Climate change is perhaps the greatest challenge humanity has, or will, ever face considering its broad sweeping effects and the numerous aspects of daily life that are impacted. From severe storm systems, droughts, famines, sea level rise, intense heat waves, global displacement, and biodiversity loss, it requires both individual and systemic changes to mitigate the crisis. However, there’s one aspect that has to be addressed on its own if we are to improve our disposition: the agricultural sector.
The human population has more than doubled in the past two centuries and has reached 8 billion, a striking contrast to the 1 billion that were alive in 1800. Although we may reflect on the better standard of living our species has experienced since that time in addition to the new strides in technology, a lot of people don’t realize that our planet has its own carrying capacity. This is defined as the absolute number of organisms that can be supported before environmental degradation takes place, and this is sadly what’s transpiring before our very eyes. While we may find new ways to squeeze extra people in, the truth is that we’re now being mostly confined to urban areas at the same time as the availability of food lessens across the world, especially in developing nations.
According to a 2022 article published by the World Economic Forum, 55% of the world’s population currently resides in cities and is expected to rise to 80% by 2050. Consumption is projected to double to approximately 89 billion tonnes as reported by the UN International Resource Panel; the most developed countries consume 10 times as much as the poorest, this disproportionate amount being a grave cause of concern for underprivileged citizens elsewhere. This doesn’t just consist of material resources that are utilized in the actual process of urbanization but also relevant food consumption/waste. As the population soars, the demand for food will only worsen, therefore creating challenges in adequately feeding everyone.
The way we currently engage in agriculture through commercial farming has produced food efficiently but has led to a cascade of other problems that only exacerbate the effects of climate change. There are many flaws that can be listed: 1) we dedicate so many acres of land to one crop which can both deplete nutrients from the soil faster and make that crop susceptible to pests, 2) advanced nations like the U.S. waste prodigious quantities of food per year, 3) we apply excessive amounts of pesticides to crops which can harm our health and that of biodiversity, and 4) there is less land to perform essential ecosystem functions like sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. When our soils are depleted of essential nutrients, not only are we unable to keep producing crops but microbiota are eliminated that serve as the basis for ecosystem health. Every ecosystem is confined to trophic levels where energy is dispersed from one to the next.
The sun is the greatest of these and starts the process by transferring plentiful rates to producers (or plants) that are then eaten by primary consumers. However, not all of the energy that was held by them gets passed on to these consumers because some is lost as heat, an example of entropy. Next up are secondary consumers who prey on their smaller counterparts that have already taken up the energy afforded by vegetation. Once again, this group gains a smaller percentage of the energy that the previous trophic level held before. By the time tertiary consumers, including us, have taken their fill in this sequence, they will have gained the least amount of energy, thus requiring more food to sustain them. Our increased demand for food will put greater strain on the lands we devote to commercial agriculture and accelerate carbon emissions stemming from the photosynthetic processes associated with that consumption.
So, if microbiota are adversely affected by our pernicious farming methods, then native vegetation won’t have the ability to grow and sustain other trophic levels, leading to the altered landscapes we observe now. Organic farming, in contrast, focuses on replenishing nutrients in the soil after growing seasons have concluded, but it unfortunately takes longer than we can afford as a world. While we as a developed nation may have the luxury of experimenting with organic farming in certain regions, impoverished ones need as much food as they can obtain in a shorter time frame. This is where new research comes in to forge new paths to addressing food concerns isochronous to preserving our natural resources.
A study published in the Anthropocene Review titled “Maintaining Global Biodiversity by Developing a Sustainable Anthropocene Food Production System” posits ingenious scientific endeavors that could address the fundamental causes of our dilemma. The author recognizes both the need to rewild land for ecosystem restoration in conjunction with combating climate change and its consequence: rewilding some will increase the conversion to more farmland in others. In order to avoid taking one step forward and two more back, the source of our food has to shift from predominately grown crops to those cultured in labs. This is justified in how it will largely reduce the processes that promote gas exchanges in the environment.
For example, raising livestock for meat and dairy accounts for 57% of all food production emissions while plant-based foods add about 29%. Most of the world’s land for farming actually goes to feeding livestock instead of people, so this sets up ideal conditions for the release of greenhouse gases like methane which is more than 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide in trapping heat. Although scientists attempt to make people more aware of respiration that occurs when culling livestock for meat notwithstanding the dangers of our overexposure to antibiotics in concentrated feeding operations, our culture has shown an anathema for eating less of it. The paper that I’m referring to in this article doesn’t cite any need for us to completely stop doing so.
The study projects that turning to growing cultured meats in factory settings will reduce farmland from the current ~39% of the land surface to ~11%, supplemented by the release of less chemicals on the latter portion to make food in that category safer. While the idea of growing cultured meat in lab or factory settings may be scientifically feasible, the biggest obstacle is how cultures will assess it (if some even bother to do so). Political disagreements, religious opposition, and general skepticism are a few of the chief sources of what could be an uphill battle for even the United States alone. We are an enigma: the richest and most developed country in the world that has the potential to do anything but plagued with the most confounding cultural blunders.
Our society is burdened with corporate avarice, religious zealotry, and unmitigated capitalism that continues to divide the wealth gap between the rich and poor. We are in a puzzling hybrid state of advancement and primitive behavior where the two often play off each other, juxtaposing everything we claim to be. That’s not to say other countries will be any more enthusiastic at the prospect of cultured meat, but we are guaranteed to come across almost insurmountable strife. This is where renewed scientific engagement with communities should step in so that those who are more open to new ideas will hopefully understand how we can make a difference.
This proposed idea is so powerful that human populations can be supported over the next few decades on less than 10% of the world’s land area while reducing exploitation in marine ecosystems. Fish farms are another enterprise that have their own negativistic activities, similar to those of concentrated feeding operations for livestock. Fish are enclosed in tight spaces for spawning where they become vulnerable to different diseases, harmful chemicals like emamectin benzoate, and invasive species that can spread to different aquatic ecosystems. Overfishing has also endangered many species of fish, including sharks. Addressing these problems are just as crucial.
In the end, solving all-encompassing crises like climate change and food shortages will never be easy to do, so this is the time for all of us to ponder how far we should go to meet them head on. I emphatically believe that our window of opportunity is rapidly closing since 2030 is the deadline to reduce all emissions in half and limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. If we’re going to stop taking half measures based strictly on knee-jerk reactions, then it must happen now! Until then, we will keep dealing with the same problems that won’t get any better.