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          Evolving the Food Discussion for Future Impact

          Sustainable Future of Food

          Written by: Rahul Bhushan

          Published: 7 July 2023

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          Key takeaways

          Precision fermentation is a promising technology that can help to reduce our reliance on animal agriculture and improve the sustainability of our food system.

          Bio-based fertilizers can be a more sustainable alternative to synthetic fertilizers, but they need to be used carefully to avoid negative impacts on food security.

          Reducing food waste is an important part of achieving a more sustainable food system, but it is a complex challenge.

          With a growing global population and the increasing demand for food, it is becoming increasingly important to ensure that our food production and consumption practices are sustainable. In this blog, we examine three arguments that are currently under debate in the food sustainability discourse. These arguments cover topics such as plant-based foods, bio-based fertilisers and food waste. While each of these arguments has its own merits and drawbacks, each one is also a critical component of the larger conversation on how we can most effectively transition to a more sustainable food system. The key word here being transition, as we must recognise that changing consumer behaviour is hard and will take time. And that whatever solutions are proposed must be able to deal with the common constraints of cost and scalability and—we would argue—approached with a healthy dose of pragmatism. Join us as we explore these topics and provide examples of how to accelerate the transition to a sustainable food system.

           

          Scaling Sustainable Diets: Precision Fermentation as a Complementary Solution to Plant-Based Foods

          “We can’t see past the choices we don’t understand.” – The Oracle, The Matrix

          Animal agriculture is coming under increased scrutiny due to its harmful effects on the climate, environment and public health. While plant-based foods are often promoted as a sustainable alternative, their scalability has been limited. At the same time consumer demand has made it difficult to meaningfully transition away from animal-derived products. To address these challenges, therefore, we need additional solutions. Solutions that (a) do not require the same level of dietary sacrifices from consumers and (b) which can deliver comparable or even superior benefits to both the environment and our health. This is where precision fermentation comes in.

          Precision fermentation involves using microbes that are genetically modified to “produce” animal-derived proteins, such as whey and casein (found in dairy milk) and myosin and collagen (found in meat), without the use of actual animals. This technology can also be used to produce enzymes, vitamins, pigments and fats. By eliminating the need for antibiotics and hormones that are typically used in animal agriculture, precision fermentation reduces the negative impact of farming on the environment and public health. It also significantly reduces the amount of water and feed needed, as well as greenhouse gas emissions like methane.

          In addition to promoting a shift towards plant based foods, we can use precision fermentation to help accelerate our transition to a more sustainable food system. This is because precision fermentation provides a practical solution to reducing our reliance on animal agriculture, without requiring significant changes to consumer behaviour. By leveraging its promise alongside plant based foods, we can help create a more sustainable and healthy food system for ourselves and the planet.

          Exploring Sustainable Agriculture: The Limitations and Opportunities of Bio Based Fertilisers

          Synthetic fertilisers have been widely used to increase agricultural productivity for decades, but their overuse has resulted in significant environmental damage, including soil degradation, infertility and water pollution. Bio based fertilisers derived from living organisms have emerged as a potential alternative, with research showing they can improve soil health and fertility. However, real world application has revealed that radical switching to bio based fertilisers, without appreciating the need for a transition period, can lead to drastically lower yields, especially in areas with limited resources (e.g. emerging markets). The example of Sri Lanka, which banned chemical fertilisers in 2021 to promote a green transition but saw a 40% collapse in rice production the following year, illustrates the need for pragmatic solutions that balance environmental sustainability with food security.1

          Fortunately, there are many ideas for improving fertiliser use (i.e. the practice of applying fertilisers to crops to promote growth). A growing movement over the past decade has focused on decarbonising fertiliser production and improving its efficiency on the field. Decarbonisation of fertiliser production entails synthesising hydrogen, a key ingredient in ammonia, without using natural gas. This “clean” fertiliser is instead produced using hydrogen derived from water electrolysis, reducing carbon emissions. Precision technologies such as sensors and other tools can also be used to apply fertilisers more efficiently, reducing soil degradation, water pollution and saving farmers money. These solutions have the potential to mitigate the negative impacts of synthetic fertiliser use while maintaining farmers’ livelihoods and ensuring food security.

          However, while these solutions can mitigate negative impacts, careful consideration is necessary to ensure their effectiveness and long-term sustainability. It is important to emphasise that prioritising bio based fertilisers should not be disregarded, but rather, balanced with the need to ensure global food security.

          The Complexities of Achieving a Sustainable Food System: Balancing Food Waste Reduction and Increased Production

          According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), around one-third of all food produced globally is lost or wasted every year, with a value of roughly $USD 1 trillion.2 Accordingly, reducing food waste is often touted as an important step towards achieving a more sustainable food system. However, solving for food waste, i.e. engineering for the reverse supply chain problem, poses a significant challenge, in particular for foods with a shelf life.

          Moreover, the food waste challenge is not uniform. In developed countries, most food waste occurs at the consumption end of the supply chain, with households and food service providers responsible for the majority of wasted food. In contrast, in developing countries, food waste typically occurs at the production end of the supply chain, due to poor infrastructure, inadequate storage facilities and inefficient supply chains.

          As such, we cannot solve for the food waste challenge as an isolated endeavour. We need to produce more food to feed the world’s poor. According to the World Bank, global food production must increase by 70% by 2050 to meet the needs of a growing population.3 This is a significant challenge, given that agricultural productivity growth has been slowing in recent years. Increasing agricultural productivity will require investments in R&D (including research into improving crop yields and developing new farming techniques) and greater access to resources like land, water and finance.

          Another key challenge in achieving a sustainable food system is ensuring that food is produced and distributed in an equitable way. According to the FAO, around 670 million people worldwide are hungry, with the majority living in developing countries.4 While increasing food production is important for addressing global hunger, it must be done in a way that prioritises the needs of the poor and vulnerable. This may require policies and investments that promote smallholder agriculture, improve access to markets and finance, and support the development of sustainable and resilient food systems.

          Conclusion

          Transitioning to a sustainable food system is an intricate and multifaceted challenge, requiring a balance between environmental, economic and social considerations. While the idealism of achieving a perfect sustainable food system may seem like an impossible utopia, there are promising solutions that we can work towards. This blog has highlighted three critical areas for consideration: scaling sustainable diets, exploring sustainable agriculture and balancing food waste reduction with increased production. Although each area has its own merits and challenges, we can strive towards a more sustainable food system by adopting a pragmatic approach and taking into account the complex global landscape. By addressing these challenges and working collaboratively, we can move closer to the goal of a sustainable and healthy food system for ourselves and future generations.

          References

          1

          Al Jazeera, “Sri Lanka faces man-made food crisis as farmers stop planting”, May 2022. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/5/18/a-food-crisis-looms-in-sri-lanka-as-farmers-give-up-on-planting

          2

          World Food Programme, “5 facts about food waste and hunger”, June 2020. Available at: https://www.wfp.org/stories/5-facts-about-food-waste-and-hunger

          3

          UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, “How to Feed the World in 2050”, June 2020. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/25593700

          4

          UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, “UN Report: Global hunger numbers rose to as many as 828 million in 2021”, July 2022. Available at: https://www.fao.org/newsroom/detail/un-report-global-hunger-SOFI-2022-FAO/en

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