State of Green Business: Food sustainability gets a seat at the table

One of a series of excerpts from the 2014 State of Green Business report (download here).

Nothing is more central to sustainability than food. We put it in our bodies. We deploy around 40 percent of our planet's land mass to grow it. What we eat and how it is produced has implications for just about every environmental and social issue there is, from climate change and water use to public health and social equity.

Food issues long have been part of the sustainability dialogue — ever since Rachel Carson wrote about how the chemicals that were killing bugs and birds were accumulating in the food chain. But the dialogue is accelerating now for a number of reasons. Resource issues — what we take from and put into the air, water and soil, for example — are intensifying, the result of both further environmental degradation in some areas and the need to feed a growing global population.

Along with population growth has come income growth, and the transition from subsistence-level diets to ones that include more meat and processed foods, which translate to greater energy and natural resource use, and more waste. Moreover, the majority of these emerging consumers are living in, or moving into, cities, which are expanding their boundaries, often by paving over farmland to build roads and neighborhoods. Soil erosion and loss of irrigation water in many regions are further limiting arable land. Alternatively, farmers are cutting down rainforest to plant crops, despite governmental and activist pressures to stop the practice.

The net result: More resources are needed to grow food on less land, leading to greater environmental stresses.

The situation is bordering on dire. According to a 2009 report by the United Nations Environment Program:

The surge in food prices in the last years, following a century of decline, has been the most marked of the past century in its magnitude, duration and the number of commodity groups whose prices have increased. The ensuing crisis has resulted in a 50-200 percent increase in selected commodity prices, driven 110 million people into poverty and added 44 million more to the undernourished. Elevated food prices have had dramatic impacts on the lives and livelihoods, including increased infant and child mortality, of those already undernourished or living in poverty and spending 70-80 percent of their daily income on food. Key causes of the current food crisis are the combined effects of speculation in food stocks, extreme weather events, low cereal stocks, growth in biofuels competing for cropland and high oil prices.

The report concluded that unless action is taken, up to a fourth of the world's food production may become lost due to environmental breakdown by 2050.

The debate over how to feed a growing population, and whether it is even possible, has raged for more than a generation — the Malthusians versus the Cornucopians. The former generally argue that growing population and consumption will lead to "ecological overshoot," where the population exceeds the long-term carrying capacity of the environment. The latter argue that human ingenuity has disproven that theory time and again — that enough matter and energy are available to provide for an ever-rising global population.

The debate is far from settled, although Cornucopians seem to be on the winning side — at least for now. And food will remain at the thick of it.

The food-energy-water nexus

Indeed, it will take a great deal of innovation in the coming years to ease the stress at the intersection of food, energy and water. Consider that, according to the United Nations, humankind will need 50 percent more food, 40 percent more energy and 30 percent more water between now and 2030 — a mere decade and a half from now. That's daunting. But when one considers how they interrelate, the complexity grows:

• It takes about 1,300 liters of water to create 1 kilogram of wheat, or about 156 gallons per pound.

• It takes about 7 calories of fossil fuel to produce 1 calorie of food in the U.S.

• Moving, heating and treating water consumes 13 percent of all energy use.

• Power plant cooling uses between 3 and 4 percent of all U.S. water consumption.

In other words, it takes water and energy to provide food, water to provide energy and energy to provide water. Given the limits of all three, how do we manage? The food-energy-water nexus will be one of the more interesting stories — and one of the biggest innovation opportunities — for the next decade or more.

Addressing waste

Fortunately, efficiency opportunities are ripe for both agriculture and food production, such as minimizing the food waste from harvest through processing and consumption. Around 30 percent of food grown today is never eaten, although this figure varies considerably across geographies and the different points in the value chain, according to Kai Robertson, a consultant who's been studying the issue for years. She says the two largest sources of waste are from what eaters in industrialized countries do with leftover or spoiled food at home and away, and poor farming and post-harvest practices, especially in emerging economies. 

That's not small potatoes. Wasting all that food costs about $750 billion a year, about the GDP of Switzerland, says the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. No small part of this loss is to food and ag companies themselves — growers, processors, distributors, supermarkets, foodservice companies and others. Therein lie significant opportunities to reduce waste and save money.

Beyond addressing waste is a vast menu of new tools and technologies that can transform food production. The quest for alternative proteins is one meaty area. Plant-based eggs, algae-based cooking oils, aquaculture, even protein-rich insects are being viewed as potential means for meeting the world's food needs. Suffice to say, the world of food alternatives has no shortage of raw material. 

And then there's the need to improve the environmental profile of traditional meat, such as from cows, chickens, lambs and pigs. Efforts are underway in each industry, notably beef, seen by many environmentalists as evil incarnate. The announcement early this year by McDonald's of its aspiration to buy only "sustainable beef" is a stake in the ground that could transform the industry.

Improving the environmental profile of the existing food base will be key to addressing both people and planetary needs. It's not that the modern food movement — nonprocessed, gluten-free, non-GMO, heirloom, grass-fed, free-range, organic, artisanal and all the rest — isn't worthy of advancing. It's just that there's so much low-hanging fruit (and meat and vegetables and grain) available in making conventional agriculture far, far more efficient.

The GMO debate

One tool and technology, of course, is genetically modified organisms, another raging controversy in the food and ag worlds. Proponents of GMOs believe that they offer the potential to feed the world, that they reduce energy, water and chemical inputs in agriculture, are safe for people and the environment and raise farmer's incomes.

Those arguments haven't always held up to scrutiny. There are signs, for example, that crops are requiring ever-increasing amounts of pesticides because of the rise of "superweeds" and hard-to-kill insects. And farmers in some regions have protested — or worse, committed suicide — after being promised rich harvests and income for switching from farming with traditional seeds to genetically modified ones, the benefits of which failed to materialize. And anti-GMO advocates argue that the technology isn't even necessary to fulfill the world's growing caloric needs.

But not all science is anti-GMO — far from it. A 2010 report by the U.S. National Academies of Science found that, "Generally, GE [genetically engineered] crops have had fewer adverse effects on the environment than non-GE crops produced conventionally."

Partly as a result of such debates — and the emotional consumer and investor backlash that can accompany such controversies — some companies have backed off GMOs. Notable among them is General Mills, which in early 2014 announced that it had started producing its iconic breakfast cereal Cheerios — at least in its "original" version — without GMOs, the first major brand of packaged food in the U.S. to make the switch from containing GMOs to marketing itself as non-GMO. True, Cheerios are made of oats, and GMO oats don't exist — some called out General Mills' move as a marketing stunt — but it was still a very public statement by one of the world's largest food companies.

General Mills may turn out to be a lone voice on the supermarket shelves or the beginning of a wave that will roil the aisles. Either way, it's clear that the world of food and ag will continue to be a hot topic.

Food photo by Subbotina Anna via Shutterstock