Craig Hanson Janet Ranganathan Tim Searchinger and Richard Waite
Published 4 years ago.
About a 7 minute read.
Image: Bluapple is one of several new technologies that delays food decomposition. | Bluapple/YouTube
How can the world feed nearly 10 billion people by 2050 while also advancing economic development, protecting and restoring forests, and stabilizing the climate?
It won’t be easy and will require major new efforts, but it can be done. Our new
World Resources Report: Creating a Sustainable Food
Future — co-issued by the World
Bank, UN Environment Programme and UN Development Programme —
recommends a menu of 22 solutions served over five courses:
Reduce growth in demand;
Increase food production without expanding agricultural land;
Increase fish supply;
Reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) from agricultural production; and
Protect and restore natural ecosystems.
This menu enables the world to close the gap between the food available today
and that needed by 2050, without clearing more land for farming and while
reducing the food system’s GHGs to a level aligned with the Paris Agreement.
Some items on the menu require more farmers to implement best practices that
already exist today. Others need consumers to change behavior, or governments
and businesses to reform policies.
The challenge is sufficiently large, however, that many solutions will require
technological innovations. Advancing them is a major theme of our report. Here
are 10 important examples:
Plant-based meat. Globally, per gram of edible protein, beef and lamb
around 20 times the land and generate around 20 times the GHGs of
plant-based proteins. Affordable plant-based products that mimic the
experience of eating beef could reduce growth in global beef consumption,
while still satisfying meat-lovers. Fortunately, companies such as
are already making headlines by creating plant-based “beef” that looks,
sizzles, tastes and even bleeds like the real thing.
Extended shelf lives. About one-third of food is lost or wasted between
the farm and the
Fruits and vegetables are a common food item wasted in more developed
markets. One breakthrough to address this is the emergence of inexpensive
methods that slow the ripening of produce; companies are already
investigating a variety of natural compounds to do so. For example, Apeel
Sciences has an array of extremely thin
spray-on films that inhibit bacterial growth, extend ripening times and retain water in fruit.
Others include Nanology and
Bluapple, whose technologies delay decomposition.
Anti-gas for cows. About a third of all GHGs from agricultural
production (excluding land-use change) come from “enteric” methane, released
as cow “burps.” Several research groups and companies are working on feed
that suppress the formation of methane in cows’ stomachs.
DSM has a product called
3-NOP that reduces these methane emissions by 30 percent in tests, and
does not appear to have health or environmental side effects.
Compounds to keep nitrogen in the soil. About 20 percent of GHGs from
agricultural production are related to nitrogen from fertilizer and manure
on crops and pastures. The majority of these emissions come from the
formation of nitrous oxide, as microorganisms transfer nitrogen from one
chemical form to another. Compounds that prevent these changes, including
coatings on fertilizers and so-called “nitrification inhibitors,” can reduce
nitrogen losses and increase the amount of nitrogen taken up by plants,
leading to lower emissions and less water pollution from fertilizer runoff.
Without a regulatory push, research into such technologies has stagnated,
but great potential remains. Some new compounds have emerged in just the
Nitrogen-absorbing crops. Another way to chip away at nitrous oxide
emissions is to develop crop varieties that absorb more nitrogen and/or
inhibit nitrification. Researchers have identified traits to inhibit
nitrification in some varieties of all major grain crops, which others can
now build upon through crop breeding.
Low-methane rice. Around 15 percent of emissions from agricultural
production come from methane-producing microorganisms in rice paddies.
Researchers have identified some common rice varieties that emit less
methane than others, and they’ve bred one experimental strain that reduces
methane emissions by 30 percent in the laboratory. Despite this promise,
there is no consistent effort in any country to breed and encourage the
uptake of low-methane rice varieties.
Using CRISPR to boost yields. Two broad items on the menu for a
sustainable food future involve boosting yields on existing cropland, and
producing more milk and meat on existing grazing land. One way to boost crop
yields sustainably (without over-application of fertilizers or
over-extraction of irrigation water) is to unlock traits in crop genes that
technology, which enables more precise turning on and off of genes, has the
potential to be revolutionary in this regard.
High-yield oil palm. Dramatic growth in demand for palm
— an ingredient found in everything from shampoo to cookies — has been
driving deforestation in Southeast
for decades, and now threatens forests in Africa and Latin America.
One way to reduce this threat is to breed and plant oil palm trees with 2-4
times the production per hectare of conventional trees. Potential for
higher-yielding oil palm trees already exists: The company PT
Smart, for instance, has a variety with
triple the current average yield of Indonesia’s oil palm trees. These
high-yield varieties need to be used in new plantations and when farmers
restock current plantations with new trees (typically done every 20 or more
Algae-based fish feeds. Another element of a sustainable food future is
to reduce pressure on wild fish stocks. As the global fish catch has peaked,
or aquaculture, has grown to meet world fish demand. However, aquaculture
can increase pressure on the small, wild fish species used as feed
ingredients for larger, farmed fish. One technological innovation to
circumvent this challenge is to create substitute feeds using
or oilseeds that contain the omega-3 fatty acids found in wild fish-based
oils. Some companies are moving to produce algae-based aquaculture feeds,
and researchers have created a variety of canola that contains omega-3s.
Solar-powered fertilizers. The production of nitrogen-based fertilizers
uses vast quantities of fossil fuels and generates significant emissions,
roughly 85 percent of which result from the production of hydrogen to blend
with nitrogen. Many have invested in solar energy to produce hydrogen for
fuel-cell vehicles, but similar technologies can also help produce
low-carbon fertilizers. Pilot plants are under construction in
Despite their potential, none of these measures are moving forward at adequate
speed and scale. Research funding for agricultural greenhouse gas mitigation is
miniscule and needs to be increased, in part by making better use of the $600
billion in existing public support each year for agriculture globally.
In addition, although many of the technologies above have the potential to save
money even in the near term, many cost more than their conventional counterparts
today. Increasing their uptake will require not only more public research funds,
but also flexible regulations that give private companies stronger incentives to
innovate. For example, in areas where technologies are underdeveloped — such as
compounds that reduce enteric methane — governments could commit to requiring
the use of these compounds if a product achieves a certain level of
cost-effectiveness in mitigation (such as $25 per ton of carbon dioxide
equivalent). As another example, governments could require fertilizer companies
to increasingly blend in compounds that reduce nitrogen loss.
The good news is, for virtually every type of advancement needed in the food
system, small groups of scientists with limited budgets have already identified
promising opportunities. Today’s plant-based burgers that taste like real beef
were developed and brought to market in fewer than 10 years.
Feeding a growing world population in the face of climate change and resource
constraints is an enormous challenge. The technological innovations listed above
aren’t the only ones the food system needs — and of course, we won’t solve the
challenge through technology alone. However, just as in other sectors, such as
energy and transport, technological innovation is an essential ingredient of a
Published Jul 17, 2019 8am EDT / 5am PDT / 1pm BST / 2pm CEST