The relationship between land use and agriculture is a tale of how human beings have pushed natural resources to their limits. Human-induced land changes result in the loss of natural ecosystems, like forests and grasslands, as well as biodiversity. They also increase greenhouse gas emissions and diminish ocean health.
Pressured beyond its limits
With the increasing need to grow edible crops, feed livestock, and produce biomaterials and biofuel, land use is pressured beyond its limits. Since 1961, the amount of arable land needed to produce the same quantity of crops has declined by a whopping 70%. But that efficiency comes at a cost. As discussed in our long read Managing the Food System’s Main Asset: Land, it led to chemical contamination, pollution, salination, soil erosion, nutrient depletion, overgrazing, deforestation, and desertification.
Three main phenomena drive the expansion of pastures and cropland. First, a growing global population coupled with the increased consumption of animal products puts pressure on land resources. As more and more households enter the middle class, they spend a bigger portion of their income on meat. Second, the demand for plants- and fungi-derived biofuels and biomaterials is growing. And finally, as agricultural land degrades and becomes less fertile, new, ever-larger areas are exploited for planting and grazing.
Depleting our Planet’s greatest carbon sink
If we continue this business-as-usual scenario, the global amount of arable and productive land per person in 2050 will fall to a quarter of its 1960 levels. Unhealthy soils also mean losing the Planet’s greatest carbon sink. Indeed, soil is not only the backbone of the food system; it also plays a crucial role in absorbing carbon from the atmosphere. Healthy soils contain over twice the amount of carbon found in trees and other kinds of biomass. Depleted, they lose their ability to store carbon effectively, which creates a vicious cycle: reduced storage capacity makes the world hotter, and higher temperatures degrade soils further.
Since heat and drought are projected to increase worldwide with global warming, land degradation will amplify food security, famine, migration, and political turmoil. Land is one of the very few productive assets possessed by the rural poor, and most poor rural households engage in some form of agriculture. Yet poverty – and lack of sufficient land to practice crop rotation – forces people to put pressure on fragile resources by, for example, letting their livestock overgraze. This pressure causes resource mismanagement and lost livelihood opportunities. In other words, poverty both drives and is driven by land degradation. The trap created by land degradation, poverty, and inequality poses significant challenges to the development of low-income households. Each one of these dimensions is intrinsically interconnected and influences the other. This means that we cannot solve land degradation without addressing the root causes of poverty and inequality in society.
The relationship between land and water is also intertwined. If land and soil are well managed, they can act as important filters, absorbing and storing excess water in times of flooding and slowly releasing stored water during times of drought. But agriculture, as it is practiced today, has a way of upending that balance; irrigation currently accounts for 90% of global freshwater consumption. At the same time, nutrient and sediment runoff from agriculture — responsible for more than 50% of the nitrogen and phosphorus delivered from land to ocean — threatens aquatic life. “Dead zones” — large zones of low-oxygen water that affect hundreds of thousands of square kilometers of marine ecosystems — are one result. So too is contaminated groundwater, since whatever is applied to the soil, including nitrates from fertilizer, will eventually find its way into aquifers.
Drought, land use, and soil health are also 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. And as drought occurs more frequently, it can make it increasingly difficult for the soil’s water reserves to recover between dry spells. Heat and drought are projected to increase worldwide as global warming continues. In turn, this will amplify land degradation. But we still have a choice: drought can either be mitigated or exacerbated by changes in land use and cover. It’s what we do with the land that will soften the blow.
Lost land of plenty
As the global population grows in size and affluence, land-use change also reduces the Planet’s biodiversity. In fact, the insatiable demand for agricultural products has made land-use change the most crucial factor in biodiversity loss. Approximately one out of every eight plant and animal species on this Planet is now threatened with extinction. These numbers do not apply to wild animals alone: 9% of all domesticated breeds of mammals used for food and agriculture had become extinct by 2016, with at least 1,000 more breeds still threatened. Just a handful of foods can do a lot of damage. Beef, for example, is the single most important driver of biodiversity loss. When cattle grazing encroaches on new territory, forest cover often suffers, as trees are removed and with them the habitats for insects, birds, fish, and other critters who live amid their branches, trunks, and roots. Oilseed, an essential component in livestock feed, is another food with an outsized impact on land-use conversion.
Beyond environmental consequences, land degradation’s social and economic implications are immense. According to estimates, the total annual costs of global land degradation due to land-use and land-cover change (including external losses in carbon sequestration, biodiversity, genetic information, and cultural services) are about US $231 billion per year. It also drives migration. Over 1.3 billion people, or approximately 17% of the world’s population, live on agricultural lands whose already precarious condition is further impaired by climate change and poor management strategies. When those lands can no longer adequately sustain the communities that depend upon them, their inhabitants will be forced to seek other places to settle. Land degradation, together with the closely related problems of climate change, is estimated to cause 50-700 million people to migrate, according to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.
Despite being made of concrete and stone, metropolitan areas are increasingly becoming havens for pollinators. Globally, cities are replacing groomed greenery with urban meadows and encouraging beekeeping. The concept of planting wildflowers to sustain bees has even caught on within the agrarian community.
On August 11, this year’s first giant Asian “murder hornet” was sighted in Washington State. An invasive species and a true thug, it preys and feeds on pollinators, complicating a rapidly unfolding global life struggle as it threatens our long-term food supply, which, to a large extent, depends on crops that need pollination.
In the countryside, the bees’ buffets of blossoms have been appropriated by extensive monocultures – growing one crop at a time over endless areas, resulting in short blooming periods, with flowers that, for the most part, don’t even offer the nectar bees require.
Intensive agriculture is nature’s bulldozer, utilizing vast amounts of fertilizers and pesticides to ensure ballooning harvests at the expense of soil health and pollinators. It has led to large-scale fragmentation, habitat degradation, and bee colony loss. Paradoxically, our race to feed more mouths might actually result in fewer full bellies.
City-dwellers will play an essential role in preserving biodiversity – and the declining number of bees – as housing developments, infrastructure, commercial edifices, etc., continue to take over what was once rural, flowering smorgasbords for bees. The UN predicts that 68% of the world’s population will have settled in urban areas by 2050.
Like humans, bees – both native bee species and domesticated honey bees – are relocating to urban environments, fleeing the countryside for metropolitan areas where they are less likely to encounter pesticides. “Cities with initiatives to create green spaces and limit the use of pesticides fare best when it comes to supporting bee diversity in general. In fact, a growing number of cities – such as Seattle – have banned pesticides on public lands,” explains Guillermo Fernandez, Founder and Executive Director of The Bee Conservancy, a New York-based organization that works to protect bees and secure environmental- and food justice through education, research, advocacy, and habitat creation.
Planting biodiversity-boosting, flowering meadows in urban areas has proven to enhance the conservation of pollinators. Bees thrive in blooming city environments that act as hotspots for bees’ pollination services and offer them food and shelter on prime real estate.
Bee-friendly urban gardens are sprouting worldwide. They might not be as manicured as the formal displays of cultivated flowerbeds we’re used to, but they’re kinder to the environment and cheaper to plant and maintain. These bohemian “prairies” form ecosystems that also support birds and other creatures, and their extended flowering periods are a relay race of varietals, delectable and vital to threatened pollinators. A study published in PLOS One scientific journal shows that perennial meadows produce 20 times more nectar and six times more pollen than annual versions, though pollinators are even grateful for weeds such as dandelions.
Cultivating less “coiffed” green spaces (that only need mowing twice a year) instead of cost- and chemical-intensive lawns also means curbing the substantial CO2 emissions produced by petrol- or diesel-powered mowers. What’s more, urban meadows have sturdier root systems that can retain larger quantities of water, making them drought-resistant and capable of absorbing heavy rains that might otherwise result in flooding. Add to that their capacity to filter pollution and smog, and it’s easy to see why these no-fuss green areas are becoming more popular.
In Germany, where almost half of the circa 580 native wild bee species are endangered, more than 100 “ungroomed” heaths have been planted in urban areas nationwide. Hamburg recently unveiled a series of flowerbeds on top of bus shelters. Berlin has set aside 1.5 million Euros to seed and nurture over 50 wild gardens, while Munich has already planted more than 30 of them in the past three years. Stuttgart, Leipzig, and Braunschweig have rolled out similar initiatives.
To the east, Polish entrepreneur Karol Podyma has established an educational foundation to raise awareness about urban meadows. Based in Warsaw’s outskirts, the eco-minded activist now sells wildflower seed kits and advises municipalities, locally and in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. By his own estimates, his seed company, Łąki Kwietne, sold enough seeds last year to plant an area equal to one million square meters.
To the west, the U.K. boasts the world’s largest urban meadow, the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London. The country’s Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra) coordinates an annual Bees’ Needs Week with conservation groups, businesses, charities, and academic institutions. The initiative highlights the importance of pollinators and teaches people how to support them.
Ultra-small-scale landscaping helps too. Anyone with a windowsill or a garden patch can aid the bees by planting flowers, trees, and shrubs. Avoiding pesticides should be obvious; not mowing down dandelions or yanking out flowering weeds does excellent service too.
Roadsides are another area that could use less primping. Not mowing them as regularly would actually provide far more pollinator forage than urban meadows.
Suddenly, in a “woke” moment for nature, people are starting to understand that bees are vital. Pollinators affect 35% of the world’s agricultural output. They impact the commercial and nutritional quality, the volumes, and the sustained production of 87 of the top 100+ human food crops.
Bees and other pollinators (birds, bats, butterflies) ensure food security and improve the quality of our nutrition – you could even say they fight hunger. Over 20,000 species of bees, both wild and domesticated, perform about 80% of all plant pollination worldwide; approximately 250,000 species of flowering plants need them to produce seeds. Grains are primarily pollinated by the wind, while bees pollinate fruits, nuts, seed crops, and most vegetables. Bees also pollinate fiber such as cotton and hay and alfalfa, grown to feed livestock; one could argue that they’re indirectly responsible for the t-shirt on your back and the milk in your coffee.
Urban beekeeping is buzzing
There was a time when hipsters would take butchering classes and nurture sourdough starters to cultivate a back-to-basics lifestyle. These days, people are turning to urban beekeeping, be it to bring a bit of farming spirit into the city sprawl or as a concerted effort to do something for the environment. The COVID-19 pandemic has given the practice a further boost as cooped up cosmopolites search for safe outdoor activities.
Larger apiaries and single beehives have popped up on rooftops and balconies, in backyards, public parks, school- and community gardens, and, in one extreme case, in a Manhattan bedroom where Andrew Coté, the president of the New York City Beekeepers Association, temporarily kept a colony that needed relocation. He estimates there are more than 600 hives in the Big Apple, including a 2.5m tall Empire State Building hive and a village of Dutch colonial houses, both courtesy of The Bee Conservancy. That’s rather paltry, though, compared to London, where hives have doubled in the past ten years to about 7,400. The number of urban beekeepers is rising by 200% annually, according to FAO, whose statistics also indicate that there are 90 million honey bee hives globally. The organization initiated World Bee Day in 2018, celebrated annually on May 20, a date chosen to honor Anton Janša, the pioneer of modern apiculture, born in 1734, in Slovenia, a nature-loving republic where apiculture has a rich history, both as an agricultural activity, and as an urban enterprise; the town of Idrija has kept a municipal apiary for nearly 100 years.
“The magic of urban beekeeping is seeing the impact the practice has not just on local ecology in parks, community gardens, and beyond, but also for urban individuals who get a chance to connect with nature and the creatures responsible for the food and foliage they love. The concrete jungle is still a jungle, and the chance to create wonder and engagement with the tiny pillars of our ecosystem helps foster future generations of environmental stewards,” assures Fernadez, adding that “if you want local food, you really need to have local bees. And recent research has revealed that by placing bees in a community farm or garden, you can increase crop yield by up to 70%.”
Urban apiculture can also be a tool for social change. Fernandez grew up in what he calls a ”food desert; a low-income area with limited access to nutritious food”. He founded The Bee Conservancy to alleviate hunger and support food security through bee conservation. The organization empowers low-income communities to care for bees and educate them about bee conservation.
“Beekeeping is expensive, so we created Sponsor-A-Hive to gift wild bee houses and honey bee hives to community organizations that were doing incredible work but couldn’t afford their own beehives. We strategically award and place these pollinators in community and school gardens and urban farms that provide locally grown food to soup kitchens, senior citizen centers, and other vulnerable populations. These beehives also act as educational hubs in their community. We provide hours of training and technical support to ensure the bees thrive,” says Fernandez.
As valiant urban beekeeping might be for (primarily imported) honey bees, native pollinators aren’t appreciating the gesture. Honey bees threaten their health and survival; they overpopulate green areas and hog the forage, making it harder for wild species to feed themselves and survive. The London Beekeepers’ Association (LBKA) estimates that one honey bee hive will consume 250 kg of nectar and 50 kg of pollen before the honey crop is collected. Wild pollinators just can’t keep up with the competition; they may well die out.
Alarmingly, there’s ample evidence that we’re heading toward a sixth major extinction of biological diversity. A third of the insect species worldwide are endangered. Insect abundance has declined by 75% in the past 50 years, with catastrophic impacts on our food chain. Current pollinator extinction rates are 100 to 1,000 times higher than normal due to human impacts, notably intensive monocropping and its use of pesticides. As a result, many bee and butterfly species could well disappear, amounting to a 40% biodiversity loss. This also affects birds, frogs, fish, and other creatures that feed on insects.
Making matters worse, bees are tremendously affected by climate change, according to a team of researchers at Penn State University. Their January 2021 study, featured in Science Daily, concluded that the most critical factor influencing wild bee abundance and species diversity was the weather, particularly temperature and rainfall, which are more important than the amount of suitable habitat or floral and nesting resources. Different bee species are affected by different weather conditions. For example, areas with more rain had fewer spring bees as rain limits their ability to collect food. Warm winters have caused plants to bloom earlier; when bees – who are used to specific climate cues – come out of hibernation, the flowers they need to feed on have already died. These balmy cold seasons, combined with longer, hotter summers that frazzle all blooms, lead to higher average temperatures that, in turn, cause reductions in bees’ body mass and fat content and higher mortality and shorter life spans.
Droughts, floods, and other extreme climate events also hinder pollination primarily by desynchronizing the demand (flowers in bloom) with the supply of service providers (abundant and diverse populations of pollinators).
The threat from within
“Competitive species are also a concern, notably the Africanized ”killer” bee and the Asian ”murder” hornet that recently gate-crashed the Northwest U.S. for the second year in a row”
If mismanaged, beehives can become cramped Petri dishes of contagion because they’re densely populated and often stacked close together. The diseases honey bees foster can easily spread to native pollinators – that are, incidentally, “better than honey bees at pollinating native crops such as berries (pollinated by blueberry bees), avocado (by stingless bees), and cucumber (by squash bees).”
So far, more than 20 honey bee viruses have been identified. They can kill developing offspring, decrease the life span of adult bees, cause spasms and tremors, reduce cognitive skills, and impair wing development. Most honey bee colonies have multiple viruses that fluctuate throughout the year.
Parasites also bring sickness and ruin. Varroa destructor has so far caused the most damage. Discovered in Southeast Asia in 1904, this invasive mite reached Europe and North America in the 1980s and has now spread almost worldwide. About the size of a pinhead, it feeds on bees’ “blood” and spreads from one hive to another, transmitting viral diseases and bacteria while reproducing on honey bee brood (developing larvae or pupae). Eventually, at high infestation rates, the mites overwhelm and kill the host colony.
Another menace to honey bees is the Nosema ceranae, a microscopic fungus that can weaken or even wipe out colonies. Spores of the fungus survive on wax combs and stored food inside colonies. When worker bees eat them, the fungus invades the lining of the intestine. If highly infected, bees cannot digest efficiently and die prematurely. Beekeepers disinfect hives and use antibiotics (fumagillin) to control the disease. However, there is evidence that fumagillin is toxic, causing chromosomal aberrations, carcinogenicity in humans, and alterations to the bee’s hypopharyngeal gland (the gland that contributes to making royal jelly). Many countries outside the Americas, including the EU, have banned it for agricultural use.
Competitive species (with evocative names) are also a concern, notably the killer bee and the murder hornet that recently gate-crashed the Northwest U.S. for the second year in a row. The latter can exceed 5 cm and feeds on other insects, including honey bees.
Then there’s Colony Collapse Disorder, an abnormal phenomenon, first recorded in 2006. It causes worker bees to mysteriously and abruptly die en masse, leaving a bounty of food as well as their queen and her offspring behind. The syndrome has been observed in the United States, most of Europe, as well as some African and Asian countries, particularly in Egypt and China. The UN Environmental Programme addressed the emerging problem already in 2010 in its exhaustive report, Global bee colony disorders and other threats to insect pollinators.
The anthropocene threats
Humans, many of us at least, are directly contributing to a fair share of damage. The air pollution we cause thwarts the symbiotic relationship between pollinators and flowers. Although daytime insects depend primarily on vision to find flowers, pollutants affect the chemicals flowers produce to attract insects, destroying scent trails. Aromas that could travel over 800 m in the 1800s now reach less than 200 m from the plant, complicating pollinators’ ability to locate food sources.
Electric and magnetic fields emanating from, e.g., power lines and cellphone towers may also influence bee behavior, impairing cognitive and motor abilities. Bees are highly attracted to electromagnetic radiation. When in use, mobile phones project electromagnetic waves that interfere with the bees’ navigation system, confusing them enough to make them forget how to find their way back home. Yet another reason to put down that device! (Even though there is currently insufficient data and research to establish a causal link between the impact of these fields and bee mortality.)
The industrial agribusiness is wreaking havoc with its use of neonicotinoids, or neonics, a class of synthetic insecticides that have become the industry’s pest-fighter of choice. First marketed in the mid-1990s, their adoption was rapid, making them the most widely applied insecticide today. When absorbed by plants, their poison manifests itself in pollen and nectar, which is then consumed by bees that consequently meet their death. But this is no instantaneous euthanasia. The poison fuses to the bees’ nerve cells, leaving the insects uncontrollably shaking and twitching before they go into paralysis and die. By then, they might have brought the toxin back to their hives, sharing it with their colony to effectively cause mass mortality.
Biologists have found more than 150 different chemical residues in bee pollen – a deadly ”pesticide cocktail”, as University of California apiculturist Eric Mussen puts it.
Green policies to ensure crop biodiversity
The recent Swedish campaign Hela Sverige blommar (All of Sweden is in Bloom) ensured that the equivalent of 1,000 soccer fields blossomed in time for Midsummer. Countrywide, 700 farmers contributed by sowing pollinator-friendly forage in field edges and fallow soil; buckwheat, clover, sunflowers, borage, and other pollen- and nectar-rich species that attract both bees and insects, providing food for birds to boot. These flowering zones also protect field game, deer, and other critters.
Hela Sverige blommar was sparked by the EU’s “green direct payment” policy that compensates farmers who adopt or maintain practices that help meet environmental and climate goals. “Greening”, as it’s also known, mandates crop diversification and upkeep of permanent grasslands that sequester carbon and protect biodiversity; it also dictates that 5% of arable land be left untouched to sustain biodiversity and habitats. The idea was to support the pollinators and create some beauty – instead of leaving those land patches unkempt?
This past spring, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences started researching 19 of the participating farms, quickly recognizing that the planted zones do indeed attract far more pollinators than those left to grow wild.
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.)
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 km2 is 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.
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.
The COVID-19 pandemic has focused our attention on food safety and foodborne illness. Our food is the source of life, but increasingly it also causes disease – and death. Today’s food system interacts with human health as much as it does with the health of our environment.
Late May 2021, Russia’s veterinary watchdog, Rosselkhoznadzor, announced the country would start vaccinating dogs to protect them from COVID-19. So, when Fido, Spot, or rather Boris (one of the most common Russian dog names) cozy up in Russian beds, they will not risk being infected – nor will Mom or Dad.
“About 70% of all infectious diseases are spread to humans from animals – and almost 50% come from the agricultural sector.”
Apes, cats, and minks also pick up the dreaded coronavirus. Tigers and lions in zoos all over the world have fallen severely ill or died from COVID-19, infected by their zookeepers and caretakers. In Denmark, 17 million farmed minks – with furs valued at US$1 Billion – were slaughtered in panic when it was discovered they were infected and could pass the disease back to humans in a mutated form. At this point, infection by pets is not considered a significant risk, but Russia is obviously not taking any chances.
The animal connection
Undeniably, zoonotic diseases – transmitted between animal species and humans – have become increasingly common and are now considered an escalating threat. Many of these illnesses, such as swine and bird flu, are directly linked to the food system and, above all, large-scale livestock farming. Others, such as COVID-19, SARS, Ebola, and HIV, are caused by our encroachment on wild habitats, making it easier for viruses to transmit to humans. About 70% of all infectious diseases are spread to humans from animals – and almost 50% come from the agricultural sector.
Feeding a growing global population is a monumental challenge. To do so without compromising – and instead promoting – the health of people and the biosphere has proven insurmountable so far. The pandemic has brought food safety to the forefront, exposing how vulnerable we are to food-related illnesses.
Although the source of SARS-CoV-2 infection – the infectious agent that caused the COVID-19 pandemic – is not fully clarified or understood, it’s “likely to very likely” (according to the WHO) linked to Wuhan’s wet market, where the virus migrated from bats to humans via one or more intermediate host animals, brought to the market live. Pangolins, porcupines, chipmunks, bamboo rats, giant salamanders, snakes, foxes, wolf pups, raccoon dogs – and ordinary dogs – rank among the 30 candidates traded live by 10 licensed stall owners at Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood market in late 2019.
China boasts one of the world’s most advanced and varied gastronomies, with a wide definition of what is edible, compared to Western cultural norms. Dog meat has been featured on menus for thousands of years; an estimated 10 to 20 million dogs – both farmed and stray – are slaughtered for human consumption every year, and strays are still an important protein source in poor rural communities. There is even an annual Lychee and Dog Meat Festival in Yulin, Guangxi, last carried out on June 21, 2020.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs has officially declared that dogs are companions and should not be treated as livestock. Indeed, in the last couple of decades, keeping dogs as pets has soared in popularity. Today, dog ownership is expected to exceed 130 million individuals, almost doubling U.S. numbers. In fact, pet dogs have become a prominent status symbol. In wet markets such as Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Market, there’s a thin line between slaughtered canines on display, live ones in cages, stray dogs perusing stalls for a bite or a lick – and cherished pets carried by shoppers. Cute little Jūn, Băo, or Jí (popular Chinese dog names) might bring home some less-than innocent freeloaders from their outings.
Wuhan is also the focal point for SARS-CoV-2’s alternative genesis story – the lab-leak theory, currently gaining traction again. The presumed source would be the city’s acclaimed biological research facility, the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), spearheaded by the now world-renowned “Batwoman,” Dr. Shi Zhengli.
China, very unhappy with the unflattering attention, has launched alternative hypotheses about COVID-19’s provenance: why not frozen seafood from Southern Asia or possibly Norway?
Destruction of nature is the root cause of pandemics
In January 2020, China imposed a temporary ban on the trade of wild animals for food. But the demand for exotic luxury foods – along with traditional Chinese medicines – had been on the rise for some time, bolstered by a poorly regulated wildlife trade and rampant poaching, bringing some species to the brink of extinction. The Sunda Pangolin is one of them – endangered all over Asia – due to high demand both for its meat and its scales, used in traditional medicine.
This temporary ban coincides with preparations for the Convention on Biological Diversity that China is hosting in Kunming from October 11 to 24, 2021. This is where world leaders hope to agree on a new action plan to stop global extinction in the next ten years. According to a paper published in Science, 8,775 species globally are at risk of extinction as a result of illegal trade:
“The trade of wildlife for luxury foods and medicinal parts and as pets is now so substantial that it represents one of the most prominent drivers of vertebrate extinction risk globally. Each year, billions of wild plants and animals are traded to meet a rapidly expanding global demand, a demand so insatiable that, globally, US$8 billion to $21 billion is reaped annually from the illegal trade, making it one of the world’s largest illegitimate businesses.”
Today, it’s quite clear that the root cause of pandemics is the destruction of nature. Our increasing demand for food is the primary driver, pushing agriculture and livestock farming to annex ever-more land. In the past 40 years alone, agriculture has expanded its land use by 10 percent – a landmass larger than South Africa – costing rapid loss of rain forests and other vulnerable habitats. The safety distance between wildlife and us is continuously shrinking, making it easier for viruses to leap from animals to humans. Physical distancing is a safety policy that should translate from the social to the wildlife scene as well.
The COVID-19 pandemic’s direct effects on mortality, combined with indirect effects such as under-treatment of other diseases and increased infant mortality, have lowered global life expectancy by several years. But, as bad as this sounds, COVID-19 is not the worst killer with a food system connection.
Food; a manifold hazard
Every year, 600 million people catch some 200 different types of foodborne diseases. But food impacts our health in many other ways. Unhealthy food is in fact one of the predominant killers. Globally, premature deaths due to unhealthy food – all forms of non-communicable diseases; including obesity, malnourishment, cardiovascular disease, and cancer – amount to 10-11 million annually. (https://www.thelancet.com/article/S0140-6736(19)30041-8/fulltext)
Food safety programs focus chiefly on keeping bacteria at bay. They are the most common cause of food poisoning, but parasites, fungi, and other microorganisms in food and drink can also cause poisoning. Additionally, many of the hygiene measures that aim to keep food safe, such as the use of plastic packaging, drastically contaminate living environments and marine habitats in particular. Microplastics entering the food chain – and our bodies – is a growing health concern.
Health dangers in food have many sources, including harmful cooking conditions. Annually, three million premature deaths are caused by indoor smoke and pollution, primarily related to cooking on primitive stoves.
Chemically intensive agriculture spills numerous environmental toxins, carcinogens, and other harmful substances into the biosphere, ricocheting directly and indirectly on human health. Human emissions of toxic and long-lived substances like organic compounds, heavy metals, and radioactive substances add to grave health concerns, short- and long term. These substances can reduce fertility, cause cancer, and lead to genetic defects.
Industrial processing and ultra-processing of foodstuff often add further malicious substances, undermining human health.
Two of the UN’s SDGs, “Zero Hunger by 2030” and “Good Health and Well-Being”, seem far from attainable in this decade.
It is indeed an irony that the fuel of life: food – the way we source, produce, and consume it today – harms not only nature but us as well.
In this updated Food Planet Prize report, Dr. Afton Halloran gives you the big picture on land use, agriculture and how the two relate to food. For a quick summary from Afton – take a look at this 4-minute video!
Today, one-third of the Earth’s land surface is dedicated to crop and livestock production — more than the total area of Europe, North America, and South America combined. New research stresses that the way we’re converting natural ecosystems for pasture and crop production is the main cause of habitat loss and reduced biodiversity. Food has a significant impact!
We need to change the way we produce and consume food to better balance land use and agriculture. But how? Numerous new solutions could solve our conundrum; some are ripe for implementation, others are in development for future use. Understanding the relationships between the multiple functions of agriculture — food and fiber production, environmental-, cultural- and socio-economic outputs — is essential to comprehending which approaches are best suited to each context. Although humans have dramatically shaped land over history, this generation and the generations to come have an opportunity to leave it in a better state than we received it. Doing so begins with acknowledging the ground beneath our feet.
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.