The security of our food system is one of the world’s most pressing challenges – anyone who has seen the Netflix documentaries Cowspiracy and Seaspiracy will be acutely aware of this.
The world faces the challenge of providing healthy, affordable, and nutritious food to a growing global population. This is compounded by a rapidly changing climate and major degradation of our natural environment, affecting land, soils, oceans and even our biodiversity.
What is perhaps less appreciated is that consumers hold the power over change. Our choices matter. As we become better informed of not just the health impact, but also the environmental impact, of what we eat, we can choose to consume in a way that lessens the stress on our food system.
Similar to the challenges we face in global energy, global food now requires urgent transformation if we want to avoid the kind of irreversible damage that awaits if we do nothing. We must talk about the food transition, in the same way as we talk about the energy transition. We must talk about how we can collectively create a more sustainable future of food.
The good news is that large-scale and system-wide change is creating opportunities. Companies are emerging across the food value chain that are building a more sustainable and secure food system for all. They are delivering to the expectations of the modern, climate conscious consumer who wants to play his or her part in helping make a difference.
Food for thought
- Food currently accounts for 26% of all human-made greenhouse gas emissions.
- Half of the world’s habitable land is currently used for agriculture.
- 70% of global freshwater withdrawals are used for agriculture.
- 78% of global ocean and freshwater eutrophication (the pollution of waterways with nutrient-rich pollutants) is caused by agriculture.
- Humans and livestock now comprise about 96% of all mammal biomass on Earth.
Just let those figures sink in…
Unfettered agriculture and aquaculture are currently deemed to be a threat to a total of 24,000 of the 28,000 species currently facing potential extinction.
Perhaps the most alarming fact though is that meat production accounts for 14.5%of all human-made greenhouse gas emissions.
Consider that 77% of all agricultural land on the planet is currently used for grazing livestock or for producing animal feed, and that 80% of all the soy that is produced is used to feed animals, not humans.
Cattle ranching is also the number one cause of deforestation in the Amazon region.
So, what does this tell us? Quite simply — what we eat lies at the very heart of tackling climate change, managing water scarcity, reducing pollution and preventing further loss of forests and biodiversity.
Taking stock of beef
It should therefore be no surprise that emissions from animal products significantly outweigh the emissions from plant-based products.
The most staggering statistic of all is that beef is the biggest contributor to CO2 emissions across the entire food value chain. It produces nearly three times as much greenhouse gas emissions than its nearest offender, lamb and mutton.
There are two major factors driving emissions in beef. First, deforestation, or land use change, meaning land that is cleared for pasture. Second, methane emissions – essentially, as ruminant animals, their digestive system produces a lot of methane.
In comparison, the later stages of food production, such as packaging, retail transport, processing and food preparation only currently contribute to about 5-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Much has been made of the importance of sourcing food locally in order to reduce our carbon footprint. While sourcing food locally has many benefits such as supporting local farmers, reducing our carbon footprint significantly is not one of them. What we eat is far more important than where our food comes from.
So, what is a sustainable food system?
A sustainable food system has to be three things:
1. It has to be profitable i.e. economically sustainable
2. It must have broad based benefits for society i.e. securing food security and/or global nutrition
3. It must have a positive and/or at least a neutral impact on the natural environment
A sustainable food system lies at the very heart of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted in 2015. The SDGs call for major transformation in agriculture and food to achieve food security, improve nutrition and end hunger by 2030.
To achieve the SDGs, the global food system needs to reform. It needs to be reshaped to be more productive, more inclusive of poorer marginalised populations, more environmentally stable, as well as more resilient and able to deliver healthy and nutritious diets to all.
The companies that are driving scientific and technological innovation across the food value chain and the companies that are designing and producing foods that are more climate conscious are best positioned to ride the wave of our global food transition.
Plant-based meats, cellular meats, big data in agriculture, biological solutions in agriculture, land-based fish farming, algae aquaculture — are some of the innovations that are coming to our farms and plates in the very near future. And some are already here.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen an explosion in funding across agri-food start-ups. We saw $26.1 billion raised in the sector during 2020, marking a 15.5% year-over-year increase compared to 2019. We expect more deals to be announced soon.
We’re also starting to see more and more of these companies join public markets. Beyond Meat is a well-known example and is perhaps the highest profile IPO the sector has seen to date.
Other sustainable food companies that you may be less familiar with are Else Nutrition, which listed in 2019 and produces plant-based baby food, or AppHarvest, an indoor vertical farming company, which listed earlier this year in a SPAC deal.
There are countless opportunities in the sustainable food sector as technologies mature and as consumers become better informed about what they are putting in their bodies.
The transition to a more sustainable food system has finally become possible. Whilst we still have a long way to go, big change usually starts small. It can start with you, and what you choose to eat today.
This is a conversation that is here to stay and is likely to remain at the very heart of climate change for years to come. This is our new agricultural revolution; one that will work with nature, rather than against it.