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You Asked Us: Food security in a warming world – part 2

Last month, we hosted a webinar on the increasingly precarious global food supply chain. Here, one of our expert panellists answers more of your questions.

Dr Nazia Mintz Habib, Director of the Resilience and Sustainable Development Programme, University of Cambridge
2 September 2020

 

What are the likely consequences of a growing global population for agricultural land use? Will it be necessary to clear forested areas to make space for crops and pasture?

This is a very difficult question. The answer largely depends on how much we know about changing human diets, dwelling preferences, industrial demand, political control and market biases.

Let’s start with the simple number that is about 11% of all the land on Earth is being used in farming: 1.5 billion hectares, from a total of 13.4 billion. A portion of the remaining 89% could be used for farming, depending on the definition on arable land. Arable land is a continuum, not a dichotomy. In other words, while some land can only be used for a very limited number of potential crops, other land is highly suitable for many different crops. Although you can grow corn in the desert, if you import all the water, it is not necessary to convert anymore land for crop or pasture.

There is ample evidence to support the argument that there is more than enough food to feed everyone on the planet. One-third of global food is wasted. If we reduce food waste, there will be no need to clear forested areas to make space for crops and pasture. But this is easier said than done.

Dr Nazia Mintz Habib, Director of the Resilience and Sustainable Development Programme, University of Cambridge
Dr Nazia Mintz Habib, Director of the Resilience and Sustainable Development Programme, University of Cambridge

Food security in a warming world

A rapidly growing global population, changing land use caused by urbanisation and an uptick in extreme climate events are all putting pressure on the global food supply chain. While pastoral systems across the world are vulnerable to these factors, the threat is most starkly evident in developing economies. It is bitterly ironic that crop cultivation contributes significantly to global greenhouse gas emissions: the very process of producing food threatens the long-term security of food production. How can the global food supply chain be futureproofed against geopolitical shocks and extreme natural events? Can production processes be optimised for higher productivity and lower GHG emissions? What is the role of technology in the challenge?

There is ample evidence to support the argument that there is more than enough food to feed everyone on the planet. One-third of global food is wasted. If we reduce food waste, there will be no need to clear forested areas to make space for crops and pasture. But this is easier said than done.

There is a parcel of pasture-land in the Amazon roughly the same size as Denmark, which exports beef to the Danish food giant Danish Crown. The problem is not insufficient land, it is the method of food production and the politics that influence policies. There is plenty of awareness around the global ecological importance of the Amazon, but Brazil’s President, Jair Bolsonaro, has systematically weakened regulatory frameworks protecting the rainforest. He has instead promoted foreign trade and, in doing so, has made political friends across Europe and Asia. 

At the individual level, we are less aware of the impact our food crop preference has on land. For example, it is estimated that organic farming uses about 20% more land than conventional methods; promoting organic produce as an ethical lifestyle choice puts more stress on the land. Similarly, by subsidising chemical fertilizers, commercial farms promote monocropping which, if poorly managed over time, leads to barren land. This has happened in many agricultural countries across Asia and Latin America. 

It is estimated that organic farming uses about 20% more land than conventional methods; promoting organic produce as an ethical lifestyle choice puts greater stress on the land.

So, we do not have the land necessary to feed the world with organic produce and do not have the political will to stop forest land conversion.

We have been making policies to facilitate desires and demand of one section of the global community, at the expense of the others. It is clear that policies related to land rights, tech adoption, investment and modernisation often favour large landowners, corporations and wealthier purchasers. The market cannot correct inequality and insecurity unless the state steps in to rebalance the power. Recent experience of the global financial crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic shows that it is sometimes necessary for governments to bail out the market. 

Will we all be vegan by 2100?

2100 is just 80 years away; is it too soon to imagine a vegan world?

Veganism can have multiple drivers. It can be driven by political concerns such as climate change: the meat production industry is both polluting and politically influential. Much advocacy work has been done to change the way we consume animal-based products. At the same time, there is a new socio-cultural enthusiasm for veganism. Some vegans are driven by animal rights concerns. Others suffer from health conditions that make them intolerant to animal products such as eggs and milk.

But, whatever the drivers that lead individuals to pursue veganism, I simply do not believe that the whole world will become vegan by 2100. In fact, I imagine that, by then, we will have access to ethically raised and environmentally friendly meat. 

We are already seeing a rise in plant-based “meats”, of which the recently popularised Impossible Burger is among of the most realistic. Impossible Burger is a product of cellular agriculture, which contains humanmade heme – a product once found only in meat. Other cellular agriculture products soon to be commercialised include “clean milk”, produced from genetically engineered yeast.

In a similar vein is a line of products waiting to be commercialised that include “lab-grown” or “clean” meat. These products are produced by using in vitro technology, which allows meat to be grown from animal cells, outside of animal bodies. Basically, living cells can be taken from living animals, placed in a “growth culture”, and then left to grow. The resulting animal muscle is then collected and formed into burgers, meatballs, steaks or cutlets. This method has been proven to be technologically feasible. There are a number of high-tech “cellular agriculture” companies vying to be first-to-market, with multiple products already at proof-of-concept stage. While in vitro meat is not yet available to buy, it is only a matter of time. The potential market is huge – and will include committed vegans.