An intriguing approach to the question of how the heck we plan on feeding the nine billion souls expected to be alive on Earth by mid-century—which means more than doubling food production in a little more than a generation—comes from an unlikely source: CleanMetrics, an Oregon firm specializing in the emerging field of life cycle analysis and sustainability measurement.
CleanMetricsis a company that offers such services as “business analytics solution for enhancing resource productivity,” “web-based LCA software for modeling of life-cycle GHG emissions” and “life cycle inventory databases on energy and water use for raw materials in industrial, agricultural processes and food products.”
It’s also the firm that partnered with the Environmental Working Group to produce the controversial “Meat Eaters Guide to Climate Change and Health,” a documentation of all the ways that animal agriculture and meat eating is ruining life on the planet, a paper that concluded with a call to dramatically reduce the production and consumption of meat and poultry.
Thus I was unprepared for the thrust of an article authored by CleanMetrics’ president and chief technologist Kumar Venkat titled, “Framing the Food Sustainability Challenge.” Within the first few paragraphs, Venkat makes this statement:
“Given the limited availability of additional land, water and energy . . . much of the daunting challenge of sustainably feeding the world’s population will have to be met through dramatic increases in efficiencies—efficiency of food production and supply [and] efficiency of food consumption.”
So far, that’s been the prevailing meme among activists, policymakers and researchers, that hunger and food shortages are to be blamed on inequities in distribution, coupled with a lack of infrastructure across the developing world. Which is why eating less meat is seen as part of the solution: If only Western consumers would eat less animal food (thus using fewer resources), the rest of the world could take advantage—somehow—of that surplus. If only we could figure out a way to get all that feed grain and all those meat products we’re not eating into the developing world’s food distribution channels, that is.
However, add another three or four billion mouths to the current hordes of hungry people and the challenge of providing both food security and proper nutrition clearly becomes one of supply, not merely distribution.
A challenge to common wisdom
To address the supply side of the food equation, Venkat argued that we must double, triple or even quadruple farmland productivity and input use, cut waste and spoilage in processing, storage and distribution and leverage carbon storage in soils to reduce net agricultural greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
No surprise there, at least not until Venkat wrote that, “Some of the ideas commonly associated with food sustainability—organic production, locally produced food, grass-fed or free-range animals—are unlikely to make a big difference.”
Now you’ve got my attention. Here is Venkat’s explanation:
- Organic production is associated with inefficiencies, such as lower yields and higher on-farm energy use. Soil carbon sequestration from the application of manure and other organic inputs remains the one clear advantage in the first few decades after converting conventional croplands or other degraded lands to organic production.
- The advantage of local food production is muted by the fact that transportation contributes less than 10% to life-cycle GHG emissions. Moreover, local food production often suffers from inefficient distribution compared with the streamlined logistics of long-distance food transport.
- Free-range poultry and swine feed requirements are similar to confined systems (since the animals get little nutrition from foraging), but the production efficiency is lower.
- Grass-fed beef raised in Midwest pastures produces about 30% higher GHG emissions than comparable feedlot beef, primarily because of a lower-quality diet.
Venkat did note that where intensive grazing systems were used, pastured beef produced 15% lower net GHG emissions than feedlot beef during the transition period, primarily due to increases in soil carbon. However, that still falls “far short of the efficiencies needed for beef production,” he concluded.
“If we move away from rigid classifications of food production—such as organic and non-organic—we might agree that the solution space . . . includes many more possibilities,” he wrote. “For example, it should be feasible to design highly optimized hybrid farming systems that combine management practices to increase soil organic carbon stocks with ultra-efficient conventional systems to produce high yields at a lower footprint.”
Ultimately, what’s the most important supply-side strategy to “freeze the footprint of food,” as Venkat phrased it? Genetic engineering, what he calls “the big elephant in the room. [GMOs] are “not unlike nuclear power: The upside can be wonderful and the downside can be frightening. But we will likely need to focus on safe and strategic ways to integrate it into optimized food systems to improve the yields of high-volume crops.”
That’s tech talk for saying we won’t be able to feed another three billion people without the science and the R&D that sustained the world’s population explosion in the first place.
Let’s hope both politicians and the public get the message.
It’s past time to stop demonizing our producers and start supporting our scientists.
Dan Murphy is a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator