The future of food
Five ways climate change could change what’s on the menu
“What’s for dinner?” is becoming a complicated question.
The world’s population is projected to top 9 billion by 2050, a 28 percent leap that will greatly increase the demand for food just as climate change is altering rainfall patterns and causing more frequent and widespread droughts.
The colliding trends have serious implications for agriculture and food security.
Food producers are finding surprising ways to adapt—and while some sound cool, others are on the creepy side. These are a few of the things that could end up on our dinner plates, courtesy of climate change.
1. Infrared-peeled tomatoes (and apples and pears)
Peeling fruit destined for canning—like tomatoes, apples and pears—takes a surprising amount of water: A 28-ounce can of tomatoes, for instance, needs 27 ounces of water to remove the peels.
But California, the nation’s fruit and vegetable basket, is facing its worst drought in more than 100 years. Helpfully, researchers at UC Davis have developed a way to blanch and peel fruit that eliminates water and saves energy.
The trick? Blast ’em with infrared rays. The technology, straight off of a Star Trek set, shuttles tomatoes on a conveyer belt through an electric infrared heater to soften the peels, then into a vacuum chamber to suck the peels up.
Switching California’s processed tomato industry to infrared peeling would save more than 660 million gallons of water and $31 million per year, said Zhongli Pan, the U.S. Department of Agriculture researcher who’s leading the team.
2. Produce grown in saltwater green-houses …
Before tomatoes can be processed, they need to be grown.
Produce grown in greenhouses tends to have more negative environmental impacts than open-field crops, mainly because greenhouses use more energy and water. But who doesn’t enjoy a hot-house tomato in early March?
A London-operated startup called Sundrop Farms has a solution. Its commercial greenhouse in the desert near the Australian city of Port Augusta uses solar power to desalinate seawater for irrigation and provide energy for heating or cooling when necessary. That’s good news for Gulf countries like Dubai or Abu Dhabi, whose arid climate makes them ill-equipped to meet the food needs of their growing populations.
3. … or on your supermarket roof
A New York-based startup called BrightFarms is surfing the locavore wave, building hyper-local, hyper-efficient aquaponic farms and greenhouses in urban settings. The company has partnered with more than a dozen major retailers in the Northeast and Midwest to sell produce grown within a 20-mile radius—with an eye on building greenhouses on the supermarkets’ own roofs.
The result? Fresher, better-tasting fruits and vegetables and little to no transport-related emissions.
The problem, of course, is that the math won’t pencil out for BrightFarms as a large-scale solution. Consider the numbers: If you add up all of the cropland and pasture on the planet, you get 40 percent of the ice-free Earth—the size of Africa and Latin America combined. Urban areas, on the other hand, cover just 7 percent of the Earth’s surface.
“Even if you put a greenhouse on every roof in every city in the world, it would still be too small a surface to feed the planet,” said Paul West, a researcher in food security and sustainability at the University of Minnesota. Factor in population growth, and we need to double crop output by 2050, he added.
4. Your heat-resistant, drought-tolerant Thanksgiving dinner
Faced with that reality—and an ever drier and hotter climate—scientists are looking for solutions in the controversial world of GMOs (genetically modified organisms).
Some, for example, are working to create GMO strains of staples like corn, rice and wheat that can withstand prolonged periods without watering. The goal is to help them resist temporary periods of drought, or allow them to be irrigated less frequently, explained Eduardo Blumwald, a plant scientist at UC Davis.
He and his team are also test-growing plants watered with a mix of up to 25 percent seawater—a must as diminishing aquifers turn brackish.
Researchers are not just manipulating crops. Turns out turkeys are vulnerable to a sudden illness caused by heat waves, which turns their meat limp and insipid. A team at Michigan State University is breeding hundreds of turkey chicks under heat lamps in the hopes of singling out the genes that could help the animals endure hotter environments.
5. Meatless meat
Heat-resistant or not, most food experts agree that the single biggest thing the meat industry can do to adapt to climate change is … produce less meat.
“There’s a huge opportunity to reduce world hunger and increase sustainability just by changing how we use existing crops—if less of them were used to produce meat,” said West, the University of Minnesota food researcher. Nearly a third of all calories grown each year in the world are used as animal feed, enough to feed an additional billion people.
If Bill Gates has his way, you won’t have to give up burgers. The Microsoft founder is funding a start-up, Beyond Meat, that uses pea protein to create chicken and beef substitutes that taste and feel exactly like the real thing. Even foodies are duped: New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman wrote about fake chicken so convincing it fooled him twice during a blind fajita tasting.
Still, many consumers balk at substitute meat products. What would win their hearts and minds?
“It may take them not knowing it,” said Arlin Wasserman, a partner at food sustainability consulting firm Changing Tastes. He points to a study conducted by the Culinary Institute of America and UC Davis showing that blind tasters preferred taco blends that were a mix of beef and mushroom over 100 percent beef ones.