Tag: fresh water

Edible microbes such as bacteria, yeasts, filamentous fungi, and microscopic algae are emerging as a potentially more sustainable and resilient option for food and food production for a warmer and more crowded planet. In this buildup, conventional agriculture not only underperforms; it also aggravates the problem.

Climate scientists are sounding the alarm, warning that the extreme weather events currently dominating headlines worldwide might already be the new “normal”. These radical shifts in temperatures and precipitation levels are of particular concern to present and future global agricultural output. How will we cultivate enough food to feed a growing population when the climate is getting increasingly warmer and more unpredictable?

While climate change poses a direct existential threat to global agricultural output, agriculture – a major contributor to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – is simultaneously aggravating the problem. It would be truly ironic if farming – the key innovation that made complex human societies possible thousands of years ago –  would now actually contribute to societal collapse in this century or the next.

Rethinking food production

Today, it is abundantly clear that our current agriculture-dependent food production model is unlikely to adapt fast enough to a warmer and more unstable climate to ensure future global food security. Hence, we need a way of producing food that is less dependent on climate stability and better at reducing food production-related GHG emissions and environmental impacts such as habitat destruction and biodiversity loss.

Substituting conventional animal- and plant-based foods with edible microorganisms (bacteria, yeasts, filamentous fungi, and microscopic algae) could be the solution.

Need for climate resilient farming prompts a microbial renaissance

“Bioreactors make it possible to cultivate microorganisms anywhere, irrespective of climate, as long as there is access to energy, water, and whatever nutrients the microorganisms need to grow”

The idea of using microorganisms as food came to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s but tapered off in the early 1980s as improved crop genetics boosted global agricultural yields. Today, however, as our capacity for producing food can no longer be significantly extended by new crop cultivars, edible microorganisms are making a comeback.

In terms of climate resilience, edible microorganisms outperform conventional foods. They are typically cultivated in closed vessels known as bioreactors where environmental conditions – especially temperatures within the bioreactor – can be precisely controlled by human operators. Therefore, bioreactors make it possible to cultivate microorganisms anywhere, irrespective of climate, as long as there is access to energy, water, and whatever nutrients the microorganisms need to grow. (More about nutrients further down.)

A bioreactor in a microbiological laboratory.

Because the bioreactor is a closed system, it is also possible to prevent losses of water and nutrients to the external environment. However, the major drawback is the steep price tag of bioreactor-based food production; the technological infrastructure is very capital-intensive. Building a single bioreactor can cost tens- to hundreds of millions of Euros.

Edible photosynthetic microorganisms such as microalgae can also be grown in open ponds, but such cultivation systems are vulnerable to contamination from toxic algal species and predatory microorganisms.

Sustainable sustenance with CO2 -fed microbes

“From a sustainability perspective, CO2 is probably the most attractive feedstock for cultivating edible microorganisms. Turning the main greenhouse gas into a basic input in food production sounds like an idea whose time has come”

How sustainable and resilient can a particular microorganism be as a source of food? The answer boils down to the microorganism’s nutritional needs – what it “eats”. “Feedstock” is the technical term for the nutrient sources used to cultivate microorganisms. Sugar is a common feedstock used, for example, to grow the edible filamentous fungus Fusarium venenatum, which is processed into mycoprotein meat-imitation products. Although mycoprotein has a lower environmental footprint than meat, it depends on agricultural sugar cane and sugar beet production for its feedstock. It is therefore still vulnerable to disruptions to agricultural yields caused by climate change.

From a sustainability perspective, carbon dioxide gas (CO2) is probably the most attractive feedstock for cultivating edible microorganisms. Microscopic algae can use photosynthesis to grow on CO2 and have therefore long been championed as an alternative food source. However, another group of CO2-utilizing microorganisms – chemosynthetic bacteria – have recently received a lot of attention. These use a chemical energy source such as hydrogen gas rather than light energy to convert CO2 into sugar. Biotech start-ups such as Solar Foods, Air Protein, NovoNutrients, and Deep Branch Biotechnology are all developing processes involving chemosynthetic bacteria to produce dietary protein directly from CO2.

Market launch can be hit-or-miss

The success or failure of edible microorganisms as an alternative food source will ultimately rely on whether they can compete economically with conventional animal- and plant-based foods and whether they can gain widespread consumer acceptance.

Regarding costs, there is one critical trade-off to consider: the amount of food produced per surface area in the form of edible microorganisms can be significantly higher than conventional agriculture by a factor of a thousand or more. Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) proved this point in the late 1970s when constructing what is probably still one of the largest bioreactors ever built – over 60 m high, weighing 600 tons with an internal working volume of 1500 m3. Located in northern England, this behemoth cost the equivalent 300 million Euros in today’s money and could produce up to 43 000 tons of bacterial protein per year for use as animal feed. To create the equivalent amount of soy protein per year would require approximately 375 km2 of agricultural land, an area slightly larger than the entire island nation of Malta.

As a simplified comparison, Iowa in the US has extensive soy production and one km2 of agricultural land is worth 1.5 million Euros. Consequently, 375 kmis worth 563 million Euros, nearly twice as much as the initial investment in a bioreactor producing the same amount of protein. The savings are significant, both in capital expenditure and land use.

The ICI bioreactor used simple alcohol methanol as a feedstock to grow a protein-rich bacterium called Methylophilus methylotrophus. At the time, the methanol was synthesized from natural gas and can therefore not be considered a sustainable feedstock. However, with today’s technology, it is also possible to synthesize methanol directly from CO2, a process that has already been successfully commercialized.

My own estimates have shown that a process employing direct air capture of CO2 followed by its conversion into methanol to cultivate M. methylotrophus would require circa two thousand times less surface area than growing soybeans. That said, this rough estimate does not factor in the surface area needed to power the process. But a recent study, which looked at solar-powered microbial protein production using a similar process involving CO2 capture and its chemical conversion into feedstock for microbial cultivation, concluded that the geographical footprint could be reduced by at least 90 % compared to soybean cultivation.

If financial incentives could be introduced to reward the significant land-saving potential of edible microorganisms, they would stand a much better chance at competing economically with conventional agricultural food products. It is also worth reemphasizing that thanks to bioreactors, edible microorganisms can be produced essentially anywhere on the planet while food crops are limited to areas with access to arable soils and specific climate parameters – not too hot, not too cold, not too dry, not too wet and so on.

Bioreactor to plate

The only major microbial food product on the market today is the mycoprotein imitation meat sold under the Quorn™ brand, but its production requires a sugar feedstock. However, both Solar Foods and AirProtein have announced plans to make chemosynthetic bacteria-derived food products commercially available in the near future.

Grillsteak made with Mycoprotein in pepper coating

Even if consumers fail to embrace edible microorganisms in large enough numbers to decrease agricultural GHG emissions significantly, edible microorganisms can still indirectly decrease food production’s environmental footprint by replacing conventional sources of animal feed such as soy and fishmeal. The global per capita consumption of carbon-intensive animal protein – meat, dairy, and eggs – continues to increase as populations in developing economies are becoming more affluent.

In the end, the primary obstacle to significantly scaling up the production and use of microbial foods and feeds is their obscurity. Both policymakers and the general public are largely ignorant of the existence and the potential of edible microorganisms as a technology option both for surviving climate change and perhaps even preventing it. Hopefully, this article can be a small step in remedying the situation.

Tag: fresh water

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) emissions is 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 to avoid 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.

Cow wearing Zelp’s methane-capturing mask

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.

Algal bloom in wetland

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.

Tag: fresh water

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 milkConsider 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. 

Tag: fresh water

Images of turtles entangled in plastic often hit the headlines. If not directly killing marine animals, plastic debris breaks down into tiny pieces called microplastics. Now found in every corner of the planet, including some of the Earth’s most remote places like Antarctica, seafloors, and groundwater, microplastics have turned into a plague that keeps on spreading. So, it’s perhaps unsurprising that a recent study discovered plastic fragments in the air we breathe. But we should nevertheless be alarmed by the news. 

While we use plastics in nearly all aspects of life, the way we produce, distribute, consume, and dispose of food notably fuels our global appetite for this petroleum byproduct. In fact, food and drink packaging alone accounts for 16% of all plastics ever produced. Microplastics have infested the entire food chain, polluting land, water, and atmosphere with disastrous environmental and public health consequences.

Land pollution – Microplastics flushed down the soil 

The agricultural sector contributes greatly to the problem, using 6.5 million metric tons of plastic annually. Representing 40% of the total agriplastic market, mulching – covering soil with a plastic film – is a significant contamination source on farms. The practice helps prevent weeds, conserve water, control temperatures, accelerate growth and prolong seasons for certain vegetables. But it also causes widespread soil and crop contamination. Paradoxically, despite the existence of plastic-free alternatives such as wood chips, leaves, grass trimmings, or straw – which all have the added benefit of enhancing soil quality – organic farmers still favor mulching because it increases productivity without prohibited fertilizers and pesticides. 

Beyond plastic mulch, tunnels, greenhouses, and seed coatings – yes, as crazy as it sounds, seeds are coated in plastic – sewage sludge is by far the largest source of microplastics on farmlands. Whether poured directly on soils or first processed as biosolids, this fertilizer resulting from sewage treatments accounts for 92% of microplastics contamination on farms. The impact of such large-scale use remains unknown. Still, a 2019 Kansas State University lab experiment showed that wheat grown with microplastics contained 1.5 times more cadmium, one of the most toxic components in sewage sludge. The experiment also found drainage problems in plastic-contaminated soils. 

Water pollution – Plastics dumped into the ocean  

Although microplastics “only” account for 8% of the total mass of debris found in the infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch, they represent 94% of floating fragments. These very particles take off and travel in the atmosphere when powered by waves and wind. As if that wasn’t bad enough, a study from Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, estimates that there are 35 times more marine habitat-threatening microplastics buried in the depth of the seabed than floating on the surface. What’s more, fishing nets make up the vast majority of larger debris in the oceans. Some of this plastic eventually enters our food chain, from the plankton that krill eat to the salmon fillet on your plate. Microplastics have even found their way into groundwater

Air pollution – Microplastics dispersed into the atmosphere

We force-feed our lands and waters a colossal quantity of plastic, only for them to chew and spit it back out into the atmosphere. Once in the air, microplastics can travel for up to six and a half days, accumulating organic pollutants, exposing the ecosystems to additional air pollution, and posing risks of respiratory diseases for humans, according to a study conducted by researchers at Utah State University and Cornell University. 

Not only do we breath plastic particles, but we also eat a credit card-sized amount of microplastics each week. This can affect our immune system and facilitate the transmission of toxic chemicals and pathogens. We ingest microplastics and related chemicals through seafood but also through direct transfers from food packages. Bisphenol A is one of such substances. It’s a carcinogenic endocrine disruptor now banned in baby bottles in most industrialized countries but still allowed in most low-income countries as well as in water bottles and soda cans.

Yet, despite such alarming evidence, plastic production continues to rise. Researchers project it’ll quadruple by 2050. By then, we will have generated 26 billion metric tons of plastic waste, further contaminating soils, waters and air. What is it going to take for our food systems to learn that what goes around comes around?

Nominate yourself or someone else, it takes three minutes and could change the world!