The Curt Bergfors Foundation is thrilled to present the Food Planet Prize 2023 to the Agrobiodiversity Index. With US$2 million for one single winner, the Food Planet Prize is the world’s biggest environmental award.
The Agrobiodiversity Index has done something that has never been tried before. It has a vision of using science and empirical evidence to quantify and measure the sustainability of the food system, and translate this into a quantitative index for farmers, businesses, and policy, in order to accelerate the adoption of sustainable and healthy food systems.
“For the Agrobiodiversity Index, winning the Food Planet Prize 2023 means that we can take our work to the next level. Change is a process, and this will allow us to catalyze the process into policies and practices,” commented Sarah Jones, co-lead of the initiative.
“The climate crisis is already well known, compared to the biodiversity crisis. This will allow us to put the agrobiodiversity crisis on the map,” added Arwen Bailey, member of the Agrobiodiversity Index team.
The Curt Bergfors Foundation received more than 1000 nominations for the 2023 edition of the prize. A yearlong evaluations process started with initial reviews by the foundations nominations team resulting in a longlist of the most interesting nominees, picked to equally represent all parts of the food system, a wide geographical spread, and a balanced selection between technological, nature based and social innovation.
From the longlist, ten candidates were selected and put through a rigorous process of academic and practical evaluation, on-site visits by an investigative journalist and a photographer commissioned by the Foundation, and a full compliance and due diligence report. Eight nominees were finally chosen for the Food Planet Prize shortlist and presented to the jury.
On Friday morning (9 June) each of the eight shortlisted nominees were given the opportunity to address the jury in person and tell them why they should win this year’s award, and to answer a few final questions. Following this, final jury deliberations were held and concluded by a vote to select this year’s winner.
For more information on the Agrobiodiversity Index, please click here and here.
The Curt Bergfors Foundation received more than 1000 nominations for this year’s prize.
The shortlisted nominees offer a wide range of solutions to help move global food production towards a more sustainable, nature-positive, and climate-friendly future. Approaching the challenge from different creative angles, they all aim to deliver solutions for reshaping a global system that is currently exhausting the resources of the planet on which it depends.
Ranging from systems change thinking to new technologies, most of these solutions also take a holistic approach that considers social issues plaguing farmers at the bottom of the food pyramid as well as the fundamental connections between agriculture, climate change and biodiversity. Most importantly, all nominees on the shortlist have great potential to deliver lasting and wide-ranging impact.
The eight short-listed Food Planet Prize Nominees 2023 are:
The Agrobiodiversity Index
The Agrobiodiversity Index helps measure the status of biodiversity in global agriculture. With only nine crops currently making up two-thirds of the world’s crop production, it provides a centralized way to track and understand what is getting lost, risks of low agrobiodiversity, and ways to improve. It could help restore the healthy, rich diets previously provided by local produce. Learn more.
Aponiente is working to cultivate an edible sea grain for the first time. This grain, Zostera marina, can be cooked similarly to rice but has higher protein and fiber levels, and is grown with a much lower climate footprint with no need for irrigation. It could help reduce food insecurity while restoring coastal ecosystems. Learn more.
Coolfood is a one-stop solution to facilitate plant-forward, climate-friendly eating. By taking the Coolfood Pledge, large-scale food service providers commit to reducing their food related GHG emissions by 25% by 2030 with the help of tailored Coolfood tools. This approach could help feed a growing global population while keeping GHG emissions in check. Learn more.
Monarch Tractor has launched a line of the world’s first fully-electric, driver-optional, data-collecting smart tractors, offering an all-in-one solution to an industry struggling with labor shortages and increasing costs while reducing CO2 emissions. It could help revolutionize the future of farming by making it possible to run smaller-scale farms profitably. Learn more.
Protein Challenge Southeast Asia
Protein Challenge Southeast Asia equip protein innovators to embed systems change approaches into the design and implementation of their activities such that they support a deep transition towards a resilient, regenerative and socially just food system in the region. This holistic approach could help create the systematic change required achieve affordable, nutritious, sustainable protein for all. Learn more.
Ragn Sells Easy Mining
Ragn Sells Easy Mining is pioneering the recycling of phosphorus and other nutrients that are essential components of fertilizers. Their technologies could help improve food security by recovering nutrients from waste to reuse in fertilizers, instead of relying on vulnerable – and finite – global supply chains. Learn more.
Sustainable Rice Platform
Sustainable Rice Platform (SRP) is aiming to redesign the rice value chain from beginning to end. Rice is responsible for feeding half our planet, but also uses one-third of the world’s freshwater resources for irrigation and emits significant amounts of methane. Through education and certified practices, SRP could help feed the world sustainably. Learn more.
The Toothpick Company
The Toothpick Company turns fungi into a bioherbicide to fight Striga, a “master weed” that has devastated an estimated 40 million farms in Africa. Using fungi as weapons in the war on weeds, it could help reduce reliance on chemical herbicides that have proven harmful to ecological and human health. Learn more.
We congratulate all the short-listed nominees and wish them best of luck for the presentation to the jury and the winner announcement ceremony scheduled to take place on 9 June 2023.
It’s that time of the year: The 2023 winner of the Curt Bergfors Food Planet Prize, the largest monetary award in the global food arena, will be announced on 9 June.
After a Covid-imposed hiatus, the winner announcement ceremony will take place in person in Stockholm, in the presence of representatives of all short-listed nominees and our esteemed jury. The jury – a distinguished octet of experts in sustainability, food production, and more – will again be co-chaired by Johan Rockström and Magnus Nilsson. Johan, the globally renowned Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, helped pioneer the concept of “planetary boundaries,” and Magnus, a Michelin star chef, is the Director-General of the Food Planet Prize.
The Food Planet Prize is special.
“It is not only the world’s biggest environmental award, but also one that is unlike almost all other prizes because it does not award you for something you already did, but for what we believe that you will do, if only you get a chance,” said Magnus Nilsson and continued:
“The Curt Bergfors Foundation and the Prize were shaped by Curt’s vision of a necessary and unavoidable revolution in our food system, and the way that it is structured, which says a lot about him as a person.”
The Food Planet Prize 2023 has received more than 1000 nominated initiatives for this year’s award, and will soon release the shortlist of eight outstanding nominees, one of which will be crowned the deserving winner of the US$2 million prize on 9 June 2023.
Selecting the winner from over 1000 nominees is a 13-month long process with various stages, including meticulous fact-checking, the involvement of investigative journalists and experts in various areas of sustainability, as well as specialists tasked to conduct a proper due diligence and compliance report on each candidate. This process is so rigorous that any of the short-listed projects that makes it through the final analysis stage is worthy of the Prize.
We cannot wait to tell you who has passed the bar set for the winner of the Food Planet Prize 2023. Check back soon for the announcement of the short-listed projects!
We’re currently experiencing the most rapid global warming in thousands of years. The latest IPCC report, released earlier this month, paints a somber picture of what many are facing and what awaits if we fail to act in the next couple of years. An “atlas of suffering,” as UN General Secretary António Guterres calls it. Inaction could indeed close the small window of opportunity we have for adaptation and make food security a luxury reserved for the richest few.
Raging wildfires, rising sea levels, punishing droughts, and devastating storms are becoming all too frequent as global temperatures increase. Despite most nations’ pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we’re still moving toward a rise of around 3°C by 2100. This goes beyond the 2°C goal negotiated in the 2015 Paris Agreement and the 1.5°C safety mark set by the IPCC. It’s also above anything our planet has experienced in the past three million years.
We are thus on a fast track to unknown planetary conditions and near-certain starvation for the most vulnerable among us. Accounting for the global population’s estimated growth from eight to ten billion by 2050, the difference between 1.5°C and 3°C of warming could mean a fifty-fold increase in the number of people affected by hunger.
Already today, extreme weather – caused by climate change – is the main culprit of agricultural loss. Soils are degrading, freshwater supplies are drying out, and yields are plummeting. The food system, including agriculture, is not only a victim of global warming, it is also the single largest greenhouse gas emitter. Pushing it toward a sustainable, resilient future requires nothing less than a revolution across its value chain.
But not all foods are made equal. There’s a dramatic emissions imbalance between plant- and animal-based food sources. The latter contributes close to 60% of food production emissions, despite providing only 37% of our protein and a mere 18% of our calories.
Reducing the impact of red meat, in particular, is an acute challenge as one kilo of beef generates the equivalent of 60 kilos of carbon dioxide (CO2e). In contrast, the same amount of fruits and vegetables emits less than one kilo CO2e.
If eating patterns continue on their current paths, we will need to increase crop production by 60% before 2050. We could, however, save one gigaton CO2e if half the world’s population shifted to a plant-based diet. Changes to agricultural management practices could deliver another gigaton CO2e.
To avoid eating our way to the last supper, we must also ensure that as little as possible of our painstakingly produced food is squandered. Because halving our total food waste and loss can reduce emissions by an additional gigaton CO2e.
How come food is so intrinsically linked to the climate?
A stable climate laid the foundation for agriculture
Over the past three million years, planet Earth has self-regulated within -6°C below and +2° above the 14°C average observed during the pre-industrial era. However, for the past 12,000 years, and up until the Industrial Revolution, global average temperatures didn’t waver more than 0.5°C. CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere remained steady too: between 250ppm and 270ppm.
This period of relative climate stability, known as the Holocene, laid the foundation for sedentary agriculture. That it sprouted in up to nine geographically separate areas around the same time, while Homo sapiens had already roamed the Earth for around 150,000 years, underlines how important the Holocene climate conditions were for the emergence of farming. Why? The explanation is quite simple! To grow, plants absorb CO2 – together with sun and chlorophyll. But too much of the good stuff hinders their growth. As does too little.
Therefore, exceeding 2°C will put pressure on agricultural yields worldwide and reduce the nutritional quality of what we eat. Both pose health risks at best and survival risks at worst. It will also trigger irreversible shifts and potentially force the planet toward “Hothouse Earth” – an extreme state last experienced some 56 million years ago when global mean temperatures were 5 – 8°C higher than today.
The Anthropocene: tractors in the fast lane
Human activities began to fundamentally transform the planet already during the Holocene. By domesticating livestock, tilling land, and clear-cutting forests for cultivation, humans altered natural landscapes and drove the extinction of megafaunas.
But it was the Industrial Revolution that sparked the relationship between human prosperity and mounting pressure on the Earth systems and the climate. We started tapping into millions of years of energy stored in coal to feed machinery that, in turn, generated greenhouse gases. CO2, aerosols, methane, ozone, and nitrous oxides are among the most powerful. Their concentration in the atmosphere regulates how much of the sun’s rays reach the earth’s surface, determining the warmth of the earth. Today, although the fossil fuel, forestry, and transport industry are also to blame, two-thirds of the greenhouse gases created by humans come from the food system.
The Industrial Revolution revamped agricultural practices. It allowed for the systemization of deforestation, the engineering of landscapes, the capture of nitrogen from the air to produce synthetic fertilizers, etc. All of which paved the way for intensive farming.
By the middle of the 20th century, all that progress had triggered a radical “Green Revolution.” Granted, standardized techniques and high-yielding crops made it possible to increase production and reduce hunger. Still, it also plundered the planet’s resources, polluting air and waterways and cementing our climate interference.
Scientists agree that these abrupt changes define the beginning of a new geological era: the Anthropocene. An epoch in which humans have become a global force for geological change. In the face of frightening transformations, they are determining thresholds at which this accumulated pressure will exceed our planet’s ability to absorb it.
Approaching the tipping points
Since the early 2000s, a set of processes, patterns, and ecosystems has been identified as tipping elements. Driven beyond critical thresholds, these factors could trigger a domino effect of climate calamities. And the risk increases with rising global temperatures. At 1.5°C higher than pre-industrial levels, we risk activating up to five of the tipping elements. Which could make pushing the “stop” button on climate change almost impossible. And there are already signs pointing to certain critical elements being on the verge of collapse. As is the case for ice sheets.
Ice sheets play an essential role in the earth systems. They regulate the temperature of the water and air around them, driving circulation patterns that determine weather conditions across the globe.
With average temperatures in the Arctic warming almost twice as fast as the rest of the planet, the Greenland ice sheet, for example, has thinned considerably in recent years. As its surface sinks, it comes into contact with lower, warmer layers of air, leading to further melting. The irreversible loss of the Greenland ice sheet could be reached if the global temperature rises by slightly less than 2°C.
This would inject massive amounts of fresh water into the ocean, possibly leading to a complete shutdown of the Atlantic Meridional Ocean Circulation – one of the most powerful ocean circulation patterns. It’s essential for temperature regulation and the redistribution of nutrients, salt, and other gases across all oceans. At 2°C, regions relying on snowmelt could experience a 20% decline in water availability for agriculture after 2050.
Transgressing these individual tipping points would wreak havoc on our Earth system. But the interconnectedness of tipping elements suggests an even greater risk of permanently leaving the Holocene climate conditions if one or more of them were triggered. At that point, cascading effects could thrust us on a path toward a Hothouse Earth.
Taking the reins of the 21st century
Each degree of global warming will put pressure on agricultural yields worldwide. On land, global maize yields could drop by up to 7.4% with each additional degree. The picture looks fairly grim for wheat, rice, and soybeans too. Their yields could drop by 3% to 6%. Fruits and vegetables will likely not fare much better. At sea, since oceans absorb the majority of excess CO2, fish are dying, and, by extension, our food supply is diminishing.
Heat stress will also lead to reduced food quality, thereby increasing food waste. Making matters worse, ozone concentration and soil salinization can reduce the nutritional quality of what we eat, posing additional risks to human health. These losses will vary greatly from region to region, but already vulnerable areas will endure the worst of it.
On a societal level, compound risks are significant. Since heat stress reduces productivity, either farmers’ livelihood will shrink, or food prices will go up. Both scenarios can, in turn, have local and international economic effects.
But as much as our food is a big part of the climate problem, it has to become a bigger part of the solution. And there is good news. Science suggests that the food system has the potential to deliver 4 Gt CO2-equivalents per year. That’s around one-quarter of the required emissions reductions by 2050.
Transforming the food sector from a carbon source to a carbon sink – while at the same time feeding a growing world population – will be an existential challenge over the next three decades. But it is now that the level of ambition must increase. Get inspired and check out these outstanding projects doing just that.
This article is based on the research report The Foul Breath of Climate Change published in October 2020. The report was commissioned by the Food Planet Prize and authored by Dr. Johan Rockström and Dr. Lila Warszawski.
The global food system accounts for one-third of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. The figure published in Nature Food in March 2021 is higher than previous estimates. Despite this impressive share, the official program of this year’s UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) dedicated zero days to food, unlike other big polluters like the energy and transport sectors.
Although three of the summit’s key milestones – methane reduction, sustainable land use, and climate finance – touch upon areas of the food system, COP26 failed to address the biggest GHG emitter systemically.
According to the updated numbers from a new global database called EDGAR-FOOD published in Nature Food, livestock and crop farming are responsible for the largest share of food system-related emissions. Land use comes in second with almost one-third of emissions, mainly due to carbon losses from deforestation and degradation of organic soils. While cows and deforestation make catchy headlines, they are only part of the story, albeit the biggest. Packaging, transportation, processing, retail, consumption, and waste management make up approximately 27% of food-system emissions.
Scattered coverage of the food system at COP26
The UN Climate Conference tackles the food system’s contribution to global warming – through livestock exclusively – with the Global Methane Pledge signed by over 100 countries.
137 nations have also set out new commitments to change their agricultural policies to become more sustainable and less polluting, as well as to invest in the science needed for sustainable agriculture and for protecting food supplies against climate change. Farming and land use have even been a part of the formal agenda at the COP26 in Glasgow.
Furthermore, the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero announced that financial institutions have pledged over $130 trillion to fund the transition to a sustainable economy. Among the highlighted sectors, one finds farming and cattle. Again! Loans and investments will “help farmers implement proven business models to decouple beef and soy production models from deforestation.”
In light of these commitments, many civil society organizations emphasize that a food system approach – not just an agriculture-centric approach – is required if we are serious about climate action. Others regret that governments and companies are not doing enough to shift unsustainable consumption patterns. And we agree!
At the Food Planet Prize, we address the food system in all its complexity and recognize the urgency of the needed changes. We, therefore, award innovative initiatives with the potential to help humanity shift to sustainable food systems by 2030.
Annually, 75 billion tons of fertile soil are lost to land degradation. Similarly, drought and desertification destroy 12 million hectares of land every year. It takes bold land regeneration initiatives to counter this loss of food-producing land. And it takes merciless execution.
In 2007, the African Union launched the most ambitious reforestation project to date, the Pan-African Great Green Wall Initiative. A “fortification” of trees, 15 kilometers wide, stretching 8,000 kilometers across the continent, from west – Senegal on the Atlantic coast – to east – Djibouti on the Gulf of Aden. If completed, the African Union’s bold greening project will be the planet’s largest living structure on the planet, three times the size of the Great Barrier Reef.
Bringing life back to the degraded landscape of the Sahel region, the initiative could provide food security and jobs and improve lives for millions by 2030. The vision is to secure long-term and permanent solutions to regional (yet globally occurring) problems that have repercussions worldwide, like climate change, drought, famine, political conflict, and migration.
While funded by the EU, the World Bank, and the United Nations, the project has fallen behind schedule. Having encountered numerous obstacles in the past decade, only 15 percent of the wall were completed by 2020. Progress has been hampered due to the participating countries’ dramatically different levels of economic development, geographic conditions, and levels of governance. Monitoring progress and determining and evaluating the tree plantations’ survival rate has also proven difficult.
Arable land must be regenerated
“The UN Environment Programme and FAO have warned governments that they must commit to restoring at least 1 billion hectares of land – an area the size of China – by 2030”
The 2021 World Environment Day – June 5 – marked the launch of the UN’s Decade on Ecosystem Restoration initiative. It was introduced with a sense of great urgency and a rallying call for the protection and revival of ecosystems worldwide, urging governments, businesses, and citizens to restore and rewild urban areas, grasslands, savannahs, and marine areas on a large scale.
Evidently, existing initiatives are not sufficient to stop widespread biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse. According to the United Nations Convention on Combat Desertification (UNCCD), 75 billion tons of fertile soil is lost to land degradation annually. Similarly, 12 million hectares of land are lost every year to desertification and drought alone – an area that could produce 20 million tons of grain. Furthermore, desertification and land degradation cause USD 42 billion in lost earnings yearly.
“It is evident that existing initiatives are not sufficient to stop widespread biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse.”
With the launch of the initiative, Decade on Ecosystem Restoration initiative, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have warned governments that they must commit to restoring at least 1 billion hectares of land – an area the size of China – by 2030. And pledge to do the same for our oceans.
The August 2021 publication of the sixth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment report further emphasizes the urgency to act on land regeneration. It confirms that climate change is “widespread, rapid and intensifying. The scientists are observing changes in the Earth’s climate in every region of the world and across the whole climate system.” The slow pace of the Pan-African Great Green Wall is discouraging. However, there are examples of large-scale land regeneration projects that are better at staying on schedule, among them the Loess Plateau restoration program in Northwestern China.
The Chinese example
“The project successfully lifted 2.5 million local people out of poverty while securing food supplies and protecting natural resources”
The Loess Plateau, roughly the size of Spain, is named after its easily erodible, very fine-grained sedimentary soil. This north/northwest region of China is of immense historical importance, one of the early cradles of Chinese civilization and the birthplace of its agriculture. In ancient times, the plateau was highly fertile and fairly easy to farm, but centuries of deforestation and fuelwood gathering have led to severe environmental degradation and widespread poverty. The Loess Plateau became one of the world’s most severely soil-eroded regions and a significant contributor to sediments that gradually elevated the riverbeds of the Yellow River.
In the mid-1990s, the Chinese government and the region’s local communities embarked on one of the most extensive land regeneration programs in history, the Loess Plateau watershed rehabilitation project, backed by the World Bank. According to a 2007 World Bank report, the project successfully lifted 2.5 million local people out of poverty while securing food supplies and protecting natural resources. By introducing sustainable farming practices, farmers’ incomes doubled, employment diversified, and degraded environments were revitalized. As a bonus, the sediment flows from the plateau into the Yellow River were reduced by over 100 million tons per year, lessening the risk of devastating floods.
Regreening the Sinai
“If the Sinai were green and the evaporation system intact, the moisture dissipating from the coastal area would blow inland and turn into rain when cooled by the higher elevations in the mountain range further inland”
The Loess Plateau restoration program was the primary source of inspiration for the Dutch engineers that founded The Weather Makers, an organization that wants to make the Sinai desert green again. Their initiative, Green the Sinai, was launched in 2017 and aims to make Sinai’s hot and dry desert green, moist and fertile – like it once was.
Although positioned at its fringes, the Northern Sinai and Lake Bardawil used to be part of the Fertile Crescent, a region named for its rich soils, stretching east to Iraq, Syria, Iran, north to modern-day Turkey, and west to Egypt. The Fertile Crescent is considered one of the cradles of civilization, where settled farming first emerged, where access to water was abundant, facilitating riverside irrigation and agriculture. “I realized that if you changed the winds in the Sinai Peninsula by regreening it, you would flip the complete weather system of the region, which has an effect on the global climate,” says Ties van der Hoeven, Co-founder of The Weather Makers.
The Dutch engineers’ first step is to deepen the inlets of the Mediterranean-abutting Lake Bardawil. This could increase the area’s fish population. Simultaneously, applying sustainable fishing strategies and restoring formerly biodiversity-rich wetlands could spawn a thriving marine ecosystem with related socio-economic stability.
Dredging Lake Bardawil would generate vast quantities of fertile marine sediment that could be reused in multiple ways, creating a circular system combining aquaculture, agriculture, and livestock farming. Materials with high organic content could be used as fertilizer and to restore salt marshes and freshwater ecosystems. These wetlands would then trigger the first effective increase in evaporation rates, crucial to the next phase, regreening the Sinai desert that covers most of the peninsula, an area twice the size of Belgium.
Affecting the weather system from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean
“The key is to redirect the whole watershed’s water cycle step by step, from the coastal wetlands to the continental divide in the mountain range further south on the peninsula.”
If the Sinai were green and the evaporation system was intact, the moisture dissipating from the coastal area would blow inland and turn into rain when cooled by the higher elevations in the mountain range further inland, ultimately retaining moisture in the area. However, the desertified Sinai’s scant moisture blows over the mountain range and into the Indian Ocean basin. According to The Weather Makers’ model, the system consequently “sucks” air from the Mediterranean, causing a dryer and hotter climate in southern Europe while contributing to excess rainfall and typhoons around the Indian Ocean. The organization argues that this wind pattern could be reversed with a cooler, green Sinai, benefiting both the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean basins.
To realize this ambitious project, The Weather Makers would use a holistic, multi-faceted approach, working with the shape of the land, to regenerate the whole watershed’s water cycle step by step, from the coastal wetlands to the continental divide in the mountain range further south on the peninsula. Many parts of their approach have already been worked out, at least on paper, but van der Hoeven needs help to create a system using the dredging sediments to fertilize the land in the best possible way.
“If you have billions of cubic meters of very rich, salty mineral sediments, the indigenous sediments which are eroded from the mountain area, hold everything to grow a robust ecosystem, and if it also has the microbes still in there to process that cycle, we’ve got to use it! And if we are dredgers, we can quickly dredge that material and pump it to specific locations,” claims van der Hoeven.
The size, scope, and complexity of these land regeneration programs make them hard to grasp and overview. It is also difficult to foresee the potential obstacles and problems the Weather Makers may run into since these involve myriad stakeholders – local inhabitants and businesses, national and regional governments, environmental organizations, banks, and NGOs – with various and not necessarily coordinated agendas.
The big challenge for policymakers, investors, and potential collaborators is to determine which bold ambitions would make the most significant difference in the shortest time. For this, both an in-depth and broad scientific understanding of the subject is critical, as well as the courage to put the greatest support where the greatest potential lies.
A leap of faith would probably help too.
We’ve entered a decade-long race to prevent global temperatures from rising 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Rapidly halving our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissionsis essential to our success. That’s where methane comes in.Reducing emissions of this short-lived but powerful super-heater could buy us enough time toavoid irreversible tipping points. The food system needs to cut emissions from livestock burps and rotting rice, but it’s currently lagging. How can it catch up?
Just like the glasshouse in your garden allowing vegetables to grow all year round, some of the gases we emit to maintain our modern lifestyles trap solar heat, leading to the greenhouse effect. Unfortunately, our ecosystems are ill-suited for the GHG-fueled hothouse we’re heading towards.
Carbon dioxide – the key driver of global warming – is most abundant in the atmosphere, where it lingers for centuries. But despite their lesser presence and comparatively short lifespan, other GHGs – nitrous oxide and methane notably – boast far greater capacity to radiate heat back into the atmosphere. As much as 84 times more in the case of methane. The gas, emitted mainly through human activity, has managed to contribute 30% of the overall warming of our planet though it only lives around a decade and impacts our climate for another. This illustrates how vital it is to cut our methane emissions. Fast.
This super-heater and its cataclysmic impact on climate have long been veiled by the systematic conversion of all GHG emissions to “CO2 equivalents”. Considering the tight ten-year deadline we are working with, it’s vital to redirect our attention to the gases that most deserve immediate action. The UN estimates that cutting methane releases by 45% will enable us to avoid around 0.3°C of warming by the 2040s. In its sixth assessment report published just today, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change also stresses the urgency of cutting its emissions. “Methane reductions are probably the only way of staving off temperature rises of 1.5C,” says lead reviewer Durwood Zaelke.
Since on-farm discharges represent about 50% of all anthropogenic methane emissions and given its short-lived nature, detoxing the entire food system – or parts of it – from the potent gas today is likely to start having significant cooling effects already in the 2030s.That will require dramatic changes in agricultural practices, livestock management, as well as eating habits.
Setting the pace for planetary recovery with methane reduction
Atmospheric methane concentrations have gone up by 150% over the last two centuries, breaking records year after year. The Global Carbon Project attributes recent rises to agriculture and waste management. Other significant sources include leaks from oil and gas extraction as well as naturally occurring “background” methane from fissures in the Earth’s surface, volcanoes, wetlands, and decomposing organic matter in nature. And concentrations may soar even further as methane releases from thawing permafrost accelerate.
The good news is: we already have the tools to cut all human-generated emissions by 45% this decade, according to the UN’s 2021 Global Methane Assessment. The fossil fuel industry – responsible for about a third of anthropogenic emissions – would benefit the most from these existing technologies. The food system, however, will need to do the heavy lifting. Behavioral changes from producers to consumers should go hand in hand with emerging technologies in cattle raising and rice farming, the two major agricultural culprits, to maximize long- and short-term impact.
Cattle: Tweaking the diet of methane’s poster child
All ruminants, including sheep, goats, and deer, burp out methane when digesting grass fibers. Together, they account for a third of agricultural emissions, but none is as vilified as cows. Certainly because, in addition to releasing more of the potent gas per kg of protein, the extensive consumption of its meat and milk drives deforestation (to make room for grazing grasslands), runs water reserves dry, and increases risks of cardiovascular diseases.
Consuming considerably less ruminant meat is undoubtedly the ideal way forward and, it’s gaining momentum. A survey conducted by IPSOS in 2018 found that flexitarians represent 14% of the world population. Vegetarians account for 5% and vegans 3%. These shares have likely increased in light of the soaring number of those who tried veganism this January and the popularity of Meatless Mondays. But behavioral change can be a slow process. The Food system needs to introduce alternative low-methane diets to allow all population segments to join the race.
Recognizing the urgency to support methane-reducing efforts, the Food Planet Prize rewarded not one but two initiatives tackling our protein craze in its inaugural year. Prizewinners icipe and Future Feed respectively tap into the power of nutritious insects for human and livestock consumption, and methane-blocking seaweed as a feed supplement for cows.
Beyond seaweed, more and more researchers are investigating other methane-reducing feed supplements. In this category, one finds tannins, oils, grains, seeds, as well as garlic. All attack the problem at its source: they prevent bacteria in the cow’s first stomach from turning grass into methane.
But each solution comes with its own set of challenges. Corn production, for example, requires large fields, causing soils to release CO2 instead. Flaxseed increases the percentage of undigested fibers in manure, another source of methane. Mitigation through unprocessed cottonseed, which also improves dairy cows’ milk production, is offset by high nitrogen emissions.
That’s why some scientists intend to avoid these trade-offs by repurposing methane found in stables as an energy source or by breeding climate-friendly cows. Others envisage vaccines that create antibodies against methane-producing microbes found in cattle guts or probiotics to facilitate their digestion. Startup Zelp instead develops a mask-like device that converts methane to CO2 directly from the cow’s breath.
Most of these innovations are still in their infancy. Their preliminary efficiency varies from 20% for seed oils to 50% for probiotics and a striking 80% for seaweed. If successful and widespread, these tweaks may allow cattle to retire from its unfortunate methane poster child image and restore its environmental reputation. After all, cows fertilize our grasslands and keep them healthy. Though technology is bypassing animals altogether with beef cultured from cows’ muscle tissues. Several startups are indeed extracting stem cells from actual cows to grow meat in vitro, in labs.
Rice: Purging water from the production of our beloved grain
To savor delicious sushi, jollof, or risotto, we need rice – a lot of it. In fact, one-fifth of our calory intake comes from rice which is a staple food on all continents. As much as farming rice is a matter of food security, it’s also a highly polluting activity contributing 11% of anthropogenic methane. This is due to the grain’s semiaquatic nature. It thrives under submerged conditions, but flooding rice paddies prevents oxygen from penetrating the soil. Waterlogged soils being conducive for the decomposition of organic matter, the practice results in the perfect breeding ground for methane-producing bacteria.
While diversifying our diet is the ideal long-term solution, the food system must also commit to producing rice with a low-methane footprint. Producers around the world are already balancing between too little (lower yields) and too much water (higher methane). Some tackle the quantity; others focus on the frequency of watering.
Rice farmers in China, for example, have reduced their methane emissions by 70% since the 2000s, thanks to single mid-season drainage. Instead, in India, intermittent irrigation is the water management practice of choice. Both methods help roots feed oxygen to the soil and thereby reduce methane production. They further showcase the same advantages, namely increased yields and decreased water usage. They also display the same drawback, i.e., higher nitrous oxide concentrations, a greenhouse gas even more potent than methane. Scientists, however, estimate the Net GHG emissions to be positive.
Unfortunately, these are not one-size-fits-all solutions. Case studies by the World Resources Institute found that these water-reducing techniques translated to zero yield gain in the United States. This stagnant productivity constitutes an obstacle to their adoption. Lack of control of irrigation and drainage systems is yet another hurdle. Moreover, accelerating water scarcity makes irrigation increasingly unrealistic.
Some farmers are therefore turning to ground cover rice production systems, aka covering paddies with plastic films to retain soil moisture. The catch? The practice, also known as mulching, pollutes soils with microplastics as films break down. Biodegradable mulches may hold the solution and allow rice farmers to increase their yields while lowing their methane output.
Limiting water inputs is actually a two-in-one solution since an average of 3000–5000 liters of water is needed to produce one kilo of rice. This is twice or more than what is used for other grains. But nature-based solutions are not always about reducing irrigation. Some consist of removing straws and weeds from flooded paddies and therefore avoiding their decomposition.
On the high-tech end, and similarly to cattle raising, scientists are exploring new breeds and additives as mitigation strategies. A Danish team proved that adding cable bacteria to (potted) paddy soils led to an impressive 90% decline in methane. The mechanism is simple: these microbes compete for the same resources (CO2 and hydrogen) as those who emit methane, and since they are more efficient, methanogens starve to death.
Beyond agriculture: Mitigating spillovers from the food system
While most of the food system’s methane emissions stem from rice and beef production, other agricultural activities contribute too. One example is fertilizers used to dope agricultural productivity running off into water ecosystems. Here, they cause a phenomenon known as eutrophication. The excess nutrients – primarily nitrogen and phosphorous – wash from fields and pastures to lakes, rivers, and wetlands. This leads to algal blooms and boosts the growth of other organic matters, both of which release methane when decomposing.
Similarly, coastal aquaculture’s methane emissions are higher than untouched coastal habitats such as mangrove forests and salt marshes. Agricultural waste, often burned or dumped in landfills, is another critical food system source of methane. And here too, solutions exist. Companies like Kriya Labs transform post-harvest residues destined to be burned into biodegradable packaging. Another example is the Sustainable Rice Platform which helps farmers minimize losses with improved harvesting techniques, storage technologies, and alternative markets for rice that would otherwise be discarded.
Case in point, an estimated one-third of all food produced is wasted, contributing to 6-8% of all human-induced GHG emissions. Rotting food emits huge amounts of methane. Reducing food waste across the supply chain is therefore crucial. Again, meat is of particular concern: its carbon footprint – mostly derived from the super-heater – contributes to more than 20% of the total food waste footprint while less than 5% of it is wasted. Cereals and vegetables are the most wasted.
No climate mitigation without limiting food-related methane
Natural systems have always released greenhouse gases, but human activity is emitting them at unsustainable speed and unlivable levels. For our survival, we must stay within 1.5°C limits before, very soon, reverting to pre-industrial levels. But at 1.2°C excess, summer 2021 already feels apocalyptic.
The race against the clock was punctuated by ravaging floods, drought, heatwaves, and wildfires. The frequency and intensity of these extreme weather events seem even to have exceeded experts’ worst-case scenarios. And the harder and more often they hit, the more methane we release. Scientists are already studying how to produce rice in a hotter climate while limiting methane emissions. Rice straw-derived biochar seems promising. But let’s not put the cart before the horse. Let’s not test our resilience before practicing our adaptability.
Yes, humans are creatures of habits, and behavioral change can take time, but we can change course in the face of imminent danger. The ozone hole success story is a testimony to our ability to adapt. And this is as imminent as it gets. Reducing methane offers a chance to keep the planet bearable until it is livable again. It will buy us time and help us stay in the race.
Solutions are not perfect, but we should not let perfect get in the way of good. So, whether with seaweed-fed beef or a new breed, rainfed or low-water rice, organic or rescued food, all or none of the above, the food system needs to leverage social, scientific, and technological advancements to cut its methane emissions. And it must do it now.
Wildfire season has officially started in the Golden State. Water scarcity and water management – once California’s marvel of engineering – are primarily to blame, as are thirsty crops.
Beware the “zombie trees”. In early May, scientists discovered a smoldering, smoking sequoia tree in Central California’s Sequoia National Park. It has been burning silently since August of last year when lightning ignited a wildfire that spread across a sizable swath of the Sierra Nevada and took five months to contain. Twenty-twenty saw California’s worst wildfire season on record; 9,279 fires burned a stupefying 4.2 million acres of forest and vegetation, torching 10,488 structures and killing 31 people. Governor Gavin Newsom called it a “climate damn emergency”.
He might be equally eloquent this year. The wildfire season, which typically lasts through October, started on May 15 when the Palisades brush fire, a mere 20 miles from downtown Los Angeles, forced the evacuation of some 1,000 residents and scorched land that hadn’t burned in 75 years.
“One single almond needs about 4.2 liters of water to grow. A one-liter carton of almond milk contains anywhere from 16 to 135 almonds, that means between 125 and 940 liters of water go into making one liter of almond milk.”
Anyone who has ever built a campfire knows that you need tinder, kindling, and fuel; tinder is the stuff that will ignite from an ember or a spark – dried leaves, pine needles, grasses, and such; kindling will get the fire going; fuel is what keeps it aflame. The most populous state in the country is a parched expanse of tinder, with severe to extreme drought conditions in the mountain range that provides about a third of California’s water. In spring, the Sierra Nevada snowpack is normally at its peak, yet on April 1, it was down to 5% of average, according to the state Department of Water Resources.
Drought, without a doubt
Californians are surely going to feel the effects of their soon-to-be-drained reservoirs, just as they did in 2012 – 2015, the state’s driest consecutive four-year stretch since record-keeping began in 1896.Still fresh in mind, this extended drought turned into an all-out crisis. Crops and gardens withered, salmon streams dried out, and ski slopes turned into gravel runs. Statewide,
officials ordered urban residents to reduce water use by 25%. They hired water cops to enforce the rules, prompting people to think twice about flushing toilets (the water-thrifty slogan “If it’s yellow, let it mellow” has been adopted from San Francisco to London, and Cape Town), forcing hotels to cut back on laundry service and restaurants to serve less of that formerly free-flowing beverage. All the while, homeowners used smartphone apps to turn in neighbors that over-sprinkled their lawns – massive residential water users, so-called water buffalos, still spill over 15,000 liters a day.
More alarmingly, thousands of rural wells ran dry, requiring the state to truck in costly emergency drinking water to underprivileged communities.
From 2014 – 2016, the agricultural sector lost 3.8 billion USD and more than a half-million acres of farmland, taken out of production for lack of irrigation water. An estimated 21,000 jobs disappeared in 2015 alone.But it didn’t stop there. The extreme aridity killed more than 100 million trees and weakened millions more, sparking – literally – a catastrophic turn of events: The graveyard of trees fueled California’s wildfire epidemic.
The nation’s thirsty fruit basket – a marvel of modern engineering, a catalyst of conflagration
Moving vast quantities of water remains California’s proudest feat of engineering; it has transformed its arid, mountainous countryside into the nation’s most bounteous oasis. The state’s constructed landscape turned it into an agricultural powerhouse that produces one-quarter of the United States’ food. Some of America’s greatest public infrastructure accomplishments were created to spur this development, among them nearly 1,500 reservoirs for water that is redirected from the mountains to the coast and from north of Sacramento, where three-quarters of the state’s precipitation falls, to south of the state capital, where three-quarters of its water is used, 80% of which by farming.
As the name suggests, the Central Valley is far from any northern cloudbursts. This verdant basin is California’s agricultural hub, fed partly on groundwater, which has seen a fair share of farming-induced contamination calamities. To irrigate the crops in the hot, dry summer months when water is most needed, the Central Valley depends on the state’s extensive network of water storage and delivery systems that collect winter rain and spring snowmelt.The Golden State produces more than 400 agricultural commodities, collecting billions in revenue and supporting hundreds of thousands of jobs. They include forage (grown for animal consumption), fiber, grains, legumes, vegetables, fisheries, and livestock. But fruits and nuts are its real celebrities. The state grows nearly two-thirds of the nation’s fruits and nuts and is the primary or sole producer of almonds, clingstone peaches, grapes, pistachios, and walnuts. Based on data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Agriculture Statistics Service, and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization
these gustatory superstars collectively cover over 2 million acres and generate more than 14 billion USD, comprising more than 28% of the states direct agricultural value. The crux of this stale biscuit, however, is that agriculture requires a superabundance of water. Almond orchards, for example, need more than 40 inches of water each year, yet many of the state’s prime almond-growing regions receive less than 10 inches. Almond cultivation has doubled in the last decade as it’s a high-value crop. High returns make it lucrative for farmers to invest in deeper wells that intensify groundwater depletion. One source suggests a single almond needs about 4.2 liters of water to grow. A one-liter carton of almond milk contains anywhere from 16 to 135 almonds, which means between 125 and 940 liters of water go into making one liter of almond milk. Consider that next time you pour the popular stuff in your coffee!
Avocados are heavy drinkers too. California is the United States’ largest producer of everybody’s favorite toast topping. More than 3,000 avocado growers occupy approximately 50,000 acres. On average, 250 to 300 liters of water are required to grow one “alligator pear”.
California’s engineered landscape was not designed to accommodate current nutritional fads or farm practices, nor was it made to adjust to the rapid climate change that continues to cause more extreme precipitation patterns. The dry years are simply becoming drier, forcing cities and farmers to deplete underground aquifers.
California’s cows aren’t keeping it cool
Of course, this warming is also exacerbated by greenhouse gas emissions, some 20% of which originate “within the farm gate”. California is not only the country’s fruit basket; it’s America’s larder and largest dairy producer. But its cows – with their methane-producing metabolism – are further raising temperatures and causing even more drying. According to the North Carolina Institute of Climate Studies and the NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information, California’s emission pathway will cause historically unprecedented warming by the end of the 21st century. Even under a pathway of lower greenhouse gas emissions, average annual temperatures will most likely exceed historical record levels by the middle of the 21st century – contributing to yet more wildfires.
Overall, the western fire season has extended by at least 84 days since the 1970s. Cal Fire, California’s fire protection service, no longer considers there to be a wildfire “season”. The state is a year-round campfire that just won’t go out.
The still-burning sequoia in the Sierra Nevada is like a dinner guest that refuses to leave, hoping she’ll be invited to stay for breakfast. She’s not alone. In the high northern hemisphere’s boreal forests, “zombie fires” smolder through the non-fire season and flare up the following spring. A recently published study in the journal Nature suggests that these “overwintering” blazes could become increasingly merciless as the climate warms.
As things stand now, the world’s food system could get in the way of meeting the 1.5°C target. We need to reinvent the way we produce and consume food – promptly!
In its 2018 report, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) asserts that we can indeed limit global warming to 1.5ºC in cost-effective ways. It will, however, require rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented efforts on a global scale.
The report also underscores that the difference between 1.5°C and 2°C warming – the upper limit to which governments committed in the 2016 Paris Agreement – is dramatic and that an extra half-degree will affect people’s personal lives on grave, fundamental levels.
“We’re starting to feel the impacts of today’s unsustainable food systems, both on global warming and on the basic functions of our planet. A food system shift is vital; it requires political will, ample funding, and the right ideas,” says Professor Johan Rockström, Co-chair of the Food Planet Prize.
Existing strategies to shift the trajectory of a failing food system – developing alternatives to chemically driven monoculture farming or reducing excessive global transport for year-round availability of seasonal products – are necessary but insufficient. To get off the road to ruin, we must also find radically innovative and even disruptive solutions. Protecting the biosphere and ensuring a sustainable food supply in the long term means rethinking, reshaping, and re-engineering the entire food system – at every link along its chain – from agriculture and other primary forms of production, via processing, transportation, and distribution to consumption and waste management. We have to secure a safe operating space for the global food system in all its complexity.
Keeping a growing world population alive and well-nourished – without destroying the planet – that’s our challenge. We should have started yesterday.
Some key findings from the IPCC report include:
Human activity has already caused approximately 1.0°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels. Between 2030 and 2050, that figure will likely rise to 1.5ºC if emissions continue to increase at the current rate.
Two degrees of warming, compared with 1.5%, will provoke a much greater reduction in crop yields, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central and South America. The extra half degree also nearly doubles the chances that insects, which are vital for pollination of crops and other plants, will lose the majority of their habitats.
Even modest amounts of warming may push both human societies and natural ecosystems past critical thresholds for catastrophic change.
Improved efficiency has enabled us to use less land to feed more people. Since 1961, the amount of arable land area needed to produce the same quantity of crops has declined by 70%. But that efficiency comes at a cost. Intensified land use can cause chemical contamination and pollution, salination, soil erosion, nutrient depletion, and overgrazing. Transforming natural landscapes for economic gains – i.e., farming and animal husbandry – frequently results in deforestation and desertification.
Three main phenomena drive the expansion of pastures and cropland that is putting mounting pressure on land resources. First, a growing global population and increased consumption of animal products in developing countries – more and more households are entering the middle class, giving them the financial means to buy comparatively expensive foodstuffs like meat. Second, a rising demand, especially in developed countries, for biofuels and biomaterials that are derived from plants and fungi. And finally, a booming need for new, ever-larger planting areas as agricultural land degrades and becomes less fertile—or is converted for urban development.
The very things we do to increase food production are threatening the soil and land health that are the cornerstones of food security—and ultimately, our existence as a species. The term “soil health” refers to the soil’s capacity to function as an essential living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans. That health has declined significantly over the past century. Many soils degraded through land-use change contain fewer macrofauna, are less fertile, and less able to perform critical functions like water filtration – the natural cleansing of water by the soil as it makes its way into the groundwater. According to the UN’s Global Land Outlook, we are losing fertile soil at a rate of 24 billion tons a year. If we continue this business-as-usual scenario, by 2050, the per capita global amount of arable and productive land will fall to a quarter of its 1960 levels. Unhealthy soils mean we will no longer be able to grow enough food to feed the world.
Soil is not only the backbone of the food system; it also plays a crucial role in absorbing carbon from the atmosphere. Soil is the planet’s greatest carbon sink. According to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), ecosystems on land have absorbed almost a third of all human-caused carbon dioxide emissions. Still, this carbon sink is now in peril because of how we use and mismanage our land.
Healthy soils contain over twice the amount of carbon found in trees and other kinds of biomass. Less healthy soils lose their ability to store carbon effectively, which creates yet another vicious cycle: reduced storage capacity makes the world hotter, and hotter temperatures degrade soils further.
Drought, land use, and soil health are interconnected. Healthy soil retains water, which in turn supports the plants and other organisms that grow there. But a lack of rainfall will quickly disrupt this system. While the effects of droughts may not be immediately apparent, they can be devastating and deadly. New research suggests that by the late 21st century, the global land area and population facing extreme droughts could more than double. And as drought occurs more frequently, it can make it increasingly difficult for the soil’s water reserves to recover in between dry spells.