Animal agriculture is responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, more than all transportation combined. If we don’t lower greenhouse gas emissions significantly over the next 25-50 years, average global temperatures will increase by 2°F to 11.5°F by 2100. Agriculture is responsible for 80-90% of US water consumption. A recent study has shown that climate change is likely to cause decade-long mega-droughts across the US southwest and Great Plains region. Right now, you’re probably thinking to yourself, wow, what a gloomy introduction. Dismal indeed—however, it is important to first see the connections between human-induced climate change and food and water shortages before jumping into possible solutions.
These doomsday statistics were chosen to show how a few key points are interrelated. The first takeaway is that our current mass consumption of meat is causing Earth to gradually become warmer. Second, due to this greenhouse gas-induced global warming, agriculture in large parts of this country is going to take a massive hit from upcoming droughts (predicted as some of the worst in modern US history). Are you beginning to see the connection here? If our current methods for accessing meat continue on, we will not only experience hotter temperatures and the rising of sea levels, but also a time where certain vegetables and crops are completely missing from your local grocery store. Water is mankind’s most valuable resource. Let’s try our best to avoid a future where that resource is scarce.
Now that we know why food—mainly livestock—production is in the “unsustainable” category, let’s look at some possible future solutions.
Sustainable food choices
It has been predicted that 2.5 billion people will have been added to the world population by 2050. How do you feed all these additional people? One possible answer: you look to a plant that lives in water, on land, deep in soil, in limestone, in hot places, and in ice.
Algae can help to supply undeveloped and over-populated regions with food, and can create additional food reserves. Most types of algae are eatable—with sea-algae containing more particular vitamins, microelements and iodine than any other food. Microalgae, like spirulina, is found in almost every ecosystem on the planet and has a nutritional profile that includes vitamins, minerals, essential amino acids, fatty acids and phytonutrients. Researchers like John Finley, a professor of food sciences at Louisiana State University, believe microalgae can be used to replace various ingredients in food due to its high nutritional value.
Because microalgae can be grown virtually anywhere—without using large amounts of land or water—it is a sustainable source of nutrition for the world’s growing population.
Algae may be a viable option for feeding the hungry, but it won’t be a replacement for meat.
How we consume meat may soon turn into how we consume “meat.” This new type of “meat” has just surfaced recently: the in vitro burger—beef created in a lab by a scientist. The first petri dish burger—with a price tag of $325,000—was created in 2013 and received mixed reviews from the tasters. Although this strange new way of artificially creating beef is still in its early stages, and currently cost $30 per pound, it holds a promising future.
Because beef created in a lab does not require the 2,500 gallons of water that are needed to produce one traditional pound of beef, and doesn’t emit the amount of methane a cow typically does in a day, it is infinitely better for the environment. Another enormous potential benefit lab-grown meat has over the normal alternative is related to health. Scientists could design the in-vitro beef fat content—creating a mixture of healthy fats instead of the usual saturated fatty acids. Essentially, the meat could be as healthy as salmon, but have the taste and feel of regular beef.
This is why so many people, like Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin (financed the first lab burger), are hoping in vitro meat is economically viable within 10 years.
In the future, you may be able to walk down the street from your local grocery store and see where all those tomatoes you just purchased are being grown. And if you live in Jackson, Wyoming, this can be you in just one year.
A vacant lot in Jackson, Wyoming is being turned into one of the world’s first vertical farms. A startup called Vertical Harvest hopes to grow crops like microgreens and tomatoes in this giant, three-story stack of greenhouses.
This urban farm helps to reduce transportation needs (cuts CO2 emissions), gives the community knowledge of where their food is coming from, and creates jobs. Also, because of the farm’s smart conveyor-belt design and efficient use of natural lighting, it does not use as much energy as typical greenhouses.
Although vertical farms like this would struggle to feed a larger city, they’re extremely beneficial for adding both local food and jobs.
Speaking of local food, you might start hearing about biophilic cities that encourage urbanites to “reconnect” with the soil and plants by growing their own food on rooftops, side yards, and backyards. As Timothy Beatley points out in his book Biophilic Cities, a trend has already taken root in Europe, as new urban ecological neighborhoods have included community gardens as a central design element.
Aquaculture and fishing
If we continue on fishing at the current pace, the ocean could be out of fish by 2050. And aquaculture—the farming of fish, crustaceans, and molluscs—is unfortunately not a sustainable method for providing the world’s hungry population with aquatic protein. The reason why aquaculture is currently unsustainable is because most farmed fish are fed fishmeal—which consists of ground-up smaller fish. The fish that are caught to produce fishmeal are usually a type of forage fish (sardines and anchovies). Forage fish populations are now considered to be at dangerously low levels.
Fish could be off the menu permanently if we don’t figure out a way to feed them properly.
Luckily, a California company called Two X Sea could have a solution. With the help of Rick Barrows, a USDA scientist who has made fish nutrition his life’s work, Two X Sea developed the first completely vegetarian fish feed to be used commercially in the U.S. This vegetarian feed is made of soybean, algae, pistachio oil, flax, and flax oil.
The only drawback to this new and improved fishmeal replacement is that it costs about twice as much as the traditional version. However, if fish farmers want to remain in business down the road, and not continually use fishmeal made from depleting forage fish populations, they would be wise to hop on the vegetarian feed train now.
Start spreading the word
While a lot of these sustainable solutions have great potential to feed the hungry, lower greenhouse gas emissions, and provide jobs, they aren’t going to be sufficient for addressing food crises all by themselves.
Now more than ever, the average citizen needs to get involved.
Do you think your town would benefit from having an urban greenhouse farm? There could already be a push within your community to have one built—if so, help them to spread the word through social media and online blogs or forums.
Are there vacant lots and empty backyards in your neighborhood or on your city block? Would growing produce in these areas be feasible and affordable for your neighbors? If you live in a compact downtown apartment building, is a rooftop garden a possibility? Even if it isn’t, go online and find out more information about which cities encourage green rooftops (Chicago), and implement a plan to bring them to your city (or at least discuss with your friends about how great it would be).
As for sustainable food choices the future holds for us, like algae and lab-grown beef, simply talking about these breakthroughs with coworkers and friends and sharing articles over the internet will help to spread awareness.