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The climate crisis and the end of the golden era of food choice

Vox.com logo Vox.com 6/24/2019 Sean Illing
a bowl of oranges on a table

What’s for dinner in a hotter, drier, more crowded world?

a drawing of a cartoon character

Imagine waking up in a world that has become so hot and so crowded that most of what you eat has disappeared from the grocery store altogether.

Or imagine eating only genetically engineered foods or a diet of exclusively liquid meal replacements.

These are scenarios that Amanda Little, an environmental journalist and professor at Vanderbilt University, envisions in her new book, The Fate of Food. Heat, droughts, flooding, forest fires, shifting seasons, and other factors, she argues, will radically alter our food landscape — what we eat, where it’s made, how we pay for it, and the choices we have. If we’re going to survive, she says, we’ll have to reinvent our entire global food system to adapt to the changing climate.

As Little puts it: “Climate change is becoming something we can taste.”

How could this affect the average person? Can we rely on technology and human ingenuity to bail us out? And what could our diets look like in five or 10 or 20 years? A transcript of my conversation with Little, edited for length and clarity, follows.

Sean Illing

The world is getting hotter, more crowded, and drier. Is our global food production system prepared for these changes?

Amanda Little

Yes and no.

The big paradox of our food future is this decline in arable land on the one hand, and increasing population on the other.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has reported that the planet, given current trends, will reach a global warming threshold beyond which farming as we know it “can no longer support large human civilizations.” That’s terrifying.

But we also have to remember that this narrative of “We’re running out of food!” is as old as civilization. For millennia, there have been predictions that humans will outstrip their own edible resources — and for millennia, we’ve figured out ways to adapt and survive. The stakes are higher now than ever, but the potential solutions are also greater.

Sean Illing

What’s the threshold of global warming beyond which our current agricultural practices will break down? And how close are we to that threshold?

Amanda Little

The IPCC’s time frame is midcentury, so about 30 years from now. But disruptions in food supply are already evident almost everywhere. Right now, soy and corn farmers in the Midwest, for example, can’t plant their grains because massive storms have caused their fields to flood.

In recent months and years, extreme weather events have damaged or destroyed olive groves in Italy, vineyards in France, citrus and peach orchards in Florida and Georgia, apple and cherry orchards in Wisconsin and Michigan, avocado farms in Mexico, coffee and cacao farms in dozens of equatorial nations. There has been severe damage to dairy and livestock operations the world over.

Sean Illing

A lot of this feels abstract for people who haven’t been directly impacted by these issues, or have and don’t know it. How will this affect the average American, who can still walk into a grocery store and choose between 30 different brands of cereal or bread?

Amanda Little

Most of us are so displaced from the sources of our food that we’re experiencing these disruptions for now only as subtle fluctuations in the quality and price of our foods. The massive damage to corn and soy farms in the Midwest this spring will simply result in slightly higher costs of corn and soy.

Let’s take a more local example: I live in Nashville, Tennessee, and one of the greatest pleasures of that region are Georgia peaches. Peach trees have been blooming earlier from warmer winters, and then become vulnerable to devastating freezes that can kill off harvests and cause the fruits that do grow to be smaller in size and have degraded texture and flavor.

Those near-term effects are subtle but by midcentury may be far more significant. And if you live in India or China or parts of the Middle East and southeastern Africa, the challenges of drought, flooding, and shifting seasons are not degraded peach quality but full-blown famine. There are currently tens of millions of people in at least half a dozen subsistence-farming countries facing famine.

Sean Illing

Which foods might we lose?

Amanda Little

The most climate-vulnerable foods include those that are most fickle, needing very specific conditions to grow well, like coffee, wine grapes, olives, cacao, berries, citrus and stone fruits — as well as those that are most water-intensive, like almonds, avocados, and the alfalfa and pasture that feed cattle.

This is when some consumers start to stand up and listen: Yes, your chardonnay and strawberries are on the line.

Sean Illing

So what’s the role of technology and innovation in our food future? Will human ingenuity save us?

Amanda Little

Technology alone can’t save us, but judicious applications of technology can. I say in the book: Human ignorance and ingenuity got us into this mess, and ingenuity combined with good judgment can get us out of it.

Sean Illing

Let’s talk about some of those solutions. Your book is a kind of tour through different areas of food innovation, everything from genetic engineering to vertical farming to lab-based meats. What would you say is the most promising area of research, the one that gives you the most optimism about our ability to adapt and thrive moving forward?

Amanda Little

The weeding robot developed by a startup named Blue River Technology blew my mind. The bot can distinguish between a baby weed and a baby crop, and can annihilate that weed with incredible precision, radically reducing the use of herbicides on fields.

I watched the maiden voyage of this robot a couple years ago on a field in Arkansas. Instead of dumping billions of gallons of weed killer like glyphosate on fields, as is done in conventional agriculture, this bot was delivering tiny sniper-like jets of herbicide, making decisions in fractions of milliseconds as it was dragged down a field behind a tractor. It was staggering to see the machine make mistakes and become smarter as it learned which plants to kill and which to protect.

The bigger picture is even more exciting: Robotics can be applied to fungicides, insecticides, and even fertilizers, reducing agrochemicals in large-scale farming by 90-plus percent. It’s a future of plant-by-plant rather than field-by-field farming, which means you don’t have to do 1,000 or 10,000 acres of corn; you can intercrop fields with a variety of crops.

In other words, robotics may help us bring diversity to large-scale food production, borrowing from the lessons of agroecology.

Sean Illing

This is what you mean when you call for “third way” agriculture — this kind of past-future approach to food production?

Amanda Little

Part of what drove me to write this book was the realization that sustainable food is politicized, elitist, and riddled with misperceptions. On one hand, you have a pro-technology camp saying, as Bill Gates did a few of years ago, “Food is ripe for reinvention!” On the other, you have sustainable food advocates saying, “I want my food de-invented, thank you very much. Let’s go back to preindustrial agriculture.”

There’s a deep distrust of technology as applied to food — understandably, because industrial agriculture is so flawed. But as someone observing this debate for years, I wondered: Why must it be so binary? We need a synthesis of the two approaches.

We need a “third way” that borrows from the wisdom of traditional food production and from our most advanced technologies. Such an approach would allow us to grow more and higher-quality food while restoring, rather than degrading, public health and the environment.

Sean Illing

What will our diets look like in five or 10 or 30 years? What will we eat, and how will we grow it? Or will we grow it at all?

Amanda Little

The hope is that our diets will actually taste and look a lot like they do today. We’re living in a golden era of food diversity and accessibility. Ideally, we’ll continue to have this kind of abundance and diversity in food choices. But the provenance of those foods — where and how they’re grown — may change pretty radically.

You’re already seeing that in the realm of meats, all these plant-based alternatives coming online, like Beyond Meat, with its massive IPO recently.

In the book, I investigate “cell-based” meats, a.k.a. lab meats, where meat tissues are grown from cell biopsies taken from animals. Any kind of animal or fish protein — beef, duck, tuna — can be grown without the animal, essentially. I ate lab-grown duck meat that tasted as advertised: meaty, ducky. Years from now, these products will be ever harder to distinguish from animal-derived meats, and very possibly a part of mainstream diets.

Take another example: vertical farms growing aeroponic fruits and vegetables without soil or sun, using radically less water in urban areas. Will they taste exactly like the tomatoes grown your organic backyard garden? Possibly close. And loads of research is going into the use of genetic editing tools like CRISPR to adapt staple crops and even heirloom fruits and vegetables to new environmental pressures, so that they can become heat-tolerant, drought-tolerant, able to withstand invasive insects. These are not so much efforts to develop freaky Frankenfoods, but to help our food systems survive the new normal.

None of this means that in the future you won’t be able to eat organic, soil-grown crops or the craft meats you love today. It means that human innovation, which marries new and old approaches to food production, may be redefining sustainable food on a grand scale.

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