Opinion Top Story

Future of Farming Must Be a Mix of High and Low Tech

Gene editing and lab-grown meat to feed the world, regenerative farming to save the planet.

Renmark Australia farm
Farmers prune vines in Renmark, Australia, July 8, 2021 (Unsplash/Zac Edmonds)

Animal farming causes around 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, more than all airplanes, cars, trains and trucks combined. It is responsible for a third of biodiversity losses around the world.

Yet consumption of dairy, eggs and meat is rising. Americans and Europeans already eat more than 1,000 animals in their lifetime. There may be two billion more mouths to feed by the middle of this century. If populations in Africa and Asia adopt a “Western” diet — high on animal proteins — we would need to double the crops we grow by 2050.

How? Jonathan Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, argues the debate has become polarized:

Those who favor conventional agriculture talk about how modern mechanization, irrigation, fertilizers and improved genetics can increase yields to help meet demand. And they’re right. Meanwhile proponents of local and organic farms counter that the world’s small farmers could increase yields plenty — and help themselves out of poverty — by adopting techniques that improve fertility without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. They’re right too.

High tech is the answer in some places and sectors. Organic and regenerative farming is better in others.

The one thing we should stop everywhere is factory farming. In addition to the harm it causes to the climate and our natural world, it is cruel to the animals who are reared in it.

Male baby chicks are ground up alive, because they won’t produce eggs. Cows are forcibly inseminated and kept perpetually pregnant to produce milk. Calves are separated from their mothers after birth. Most bulls are slaughtered after fifteen to eighteen months when their natural life expectancy is 18 to 22 years. Chickens and pigs live their entire lives in cages that are barely largely enough for them to turn around in. Many don’t see daylight until they are transported to slaughter.

There has to be a better way to feed the world.

Animal farming causes bulk of greenhouse emissions

Agriculture’s share of global greenhouse gas emissions is debated. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which advises the United Nations, puts the figure at 13 to 21 percent. The main sources of pollution are cattle and rice farms, which emit methane, and fertilization, which releases nitrogen into the atmosphere. (Nitrogen fertilizes the soil, but too much of it is lethal to certain plants and can be harmful to human health.)

Cutting down rainforests to cultivate crops or raise livestock also reduces the Earth’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide (CO₂).

Then there is pollution in food processing, transportation, packaging and retail. That is why some researchers put agriculture’s share of emissions as high as 26 percent.

Hannah Ritchie of Our World in Data has more on the different estimates.

There is a consensus that dairy and meat production — including land and water use, the growing of crops for animal feed, the rearing of the animals themselves, and slaughter and retail — cause more than half of agricultural emissions.

Trading tropical forests for farmland

Foley reports that we have cleared an area the size of South America to grow crops and an area the size of Africa to raise livestock.

That has decimated ecosystems worldwide, from the prairies of North America to the Atlantic forest of Brazil:

Trading tropical forest for farmland is one of the most destructive things we do to the environment, and it is rarely done to benefit the 850 million people in the world who are still hungry.

Most of the land is instead used to cultivate cereals and soybeans for animal feed, and palm oil for detergents, soaps and shampoos.

Westerners eat more meat than is good for them

Some 74 billion animals — mostly chickens — are slaughtered for consumption each year, up from 14 billion half a century ago.

European meat consumption is double the world average. Spaniards top the list with 100 kilograms per year, which is about the same as Americans.

Meat is a source of iron, protein and other nutrients, like vitamin B12 and zinc. But most can be found in fish and vegetables as well, and the average Westerner does not eat enough fruits, legumes, vegetables and whole grains. Nutritionists recommend cutting down on meat by half to three-quarters.

More food, but not more chemicals

A good first step, then, would be to find ways to grow more fruits, legumes, vegetables and whole grains on the land that is already in agricultural use.

High-input intensive agriculture in Europe and North America relies on an abundant use of fertilizers and pesticides. That is not a model we should (continue to) export to the rest of the world.

Animal manure, a natural fertilizer, and synthetic fertilizer, made from ammonium nitrate, ammonium sulfate or superphosphate, increase nitrate levels in surface- and groundwater, causing fish and frogs to suffocate. Higher levels of nitrate can even be harmful to humans, especially young children.

Chemical pesticides protect crops against bugs, but there is a cost: they weaken the natural fertility of the soil and kill not just the insects that eat the crops, but all insects in the vicinity. Without insects, pollinators, like bees, and birds die, triggering the collapse of local ecosystems.

The solution is not to ban synthetic fertilizers and pesticides outright. When Sri Lanka did in 2021, food production fell 50 procent and a third of the population went hungry.

The solution is a mix of the old and the new. Use natural methods where possible. Customize and reduce the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides with precision farming: computerized tractors, drones (see Amanda Little’s column for Bloomberg), GPS, sensors and smart sprayers.

Gene editing can increase the nutrient uptake of crops, reduce fertilizer dependence and water use. Gene-edited crops absorb 30 percent more CO₂. Widespread adoption could reduce pesticide use by 37 percent.

Organic farming also reduces the use of chemicals and water by incorporating cover crops, mulches and compost to build up nutrients, conserve water and improve soil quality.

The European Union has rules requiring member states to reduce nitrate pollution, but they are not strictly enforced. The European Commission has proposed to cut the use of chemical pesticides in half by 2030. The European Parliament and member states have yet to agree.

Our protein intake is inefficient

55 percent of the world’s crop calories feed people; the rest are fed to livestock (about 36 percent) or turned into biofuels and industrial products (9 percent). In the EU, 55 percent of cereals are fed to farm animals.

83 percent of the world’s farmland is used to feed livestock: an area the size of France, India, South Africa and Spain combined.

This is not an efficient way to get the nutrients we need. For every 100 calories of grain we feed animals, we get about 40 new calories of milk, 22 calories of egg, 12 calories of chicken, 10 calories of pork or 3 calories of beef. Yet Europeans get 58 percent of their proteins from animal products and just 42 percent from plants. That means a lot of plants need to be converted into dairy, eggs and meat.

Not all land is suitable for horticulture. If the soil takes only grass, it may be efficient to let crows graze there and drink their milk. But right now we’re doing the opposite: growing grass on fertile soil, and even burning down forests to make way for grassland, because we prefer dairy, eggs and milk.

If Europeans gave up animal products altogether, they would need only a quarter of the agricultural land currently in use to feed themselves.

Stop subsidizing inefficient farming

It would help if governments stopped subsidizing inefficient forms of farming.

The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) spends about €50 billion in subsidies per year. Most are tied to farm size, so the richest farmers get the highest subsidies: 85 percent of the money goes to 24 percent of farms.

It’s the same in the United States. According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, only 23 percent of small farms (with sales under $100,000 per year) receive subsidies while 76 percent of large farms do. The average subsidy for a small farm is $5,000. The average subsidy for a large farm is $44,000.

Crop insurance, invented in the 1930s to protect farmers against hail, drought and floods, has incentivized the overuse of fertilizers and pesticides, because crop rotation is discouraged in favor of subsidized crops. It may also have slowed innovations in efficiency and productivity.

The EU is making improvements. Farmers need to set aside 3 percent of their land to biodiversity in the next few years to continue to qualify for subsidies. 25 percent of the new CAP budget goes to organic farming, agro-ecology, carbon farming and other “eco-schemes”.

In addition to subsidizing their own farmers, American and European governments harm farmers elsewhere with tariffs and other import restrictions on almost all agricultural goods. American and European consumer pay the price twice: first for subsidies, via their taxes, and then by being denied cheaper produce from Third World countries.

Not enough vegans to save the world

Dairy and meat consumption is falling in the richest countries, but slowly. It anyway doesn’t make up for the projected increases in dairy and meat consumption elsewhere.

Betting on Westerners to eat healthier and on the rest of the world to avoid our mistakes seems like a risky strategy.

That doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. New York hospitals last year began serving vegan meals by default.

But there is a risk. When schools in Lyon, France switched to vegetarian lunches one out of five days per week, it provoked a backlash. Not just from the far right; mainstream conservatives denounced the move as “totalitarian” and both the minister of the interior, Gérald Darmanin, and the minister of agriculture, Julien Denormandie, called it “scandalous”.

The idea that Dutch people should eat less meat was considered so controversial that the agriculture minister at the time, Carola Schouten, removed it from a campaign to raise awareness about climate change in 2019.

Better to have a backup plan. That brings us to another high-tech solution: dairy and meat cultivated from animal cells.

Allow innovation

Alternative meats cause fewer harmful emissions than conventional livestock products. They need less land and they don’t require the slaughter of animals. When accounting for emissions associated with land use, cultivated meat is 95 percent cleaner than beef and around 60 percent cleaner than chicken and pork.

Unfortunately, few countries allow it. Although cultivated meat is just meat made differently, the EU considers it a “novel food” that must be thoroughly tested before it can be approved by regulators and politicians. The process is so opaque that companies are setting up production elsewhere.

Meatable, a Dutch firm, last year cultivated its first pork sausage — in Singapore. Believer Meats, an Israeli startup, is building the world’s largest cultivated meat factory in North Carolina.

That is not to say there is no opposition in America. In Nebraska, Republican governor Jim Pillen vows to “stand up to radicals who want to use red tape and fake meat to put Nebraska out of business.” His family owns the sixteenth largest pork company in the United States.

But at least the Food and Drug Administration has declared cultivated meat safe. Italy banned it before the FDA’s European counterpart could do the same.

France is not a fan either, and it has banned the marketing of plant-based dairy and meat substitutes as “dairy” and “meat”.

Such regressive attitudes may protect dairy and meat producers in the short term, but they make it more likely that Europeans will be outcompeted eventually. Meanwhile, they do nothing to make agriculture more sustainable.