banks, reforms of misleading sell-by dates, waste-reduction programs in public-sector cafeterias, and support for cold storage and other infrastructure improvements that reduce spoilage in the developing world. Again, though, the most powerful way the American government can help would be to fund research and deployment of technological solutions, to encourage the innovation that is America’s special sauce.

Food waste has never been a priority target of federal research, but the San Francisco company Treasure8 has used dehydration technology developed at USDA to convert waste streams into potato chips and pet food — and its high-tech dryers could help developing-world farmers convert perishable harvests into shelf-stable commodities that are easier and cheaper to ship. Federally funded researchers have also helped develop bar codes and other logistics technologies that are already making global supply chains more efficient.

Mostly, though, the big breakthroughs in food protection have been private-sector plays. The Santa Barbara startup Apeel Sciences has developed invisible, edible, plant-based coatings that function as second peels, helping produce last twice as long before going bad. You can already buy Apeel-coated avocados at the supermarket, but there’s huge untapped potential for Apeel’s innovations to reduce the amount of fruit and vegetables shipped on carbon-intensive planes, or to reduce spoilage in developing countries with limited access to refrigeration.

It’s nice that so much is happening without Washington’s help, from blockchain applications that help trace and track inventories to smart fridges that let you know when food is about to turn. But Washington could play a huge role in accelerating and dispersing innovation, and it hasn’t yet — not in the Inflation Reduction Act, nor the infrastructure bill that came before it, nor the $2 trillion Covid stimulus bill that came before that.

American politicians all seem to agree food waste is a big and stupid problem. They just aren’t doing anything about it.

3. Invest in agricultural innovation

So Washington could help us eat less meat and waste less food — which, by the way, are the best ways we can help fix the eating-the-earth problem as individuals. But it’s too big a problem to be solved on the demand side. Uncle Sam also needs to intervene on the supply side, by helping farmers and ranchers make more food with less land and lower emissions. Higher yields will help avoid reprises of the current global food crisis, which has left 345 million people at acute risk of starvation, as well as the obliteration of the Amazon and other climatologically vital ecosystems.

The good news is that we’ve done this before. The so-called Green Revolution that began when American agronomist Norman Borlaug started breeding higher-yielding wheat varieties in the 1960s was an efficiency revolution. Better crop genetics, synthetic fertilizers, chemical pesticides, large-scale irrigation and other technological advances have tripled cereal yields, averting the famines Malthusians had predicted, sparing countless forests by limiting agriculture’s footprint. Meanwhile, better animal genetics, nutrition and veterinary care helped super-size livestock yields as well. America now produces the same amount of beef it did in 1970 with one-third fewer cattle, and the average California dairy cow produces more than 20 times as much milk as the average Indian dairy cow.

Now we need to do it again. In fact, we’ll need to exceed the Green Revolution’s yield growth through 2050 to avoid large-scale deforestation. And it will be much harder to keep boosting yields now than it was when most of the world’s farmland was unfertilized and unirrigated, especially with climate-driven droughts, floods and heat waves wiping out harvests and livestock. The Green Revolution’s chemicals also created a toxic legacy of polluted air, poisoned water bodies and on-farm greenhouse gas emissions, so this time, the world will need a much greener Green Revolution.

There’s already exciting work happening in the private sector to develop high-yielding, drought-tolerant new crops like the miracle tree I wrote about in my last column, and eco-friendly, climate-friendly fertilizers and pesticides that don’t rely on toxic chemicals. I watched the implantation of the first cattle embryos genetically edited to produce male offspring, which can yield more beef because they don’t have to develop reproductive systems, and I saw how University of Illinois scientists are trying to boost crop yields by undoing the inefficiencies in the 3.5-billion-year-old process of photosynthesis.

Unfortunately, these advances aren’t happening or spreading fast enough. The miracle tree pongamia can quadruple soybean yields, but it’s only been planted on 1,500 acres when there are 300 million acres of soybeans around the world. California-based Pivot Bio has developed a biological fertilizer that helps corn plants fix their own nitrogen, and American farmers applied it on 1 million acres last year, but they still applied synthetic nitrogen as well — and there are 500 million acres of cornfields.

The Breakthrough Institute has calculated that an additional $40 billion federal investment in agricultural R&D over 10 years could prevent the clearing of wild lands the size of Minnesota and eliminate one-fourth of U.S. agricultural emissions. And Biden’s original Build Back Better plan did include a $1.7 billion increase for research programs at USDA. But even though the anti-agricultural-innovation lobby is as nonexistent as the pro-food-waste lobby, none of those programs made it into the Inflation Reduction Act.

What did make it in was more than $20 billion to pay farmers to practice climate-smart agriculture.” Washington loves to pay farmers, so paying them to do things that are smart for the climate is fairly easy politics. The question is what things are actually smart for the climate.

The bill does mention a few things with strong evidence of helpfulness, like planting carbon-storing trees in pastures and putting methane-suppressing additives in cattle feed. But when the Biden administration talks about climate-smart agriculture, it’s usually referring to regenerative” practices, like planting cover crops or reducing tillage, designed to store carbon in agricultural soils. Those practices clearly improve soil health and reduce erosion, but there’s not much evidence they sequester much carbon — and if they reduce yields, they won’t be climate-smart at all.

I’ll look at regenerative ag in a future column, but the climate-smartest thing the U.S. and other governments could do with the $500 billion they spend every year on farm subsidies would be to help farmers and ranchers make more food with less land. American agriculture is already very productive, but it needs to get even more productive, and help the rest of the world follow its example.

The three items on my wish list have two things in common: They rely heavily on government carrots to promote innovation, and not at all on government sticks to discourage emissions. I’d like to see beef taxes, composting mandates and stricter regulation of animal agriculture, but that’s not going to happen in the U.S. anytime in the foreseeable future. The advocacy community trashed the U.K. Government Food Strategy because it favored carrots over sticks, but farmers hate sticks, and it’s just about impossible to implement food strategies that farmers hate.

That much-maligned U.K. strategy also relies heavily on public support for alternative proteins, food-waste reduction and yield-boosting technologies like gene editing and methane-suppressing feed additives. I like that strategy, except that it suggests the United Kingdom can be the indispensable nation that helps save the world by inventing cool stuff.

Get real. That’s America’s job, and Washington needs to recognize it.

Michael Grunwald is a bestselling author and award-winning journalist who was a staff writer for The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Time magazine and Politico Magazine. He is writing a book about the race to feed the world without frying the world.