Back to the Future of Food with Biology
This week I will use clips to look at some of the major trends in global food over the past 150 years. Genetics has been at the heart of increasing food production over the entire period though plant breeding has evolved rapidly. Mechanization was one of the first technologies to affect food from field to fridge.
Chemicals helped farmers address pests and nutrient issues from using land more intensively over time. Most recently, CRISPR has brought biology back to center stage — not just to production genetics but also to address fertilizer and pesticide issues as well as to help plants and animals tolerate the impacts of climate change.
It is important to note that this type of narrative focuses on producers, production, efficiency, and intensification. All of the technologies bring about changes through different combinations of commodities, countries, and scale. What they do not address, however, are the environmental impacts, particularly produced by those who cannot afford the latest technologies and must cut corners to compete with producers operating at entirely different scales.
More importantly, there is rarely a mention about the impact of technologies on smaller, marginal farmers or farm labor. Wave after wave of tenants, sharecroppers, smallholders, and laborers globally have left farms, often related to the long-term impact of these technologies and economic conditions. An irony today is that many rural areas have excess labor, but in the US and Europe people are not willing to work for seasonal minimum wages. So increasingly, the global food system is dependent on migrant labor — often immigrants, in fact. The systems set up to address farm workers have not been perfect. They are about to get further complicated, as climate change will increase displacement and the flow of legal and illegal immigrants globally.
Displaced people are more likely to be exploited than other populations. They are without a social network and they are more at risk as a result. However, those at most risk are women and children, specifically children travelling alone. This results in child soldiers being recruited by armies around the world as well as with girls being rounded up for employment in sweat shops or in the sex trade. These practices are just unacceptable, full stop.
Now fast forward to the US food system. The role of illegal labor in the US food system has been documented for decades, but it has been increasing since 2000 with the overall increase in food demand globally and the lack of movement on immigration reform in Congress. The New York Times recently released coverage, 10 months in the making, on the issue of illegal child labor in the US food system. It focused on child immigrants being abused in the agriculture sector. The reporter has focused on incidents that suggest this is a systemic issue in 20 states, so far. — Jason
Russia and China Have a Stranglehold on the World’s Food Security — Bloomberg News
Much of the world relies on just a few nations for most of its fertilizers — notably Russia, its ally Belarus and China. Just as semiconductors have become a lightning rod for geopolitical friction, so the race for fertilizers has alerted the US and its allies to a strategic dependency for an agricultural input that is a key determinant of food security.
JC: As demand for food rises and as climate change increases global temperature and contributes to extreme weather events, food supplies will become more unstable. Countries that have natural resources essential for producing food like soil, water, or naturally occurring fertilizers will have increased power and influence in markets. These kinds of markets have always existed. And those that control them have always been able to reap exorbitant profits. Generally, buyers have responded by finding other sources, substitutes, or ways to reduce or eliminate their reliance on them. Just as we have seen the world responding to higher energy prices by investing much more in renewable energy, so we will see people invest more in closed loop production. The real breakthrough recently is the ability to harvest RNG, electricity, ammonia, NPK, biochar, water, and other solids from animal manure. Now scalable projects are doing the same from human manure. Imagine having the ability to harvest the nutrients from human waste and recycle them to be used on fields to grow food, in thermal plants to produce electricity, or to produce potable water. We can do more with animal waste than with sewage, but this is rapidly changing.
How the Avocado Industry is Battling ‘Misconceptions’ about the ‘World’s Favorite Superfood’ — Food Navigator
The avocado’s health benefits have it well-placed to tap into hot trends in the food industry. But avocado growers are also attempting to dispel what they call myths about sustainability, environmental impact, and labor rights abuses in supply chains.
JC: Avocados are amazing foods. Only recently have they made it out of the tropics and into more temperate markets year-round. This is done by expanding the range of avocados into areas where they have not been produced in the past. Many of the regions that produce them are higher and drier than the traditional areas of production. This is critical because avocados, like almonds, grow on trees that need water year-round. This lets them be produced and marketed during different times of the year. But, as trees, they take a lot of water and in drier areas, water itself is a very valuable commodity. People are beginning to ask if so much water mined from aquafers is a good thing or whether the new plantations should be limited to where water is more readily available. How long will it be before avocados drain the aquafers in drier areas of more highland areas in Latin America?
US Farmers Are Getting Paid More for Capturing Carbon in Fields — Bloomberg News
Capturing carbon on the farm could be starting to pay off, as the price offered for planet-friendly growing practices has doubled in recent months. Boston-based Indigo Ag said that as part of its second carbon “crop” farmers will get $30 per credit, double what they paid in September 2021. Increasing the payments has been a goal of the Biden Administration.
JC: Carbon markets will be a game changer for farmers. But if the market is to be credible, it is important that we get it right. What I mean is that the carbon and the measurement is credible. Credible carbon is based on results, not practices. Regenerative ag practices like no-till, cover crops, crop rotation, etc. do not produce the same result on every farm, in every locale, and with every farmer. To scale, most programs make assumptions and base payments to farmers on them. In the US, at least, most of the “carbon” that is compensated is actually soil carbon. This is not something that is permanent, especially with increasingly hot temperatures or extreme weather events. It would be far more accurate and permanent if what was measured were the avoided GHG emissions from the reduction of pesticides, fertilizer, machinery and energy use, and less pumping for water in systems that use irrigation. Not using these inputs make the reductions permanent — what was not used, was not produced, and had no GHG emissions.
Five Ways CRISPR Gene Editing is Shaping the Future of Food and Health — World Economic Forum
A gene editing technique known as CRISPR, which has been described as “a pair of molecular scissors that can edit or alter a target DNA sequence precisely,” not only offers the prospect of tastier and healthier food – it is already being used to improve human and animal health.
JC: CRISPR has helped launch a major agricultural transformation — the third in 150 years, give or take. First there were machines which harnessed steel tools and took them to scale. The introduction of tractors led to a steady exodus of people—tenants and sharecroppers as well as smaller, marginal producers. Mechanized agriculture continued to evolve but in the early 1900s, chemicals started to make major inroads, not the least because tillage degraded soil and population growth led to global agricultural expansion. Degradation of soils and intensification of production contributed to the use of agro-chemicals. However with CRISPR, biology is now rising to the fore. It helps plants produce with more or less water, with fewer pesticides or fertilizers. It helps plants to adapt to new growing locations and to the impacts of climate change. Goodbye to the dominance of chemistry, welcome to the age of biology.
As the Region Booms, Farmers Struggle to Feed Austin Locally — Austin Chronicle
Farmland prices have more than tripled near Austin in recent years, with sales topping $40,000 per acre – a price that's far beyond growers who want to operate organically on small tracts. Local farms are disappearing and being pushed increasingly far away, which means longer trips on trucks to market or to production and packaging facilities elsewhere in the state.
JC: Land prices around cities have increased everywhere in the world. In areas where multiple crops are possible, farmers who know how to shift to intensive, high-value fresh vegetables have a chance of surviving. There are farmers who have found ways to continue to farm even as their farms are incorporated within city limits. A.G. Kawamura, who farms in San Diego, is a good example. In fact, he has expanded his total acreage to include unused land, farming on contract with food banks and kitchens, and teaching kids how to farm. Most states have conservation easements that allow people to continue to farm in more suburban areas but the catch is those farms cannot be later sold for real estate and subdivided into lots. As long as governments want food prices to be low and more consumers live in cities and are more dependent on others for food, the price of food will remain low. It will not incorporate either the actual environmental or social costs of production, or the true cost of food.
Ready To Eat Fish Bones in the Name of Sustainability? — Food Processing
Anyone who has prepared whole fish knows there’s a lot of waste: cutting off the head, scraping off the scales, removing the bones and organs. Imagine that on an industrial scale. A Finnish food tech company believes it has a way to get up to 60% more food out of a fish by using the hard tissues in a sustainable and presumably tasty way.
JC: As I recall, in the 1970s whitefish fisheries in Alaska harvested fish but only used about 30% of the fish for fillets. Twenty years later, they used water jets to remove all remaining flesh from the bones to make surimi, artificial crab, by aligning the muscle tissue. (NB: This is the same way that non-white meat chicken tenders are made with neck meat from chickens.) The rest of the fish was then used for fishmeal and oil. It seems to me that this is just taking it one step further. Here’s the issue, though: Many people won’t feed their pets bone meal. The ads against it for pet food run every day. Personally I have known several people who eat animal bones. Seafood is much easier. I remember being in a restaurant in Paris the night before a government hearing on the causes of the Ethiopian Famine. The person I was with was surprised to see an American order skate. She was appalled when I ate the skate and all of the cartilage as well. Maybe the Finnish food tech company has something here. They just need to find a few more million people like me.