This article originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Columbia Business.
It may seem unimaginable to those of us who live in the developed world surrounded by so much abundance — supermarkets, specialty grocery stores, restaurants, farmers’ markets, cooking shows, slow food, fast food. But in a few short decades, the planet will face a massive food-shortage crisis. Unless we act fast.
The world’s population has nearly tripled since 1950, and is now expected to exceed 9 billion before the middle of this century. (It’s now about 7.5 billion.) According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, agricultural production will have to increase by a staggering 70 percent by 2050 to keep up with demand.
Notwithstanding high levels of malnutrition in parts of the developing world, increased affluence worldwide has led to a steady rise in global calorie consumption. Meantime, the UN estimates that a third of food produced is lost or wasted. Add climate change, deforestation, resource depletion, and pollution to this list of challenges and we have to wonder: Can the world’s food system cope?
“Feeding nine billion people in a hotter world will be the ultimate challenge to humanity,” says Geoffrey Heal, the Donald C. Waite III Professor of Social Enterprise and the Bernstein Faculty Leader at the Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Center for Leadership and Ethics.
Half a century ago, the outlook was quite different. New technologies like advanced chemical fertilizers and efficient irrigation systems emerged after World War II, and it seemed humanity might perpetually innovate its way out of hunger. But these advances brought unforeseen consequences. Industrial farming, with its intensive plowing and focus on cultivating a single crop, degrades soil. Weeds and insects are becoming tolerant of chemicals and pesticides. Climate change, which already threatens crops with droughts, floods, and temperature shifts, is only getting worse.
So experts are once again looking to innovation for solutions to the looming food shortage. And while they may disagree on the best means, most experts agree that the emphasis must be on sustainability. New approaches abound — high-tech urban agriculture; farming that uses fewer chemicals; employing big data to drive better decisions; creating entirely new foods; curbing waste. The question is, will these methods be enough to ensure food security in the next few centuries — or even decades?
Big Ag: Problem or Solution?
According to a 2013 report by Oxfam International, a handful of corporations wield enormous control over the world’s food and how it’s produced — an indication that any food-crisis solution will have to include the participation of so-called big ag.
“Growing food is a high-tech business today, and big ag has the intellectual property needed for this,” says Heal. “So they will certainly be players in any solution.”
Yet many large food and agriculture companies are associated — either directly or indirectly through their supply chains — with destructive farming methods. Not only do such methods contribute to climate change, biodiversity loss, and soil and water depletion, but they can also contribute to health problems, including antibiotic resistance, and even chronic diseases like respiratory illnesses and cancer.
At the same time, large agricultural companies have helped keep prices low while facilitating rapid distribution of food around the world. But today, consumers’ increasing desire to know more about where and how their food is produced along with the availability of better technology is prompting big food and ag to increase sustainability efforts.
“Sustainability is a business imperative for food and agriculture companies,” says Beth Ford ’95, chief operating officer of the food and agribusiness cooperative Land O’Lakes. “You cannot unlink profitability from the sustainability discussion. All parties involved want to do their best for the environment, but for our farmers that also means doing the best for their farms, which they’d like to pass on to future generations.”
One program tending to both sustainability and the bottom line is the Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN platform, which is expanding access to precision-agriculture tools for Midwest farmers who supply powerful food companies like General Mills, Kellogg, Smithfield Foods, and Unilever. These tools include using satellites to help farmers monitor crop growth, training farmers in targeted irrigation and pesticide application, and reducing nutrient runoff from fertilizers. Farmers have a clear incentive to participate: these tools save them money.
SUSTAIN was developed by United Suppliers, a major agricultural retail cooperative, in conjunction with the Environmental Defense Fund, which reports that 15 major companies representing 30 percent of the US food and beverage market participate in some aspect of the program.
Last year, when Land O’Lakes and United Suppliers merged, SUSTAIN joined with the existing sustainability program of Land O’Lakes, and a new division, Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN, was created to align sustainability standards and practices across all Land O’Lakes holdings. Ford says such programs demonstrate that big food and ag aim to be part of the solution.
“I think [there is] a lot of genuine and authentic interest from big food companies to make sure they understand, that the consumer understands, and that our own teams understand that reduced water utilization and improved environmental implications for food production are all important, and food security is a central issue,” she says.
But are voluntary efforts by the industry sufficient to transform the food system? Not without much stronger regulatory pressure, according to Heal.
In his new book, Endangered Economies: How the Neglect of Nature Threatens Our Prosperity (Columbia University Press, 2016), Heal argues for markets and businesses to consider the economic value of the services that nature itself provides — insects and birds that pollinate crops, microorganisms that promote fertile soil, forests that protect watersheds. In addition, he says, government must use its massive financial support of the farming sector to help shift practices.
“The large agribusinesses are loath to change. They’ve got a business model that seems to work for them, and it won’t be easy to persuade them,” says Heal. “It will require outside pressure and tighter environmental regulations.”
Growing Better Agribusiness in Emerging Markets
Even without regulatory pressure, there are still tremendous opportunities for agribusiness to update outmoded production methods, and there is perhaps no greater opportunity for doing so than in Africa.
Feeding the world in the next 30 years will require vast expansion and investment in African agriculture. According to the UN, the continent has the fastest population-growth rate — twice as fast as that of the world overall. The population is expected to double by 2050. Over half the remaining arable land in the world is there, yet the continent still imports $25 billion in food per year. African agriculture still largely comprises small growers and subsistence farmers producing on a scale not nearly sufficient to meet future demand.
Ken Kanyagui ’16 and Yasuharu Matsuno ’17 hope to change that. Their company, Nunya Farms, based in Ghana, combines sustainability with modest conventional technologies that are relatively easy to implement. The company will be planting at least 10,000 acres in Ghana (about 0.1 percent of the country’s arable land) with peanuts and soy this year at two sites. They hope to expand dramatically both within and beyond Ghana’s borders, adding other staple crops like maize, sorghum, and chili peppers.
Kanyagui and Matsuno see massive growth potential in the region, because what Nunya Farms is doing is relatively simple — maintaining the land’s natural fertility through sustainable practices like crop rotation and use of conventional equipment still uncommon in many African countries, including no-till mechanical planters. In addition, Nunya Farms emphasizes community-development needs, vetting land deals to avoid forced evictions and closely monitoring work conditions.
“Most people don’t see big agribusiness as sustainable agriculture. They see bad guys trying to take advantage of everyone,” says Kanyagui. “But this is actually the mindset we need in a place like Ghana and most of Africa: big agribusiness that’s viable, responsible, investing in the people and the community, bringing sustainable jobs, and most importantly, increasing food production on the continent.”
Harnessing Big Data
If big ag is one necessary piece of solving the impending food-shortage crisis, big data must surely be another. A plethora of information is available to guide decision making about everything from the best time to plant a crop to how to distribute it. But the data exists in many places and in many forms, and making sense of it requires breaking down information silos.
A report on a particular crop, for example, might capture rainfall totals but not indicate how quickly the rain will evaporate from the crop, a fact crucial to understanding the crop’s health. Governments and corporations are often unaware of how much agricultural data actually exists, says Sara Menker ’12, who, along with Sewit Ahderom ’05 and Nemo Semret (’99 SEAS), co-founded Gro Intelligence, an agricultural analytics firm. A former commodities trader for Morgan Stanley, Menker observed firsthand how incomplete information creates inefficiencies in production and distribution that, in turn, create barriers to investment.
“There are 1.6 billion people employed in the global food and agriculture industry,” explains Menker. “How do you get that entire group of people — whether policy makers, traders, corporate consultants — to use the same language?”
The company’s subscription-based software, Clews, taps into a wide array of data, generating user-friendly analytics and visuals. The firm says its trillions of data points — crop production, weather, climate trends, soil conditions, infrastructure, and consumption patterns, to name a few — represent the most extensive collection of agricultural data available in a single product.
Gro Intelligence focuses not on individual farmers but on the third-party stakeholders — such as policy makers and investors — who affect farmers’ ability to maximize production and deliver crops to market.
For example, if a government perceives a threat to food security, it might implement an export ban on staple crops like corn or wheat. However, this could also end up negatively impacting farmers by, among other things, creating price uncertainties. But with more complete market information and environmental data, says Menker, that government could more accurately anticipate supply and demand and therefore make decisions that better protect farmers while also ensuring domestic food security.
“In the long term, we need to be producing much more food than we currently are to ensure food security in the next 30 years,” says Menker. “ [This] will require a fundamental, systematic change through more investment into agriculture and better government policies based on data rather than simply perception. We need to ensure that farmers have adequate, functioning infrastructure to support their needs.”
To that end, Gro Intelligence is constantly adding new data sources to its software and has created its own data series to produce ever more precise and complete information for their clients.
“Data is revolutionizing other industries, and agriculture is no exception,” says Menker. “Access to data means a better understanding of our scarce and finite resources and an ability to predict and prepare for what’s coming.”
When we think of agriculture, we naturally think of land. But in many places, intensive agriculture has so severely depleted soil and other resources that land can no longer be cultivated; in others, drought has ravaged fertile farmland. And as the global population grows increasingly urban, there’s a need to find more efficient ways to grow food close to those population centers.
Building up — the way we build high-rise apartment and office buildings — is a solution that’s gaining attention. New Jersey–based AeroFarms, co-founded by Marc Oshima ’97 and David Rosenberg ’02, is a pioneer in so-called vertical farming. The company produces leafy greens that thrive in a high-tech production method that doesn’t require sunlight, soil, or pesticides. Instead, the company mists water and nutrients onto the plants, which grow atop reusable cloths under LED lights in spacious warehouse-style buildings.
Oshima says the company’s proprietary process uses 95 percent less water and produces yields 130 times that of conventional farming, since they can grow and harvest all year in the climate-controlled environment.
AeroFarms also situates production in urban areas near major distribution routes. Its headquarters in Newark is the largest indoor vertical farm in the world, housed in a former steel mill that includes labs for developing new crops. It brings fresh produce to local urban food deserts and provides year-round local employment.
Its five-year expansion plan includes starting 25 vertical farms in North America, Asia, Africa, and Europe, as well as developing renewable energy resources to help the farms produce more efficiently. However, for AeroFarms, the goal is growing not only more plants, but also tastier ones. “The way we can optimize a plant to influence not just yield but taste, texture, and nutritional density is changing the way the world looks at farming,” says Rosenberg. “Vertical farming won’t solve all the world’s problems in feeding humanity, but it is certainly part of the solution.”
Adds Oshima, “This is truly about having an impact around the world.”
A Post-Meat World?
Vertical farming is one of the more cutting-edge approaches to conserving precious resources. Another involves radically rethinking how people in more affluent parts of the world get their protein.
Slowing global resource depletion will mean reducing the global consumption of meat, especially beef, which has the biggest environmental footprint of all animal proteins. According to a 2016 World Resources Institute working paper, beef production requires a whopping 20 times the land needed for plant-based proteins like beans and about six times that needed for chicken and pork. The livestock industry generates more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire global transport sector.
Yet estimates suggest beef consumption could almost double by 2050. These kinds of sobering statistics spurred entrepreneur Ethan Brown ’08 to take action — not by guilting people into giving up meat but by creating vegetable-based products so similar to meat that consumers would prefer them.
The result is Beyond Meat, which produces high-tech meat substitutes designed in their Manhattan Beach, California, lab. By transforming plants like pea and soy through a heating, cooling, and pressure process, they make a product that mimics the chemical makeup of meat. The product garnering the most excitement is the company’s Beyond Burger patties. Their ground beef texture is a far cry from the tasteless, mealy veggie burgers that have dominated the market for years. On the grill, they sizzle and smell like real beef. While reviewers say their flavor doesn’t completely replicate hamburger meat’s, it comes close. Beet juice creates a pink hue that looks like raw meat. Each patty packs a lot of protein, yet it’s strictly vegan, with half the saturated fat of a beef patty and fewer calories.
Brown believes that the demand for sophisticated, plant-based proteins will skyrocket in the coming decade, in part because the appeal of realistic meat alternatives cuts across demographic lines. “Our customers come from so many different angles — millennials who are sick and tired of industrial food, older people whose doctors tell them to watch their cholesterol,” says Brown.
As concerns mount over the meat industry’s environmental impacts, large companies are taking notice. In October, the meat-processing giant Tyson bought a 5 percent stake in Beyond Meat; Kraft, Unilever, and ConAgra (owner of brands like Hunt’s and Chef Boyardee), along with fast-food chains like Burger King and Taco Bell, have developed or acquired more plant-based products and brands.
The Elephant in the Fridge: Food Waste
One major solution to the food crisis is staring us in the face every time we open the refrigerator: waste. According to the UN, about 1.3 billion tons of food each year never gets eaten — about a third of what’s produced. Some of that waste occurs at the beginning of the supply chain, in the field and through lack of efficient storage and transport. But much of it, especially in developed countries, occurs at the consumer end.
The United States is the world leader in food waste; upward of 40 percent is never consumed. People buy more than they need and demand perfect-looking produce, leading companies to toss out good food before it ever reaches supermarkets.
“We need to make sure people are comfortable buying produce that might not be perfectly round and bright but is just as nutritious as any other fruit or vegetable,” says Ron Gonen ’04, an adjunct professor at Columbia Business School and co-founder of the Closed Loop Fund, a social impact fund that addresses waste through recycling.
Gonen, who was New York City’s deputy commissioner of sanitation, recycling, and sustainability during the Bloomberg administration, also points out that throwing away food comes with significant costs at every point in the supply chain, from farmer to consumer.
Making a dent in food waste will require an ever-evolving array of creative solutions. This is true of every aspect of the global food challenge. It will mean harnessing the best and latest technologies to boost yields and improve distribution systems, as well as reintroducing tried-and-true ecological methods to mitigate environmental damage. It will involve changing habits so we consume less of the most resource-intensive foods like meat. And it will necessitate a sustained global effort to thoroughly understand and address one of the greatest challenges of our time: climate change. In the end, this may prove the greatest test of human will and ingenuity.
“My guess is that we will solve both problems — climate and food — or neither,” says Heal.