High tech or farming wild?

Is the future of food production reliant on drones, gene editing and vertical farms? Or is it about regenerative farming that mimics nature? It’s probably a bit of both, finds Nick Hughes.

We’re going to hear a lot about “net zero” over the next 12 months. In November next year, the UK will host the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) where heads of state, climate experts and campaigners will attempt to thrash out a pathway for meeting the targets set out in the Paris Agreement and limit global temperature increase to no more than 2C.

Reducing emissions from the food chain will be critical to achieving national climate ambitions. A study published last week in the journal Science found that, if sustained at current levels, emissions from the global food system alone would be enough to put the Paris climate goals out of reach. The authors concluded that major changes in how food is produced are needed if we want to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Delivering this change will require ambitious, sustained action by policy makers, businesses and citizens. As Footprint reported earlier this week, foodservice businesses have on the whole been slow off the mark in setting out how they plan to achieve net zero emissions from their own operations. But any business involved in the production and sale of food needs first to consider a more fundamental question: what kind of food system is compatible with a net zero world?

At last week’s FT Live conference this question elicited a range of opinions. By the day’s end two clear narratives had emerged. The first was what former Green Party leader Caroline Lucas described as a “10-year transition to agroecology”, involving a move to regenerative farming methods and a shift to more plant-based diets.

Lucas talked about the need for a return to farming systems that maximise the opportunity for carbon storage. To illustrate her point, Jake Fiennes, director of the Holkham Nature Reserve in Norfolk that has over 3,000 hectares of farmland under management, spoke of the farm’s philosophy of “mimicking nature” rather than exploiting it. Instead of growing single species of crops with a heavy reliance on chemical inputs, Fiennes explained the farm uses cover crops to fix nitrogen in the soil and grazes livestock to provide manure directly to the field.

Despite being a livestock producer himself, Fiennes supported calls to eat “less but better quality meat” in recognition of the significant contribution global livestock production contributes to climate change.

Recent research published by WWF found that if the UK switched to a diet lower in animal products the nation could reduce its food-related greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 55%. Delivering the conference’s first keynote address, Brent Loken, global food lead scientist at WWF, argued we can feed 10 billion people healthy, sustainable food without converting new land so long as we shift diets, reduce food waste and improve the productivity of existing land. Loken suggested this could be achieved without employing new technologies.

As the conference progressed this last point became keenly contested as numerous speakers, including representatives from agribusiness giants, put forward their own competing narrative: that a more sustainable food system will require producers to embrace new technologies rather than turn back the clock. “To produce the food we are producing today using significantly less inputs we have to use new science,” said Alexander Tokarz, head of group strategy at crop protection giant Syngenta Group.

Among the technologies proposed as solutions to climate-efficient farming were gene editing, whereby specific changes are made to the DNA sequence of crops to increase yields and reduce the need for inputs such as fertiliser and water.

We heard about new biological pest controls which target specific nuisance insects while allowing beneficial insects to thrive, and patented “super-absorbent” soil enhancement granules that absorb water and release it slowly back to crops as they need it.

Precision farming techniques powered by artificial intelligence were also proposed as fundamental to a net zero future in which yields are increased and resource use is reduced, as was urban or vertical farming that can help close the nutrient gap at market competitive prices without using up additional land, according to its proponents.

Although there are tensions between them, these two narratives are not necessarily seen as mutually exclusive. Using the UK as an example, Henry Dimbleby, the Leon co-founder tasked with creating a national food strategy for England, argued that a mix of approaches would be needed to put the food system on a more sustainable footing. “I think we’re going to have a situation where you have a lot more regenerative agriculture; you have a lot more wild agriculture in the uplands that produces fewer calories but more biodiversity and water benefits; then you’ll have a section of very sustainable high tech agriculture where drones and robots replace chemicals.” [Using precision farming techniques, aerial drones can map weeds and therefore help farmers better target chemical application while robots can replace human labour for tasks such as weeding, fertilising and harvesting].

Dimbleby predicted we would also have what he colourfully described as a “Tesla veganism where people are fermenting milk protein in vats and running vertical farms. All those things can co-exist and actually in any robust system you can’t put all of your eggs in one basket of food production you have to have elements of each of those things,” he said.

Separately, Dimbleby and others argued that clearer, more consistent metrics are needed to fully understand the carbon reduction potential of different production systems. Other speakers made the further point that as important as greenhouse gas emissions are, they mustn’t obscure the need to tackle other ecosystem challenges such as biodiversity loss as well as social issues like under- or malnutrition.

Circularity was largely missing from the debate, but it’s widely agreed that a sustainable food system will also need to minimise waste and extract value out of the waste that is created.

Businesses at the consumer end of the supply chain will shape future food systems through their purchasing and partnerships. The question they need to ask is not so much about whether to back the agro ecological or technological horse, but to question how the different solutions being proposed might contribute to their own net zero and wider sustainability ambitions and then put in place a compelling plan to deliver them. The climate clock is ticking.

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