You think the energy problem is hard? Meet the food climate challenge

Slashing emissions from food and agriculture will be tough, but innovators are developing creative ways to do it, going way beyond Beyond Burgers.

In the background, a tractor drives over a field. In the foreground, a Pac-Man-like character is about to swallow the Earth.
(Binh Nguyen)
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Canary Media’s Eating the Earth column explores the connections between the food we eat and the climate we live in.

Imagine we quit using fossil fuels in our factories, vehicles and power plants. Imagine we stopped emitting greenhouse gases from our data servers, refrigerators and shopping centers. Imagine we decarbonized every aspect of human civilization…except our global food system.

From a climate perspective, we’d be way less screwed!

But as crazy as it might sound, we’d still be pretty screwed.

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The food system produces one-third of our greenhouse emissions, about 18 gigatons annually. Even if we magically switched off all our other emissions tomorrow, we’d need to cut that close to zero by 2050 to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. If we also wanted to feed a population expected to approach 10 billion by 2050, we’d need to make those drastic cuts while jacking up food production by more than 50 percent. That means we’d have to grow more than 7,000 trillion extra calories every year, the equivalent of 800 Olive Garden breadsticks for every human being alive today.

A chart illustrating the global "food gap" of 56 percent that will need to be closed by 2050 to feed the earth's population
(World Resources Institute)

The World Resources Institute calculated that if current trends hold, growing all that extra food would require clearing at least 1.5 billion acres of forests, savannas and wetlands for new agricultural land, an area nearly twice the size of India. That wouldn’t exactly be consistent with the global commitments made at last year’s climate conference in Glasgow to stop all deforestation by 2030. It would mean the end of the Amazon and other natural ecosystems that we desperately need, not only to protect the earth’s biodiversity (and maybe help prevent future pandemics) but also to soak up carbon we’ve already pumped into the atmosphere.

So those current trends better not hold, or we’re super screwed.

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Somehow, we’ll have to figure out how to make more food with less land, so we don’t have to keep converting our forests into farms. We’ll need a smaller agricultural footprint with a smaller carbon footprint, and we’ll have to leave more room for nature’s footprint. 

Basically, we’ll need to stop eating the earth, or at least so much of the earth.

The good news, or at least the news that hopefully justifies this new monthly column, is that food is a fascinating problem, with all kinds of fascinating potential solutions — from Impossible Burgers and other alternative proteins that can reduce emissions in the livestock sector, to biotech coatings for fruits and vegetables that can reduce emissions from food waste, to alternative fertilizers and pesticides that can support crops without nasty chemicals. I’ve seen a high-tech fish farm that plans to supply half of U.S. salmon on just 160 acres of land, a hardy new tree crop called pongamia that produces soybean-like seeds on marginal land with much higher yields, and cattle munching on feed laced with seaweed that helps them burp 80 percent less heat-trapping methane. 

One reason the food problem is so interesting, but also so daunting, is that it’s so complex. The energy portion of the climate equation is daunting too, but the task is fairly straightforward: Replace fossil fuels with clean energy. It’s also pretty clear how to do it: Electrify the economy and use zero-emissions electricity. And we’re doing it! The shifts from coal and gas to wind and solar and from internal combustion engines to electric vehicles started way too late and are happening way too slowly, but they’re happening. 

Unfortunately, our fledgling efforts to grapple with food are about 25 years behind our schedule with energy, and there won’t be a single easy fix. Some activists say the world just needs to stop eating meat and wasting food, but that’s not how the world works. Others say we should just end industrial agriculture, but that’s unwise as well as unrealistic. There’s a lot not to like about Big Ag’s assembly-line corporate feedlots that treat animals like widgets and soulless monoculture megafields that rely on perennial chemical warfare. But when it comes to manufacturing huge quantities of food with maximum efficiency, factory farms do have some advantages over artisanal red-barn family farms where animals have names instead of numbers and soil is nurtured with love.

It really is complicated, like our relationship with food, and it’s almost unfathomable how much work we have to do. Even reducing our food and land emissions by only 75 percent, which could conceivably hold us to an awful-but-not-quite-dystopian 2 degrees of warming, would entail more greenhouse gas cuts than we would get from shutting down every factory on earth, or scrapping every vehicle on earth, or retiring every coal-fired and gas-fired power plant on earth. 

The climate conundrum

I promise this column won’t be pure Debbie Downerism, but unlike the fossil fuel problem, which isn’t getting better fast enough, the food problem is still getting worse. And one reason for that, ironically, infuriatingly, is climate change. 

Clearly, we need the limited land we have on the only habitable planet we’ve found to produce massive amounts of food and store massive amounts of carbon. But not only is agriculture making climate change worse, climate change is making agriculture worse as more intense storms, floods and heat waves wipe out harvests, stress livestock and parch water supplies. Crop pests and blights are also depressing farm yields as they invade regions that used to be too cold for them, while ocean warming is depressing seafood yields.

At the same time, the politics of the food problem are particularly awful, because a lot of it is a meat problem, and meat is delicious. There’s a reason climate deniers always accuse climate activists of wanting to ban cheeseburgers: People love cheeseburgers. Data for Progress pollster Sean McElwee says taxes and other restrictions on meat consumption are the most unpopular policy ideas he’s ever tested. 

It sounds churlish to complain that global meat demand is expected to almost double by 2050, because that’s great news for hundreds of millions of poor people expected to join the meat-eating middle class. But it would be a nightmare for the climate. 

Beef and lamb require more than 20 times as much land per gram of protein produced as beans or peas. Chicken and pork are much less land-intensive than beef or lamb but still much worse than plants. The world is already devoting three Europes’ worth of land to feeding livestock, and it’s insane to think we could double that without turbo-charging deforestation.

OK, OK, enough doom and gloom. This column will explore ways the food problem can be fixed by technology, by government policy, and yes, by you and me. It’s become uncool in climate circles to focus on individual action, because that framing supposedly lets governments and corporations off the hook. But since the fate of humanity depends on reducing emissions, we ought to do our part — and while we can’t stop eating, we can reduce the impact of our diets. The most effective ways to do that are difficult but obvious: We need to eat less meat and dairy, which produce most of our food emissions but less than one-fifth of our calories, and stop wasting one-third of our food, which wastes one-third of the land, fertilizer, pesticides and water used to grow it.

A chart comparing the greenhouse gas emissions stemming from food waste to the total emissions of countries such as the U.S.
(World Resources Institute)

It’s helpful that Hellmann’s dedicated a Super Bowl ad to the crusade against food waste, which is how an issue enters the mainstream discourse in modern America. But the fossil-fuel saga has shown that we’re not very proactive about making climate-friendly behavioral changes until greener options get cheap (like solar) or awesome (like Tesla) — and that usually requires technology. 

The first tech wave that’s generated most of the food-problem buzz is biotech alternatives to animal proteins: Impossible Whoppers engineered from soybeans, Beyond Sausages made from peas, Just Eggs manufactured with mung beans. I’ve also tasted some alternatives of the future: ice cream made from fungi, pudding fermented with volcanic bacteria from underneath Yellowstone National Park, a chicken nugget grown from stem cells in a bioreactor. (It tasted like chicken.) 

Meanwhile, Apeel Sciences, which engineers natural coatings that extend the shelf lives of avocados and other produce, is an early example of anti-food-waste tech. And dramatic reductions of food waste in countries like South Korea and the United Kingdom are good examples of how government policies can help; Washington, D.C. could start by fixing the misleading sell-by dates” that encourage countless tons of edible food to get thrown out prematurely.

Even if the rich world cuts beef and lamb consumption in half and the entire world cuts food waste in half — which would be astounding achievements! — the emissions reductions would be less than half of what’s needed by 2050, according to a 564-page World Resources Institute report on the food problem. Reducing food waste and shifting toward plant-based diets, No. 3 and No. 4 on Project Drawdown’s list of 100 solutions for cutting all emissions, are only two of WRI’s 22 recommendations for cutting food emissions.

Fortunately, cool innovations are happening on the farm too. Most of us don’t spend much time thinking about how our food gets to our supermarket shelves, but the postwar Green Revolution that boosted farm yields — with better crop breeding, fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, livestock management and finally genetically modified crops — has allowed us to produce as much food as we do with our existing agricultural land. And now there are new revolutions in the works.

The coolest may be precision agriculture,” which uses GPS technology, big data and artificial intelligence to help farmers maximize yields and minimize inputs. I was visiting a crop analytics startup in Tel Aviv when an analyst got a text message from a sensor attached to a pivot irrigation system on a Nebraska farm: a photo of an aphid, just one-sixteenth of an inch long, chewing a soybean leaf, accompanied by GPS coordinates showing the farmer on the other side of the world exactly where to spray insecticide to avoid an infestation.

There’s also a biological revolution happening, as scientists and entrepreneurs try to harness modern genomics to engineer more efficient crops and livestock, and to replace the toxic chemicals that are the legacy of the original Green Revolution. Startups like the Bill Gates–funded Pivot Bio are making alternative fertilizers that help crops fix their own nitrogen from the air. Alternative pesticides and herbicides manufactured by Greenlight Biosciences, which use the RNA technology in Covid vaccines to wipe out bugs and blights, should be coming to market soon.

The trendiest fix in Washington, Hollywood and corporate America is regenerative agriculture,” a back-to-nature movement that aims to store more carbon in farm soils. Woody Harrelson narrated a documentary on the topic, food conglomerates including General Mills are pushing regenerative solutions for their supply chains, and President Biden included a plug for regenerative cover crops” in his first address to Congress. Global institutions and national governments are making a strong push for regenerative solutions (although when I visited the billionaire Tom Steyer’s regenerative beef ranch in California, its carbon benefits were not yet evident).

It’s become fashionable to say the eventual answer will be all of the above,” but it’s more likely to be some of the above,” and it’s going to be vital to figure out which of the above will be affordable, scalable, acceptable to consumers and verifiably helpful to the climate. The Biden administration is avidly promoting climate-smart agriculture,” and carbon markets could make climate-smart approaches extremely lucrative, so it will be very important that what gets classified as climate-smart really is.

The future of the climate is the most urgent issue facing humanity, and the energy transition is the most urgent climate story. But let’s face it: We already know how that story ends, even though we don’t know when it ends. The food story is the second-most-urgent climate story, and we barely know how it begins.

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, and he's co-host of Climavores, a new podcast about eating on a changing planet.