Farming animals in the water and on land has an essential role to play in solving our most fundamental challenge, reports Jason Holland.
Having consumers turn their backs on nutritious proteins like fish and meat is not the way to meet the long-term food needs of a fast-growing global population, according to Prof Dr Peer Ederer, programme and science director at the Global Food and Agribusiness Network (GFAN).
Jumping on what he calls the world’s “most fundamental challenge” of how to feed the planet’s 10 billion people by 2050 in a responsible and efficient manner, Ederer’s keynote address at the recent GOAL 2020 aquaculture conference informed delegates that the consensus that this aim is best achieved by eliminating resource-inefficient foods from our diets is flawed.
Outlining the task in hand, the scientist and entrepreneur told the virtual event that feeding the world in 2050 will require a doubling of food production because not only will there be a few billion more mouths to feed, but they will need to be fed with better food. At the same time, the resources used for that food production will need to be reduced by around 30%.
“That’s less water, less soil, less nutrients and less pressure on our climate,” he said. “Furthermore, if we look back at our history, yes, we’ve had technological advances that gave us productivity increases, but with an annual rate of 1.4% each year that technological progress has not been sufficient to close the gap that we have to close by 2050.”
While it’s widely touted that eliminating resource-heavy, animal sourced foods such as meats, fish, dairy and egg products from the human diet will go some considerable way to meeting the goal of producing enough food for everyone with the resources that we already have, Ederer argued that there are five reasons why this logic doesn’t work in practice, saying:
* It does not close the food gap where it’s at its largest and most urgent
* It reduces overall resource efficiency in the global food system
* It renders the majority of food system resources unusable
* It shuts down the only short-term solution to carbon dioxide (CO2) sequestration available
* It risks destroying important cultural values on which modern society depends
Taking each point in turn, he explained that the food gap through 2050 is not uniformly distributed. This means that almost half of that insufficient food supply is in sub-Saharan Africa. A further quarter is in South Asia (most notably India, Bangladesh and Pakistan), and another 20% is in all other emerging countries.
The rich part of the world, which includes China, does not have a food gap through 2050, he said.
“So we need to produce more food where we have the gaps. If we use less resources in rich regions like Europe, North America and China, that in itself does not alleviate the burden that we have in sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia. What also doesn’t work is saying we’ll use less resources for food production in the rich countries and make those resources available to Africa and South Asia, because they wouldn’t have enough money to purchase the food en masse,” he said.
“Switching to vegan burgers or vegetarian food in North America and Europe may be a lifestyle choice, but it contributes absolutely nothing towards solving the food crisis that we have in the poor countries of the world,” Ederer said.
“There really is no other solution than to produce more food in those countries and regions of the world where they need it.”
Bringing up the rear
Expanding on his second point that reducing food production, particularly animal-sourced foods, in the rich parts of the world, would only serve to reduce some of the most productive elements of the food system, Ederer gave the example of the 1.5 billion cattle farmed in the world, and pointed out that together, Ethiopia and Sudan produce more (54 million and 42 million respectively) than in all of the United States (89.3 million).
However, the cattle they have there, while they consume about the same resources in terms of water, land and climate resources, are far less productive than the cattle in the US. Therefore, if the States’ cattle-sourced foods like dairy and meat were reduced, the overall efficiency of the system would also decrease.
Because the difference in productivity between rich and poor agriculture can be up to a factor of 20, he stressed that those agriculture and aquaculture food systems that are most productive should not be reduced. Instead, the focus should be on increasing the productivity of those parts of the global food system that are not productive enough.
His third reason hinges on the fact that animal-sourced foods consume a lot of resources that would not otherwise be used for any other kind of food production for human consumption, and therefore any reduction in agriculture or aquaculture production would not see those resources freed up for other parts of the food system.
“The accounting simply does not add up. If we reduce animal-sourced foods, we face a gigantic gap in nutrient-rich foods, particularly proteins. So we cannot replace animal-sourced foods until we have guaranteed another food stock supply that gives us the richness and nutrients that these proteins would.”
With regards to reducing CO2 levels in the atmosphere, Ederer insisted that “for the next two or three decades” carbon sequestration through agriculture and aquaculture is the only “technologically feasible” means to achieve this important goal.
“It’s not a solution that will work for a couple of hundred years, but it is a bridge for the next couple of decades – until we have developed and evolved more technologies to supply the energy that we need for our modern societies.”
Last but not least, he underlined that living with animals and making them part of human civilisation has significant cultural benefits, and that discarding animal-sourced foods risks losing those values.
“It teaches us to be disciplined, reliable, timely, to have functioning markets, to have trust in the system. There are a lot of virtues to develop an agriculture and aquaculture system, and it rubs off on other areas. The value of agriculture is often very much underestimated.”
Trust in tech
The best pathways to bridging the food gap lie in new technology and engineering, offered Ederer, saying there are new innovative solutions that if put into practice could really help close the food gap with animal-sourced food without too much problem – but only if given due attention.
He also highlighted the technologies best-placed to help food production become more sustainable: the ongoing genetics and genomics revolution and its application in both feedstocks and livestock; data science as a tool that enables resources to be used more efficiently and for food to be generated more productively; new engineering (including robotics, drones and machinery) that make more productive farming and fishing possible; and also geo-engineering capacities, particularly carbon sequestration in soils and seas.
“What’s the role for aquaculture businesses in the transitioning of the global food system towards greater sustainability? The first opportunity is to make better use of technology; invest in it to gain competitive advantage. Secondly, make a point of talking to fishers and farmers and strive to understand what they have to say. They have thousands of years’ experience working with and making food from planetary resources. Third, think about the opportunities in Africa and South Asia. These are complicated places to do business, but the need to create more food is in those places. It is not in the rich parts of the world. The growth will be where the need is greatest.”
Ederer also told the conference that he believes the 2020s will be the decade that global food systems are transformed.
“No other topic is more important than how we will produce our food,” he said, adding that the “good news” is that the discussion of how to transform or transition the global food system towards greater sustainability has gained a lot more attention in recent years.
It’s for this reason that United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has called for a Food Systems Summit, scheduled for September 2021 in New York, he said.
“That summit has already become a focal point for many discussions and approaches about how to solve the food system gap, and which direction it can be grown and developed.
“The reason is that we have discovered in our global governance forums that without addressing the food gap issue, we cannot solve any other problem in the world, whether that’s climate change, migration, poverty or war. Without closing the food gap in a sustainable way, we will not make progress on any other front.”