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The task of sustainably feeding the world will challenge conservatives and progressives alike. Liam Glen writes on the future of food.
The UN estimates that the world population will approach 10 billion by 2050. In addition, income growth in developing countries means that even more people will be purchasing goods from the global market.
At the same time, climate change and other phenomena are proving that we need to change current our way of life if we want to pass on our prosperity to future generations.
Nowhere is this more evident than in food. Agriculture is the most important industry for human existence. It also takes up half of all habitable land and accounts for 9 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions and nearly a quarter of global emissions.
People do not want to change their behavior. This is especially true for eating habits. But the challenge of sustainable agriculture will have to entail some dietary changes.
Taking Away Your Hamburgers
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal makes no mention of meat. The closest thing it has is a vague call for sustainable agriculture.
But a retracted FAQ sheet contains a line that has haunted Ocasio-Cortez for months, “We set a goal to get to net-zero, rather than zero emissions, in part because we aren’t sure that we’ll be able to get rid of farting cows and airplanes that fast.”
Her opponents immediately jumped on the statement. The most sensationalist claim probably came from former White House adviser Sebastian Gorka, who said, “They want to take away your hamburgers. This is what Stalin dreamt about but never achieved.”
For a few months, this backlash scared green advocates from taking up agricultural issues. But it did not take long for commentators who did their research, like New York Times climate correspondent Kendra Pierre-Louis, to find major issues with meat.
Humans have eaten livestock for thousands of years, but with billions of people on Earth, the industry has grown to monstrous proportions.
Grazing necessitates a huge amount of land, and livestock themselves contribute greenhouse gases. Red meat, and beef in particular, is especially harmful. Though, contrary to the Green New Deal FAQ, it is cow belching rather than flatulence that contributes a large amount of methane to the atmosphere.
Most experts in this field do not want to eliminate meat. But they all agree that it is unsustainable for everyone to eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. For many Americans and Europeans, this entails major dietary changes.
Beans are one alternative source of protein. A more creative solution is to start eating insects. Unfortunately, though, that is unlikely to catch on any time soon.
The most promising alternatives are the growing number of plant-based meat substitutes, which maintain the taste, texture, and nutritional content of actual meat. Some of them are already commercially available.
And for those who absolutely must eat straight from the animal, the livestock industry will probably survive the sustainability revolution.
No elected official will sign a bill that forcefully takes away people’s hamburgers – though, I suppose there is a nonzero chance that the development of meat substitutes will create a surge in animal rights activism.
It is more likely that policymakers will enact taxes and regulations that keep the supply of meat relatively low. It will become more of a luxury item, available to anyone willing to pay high prices for it.
Organics Won’t Cut It
When talking about sustainable agriculture, the first thing that comes to your mind is probably fair trade, gluten-free, non-GMO, organic fruits and veggies. But that is not necessarily the case.
The concept of organic farming has always had more to do with romantic notions about what is and is not natural than it has with anything scientific.
Contrary to marketing, organic food is not necessarily healthier. In terms of sustainability, critics point out its heavy use of land and water.
A Venn Diagram of sustainable farming and organic farming will have quite a bit of overlap, but it is far from a perfect circle. Most of all, it may be an option for middle-class Americans, but anyone who has seen the prices at Whole Foods knows that it is not a viable way to feed the world.
Instead, we need to get over our fear of the artificial. Technology is increasingly making agriculture more efficient.
Nowhere is this more controversial than with genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Despite longstanding skepticism from environmentalists, scientists overwhelmingly support genetic modification.
The most extreme anti-GMO opponents want a complete ban of “Frankenfoods.” This rests on the idea that GMOs have uncertain effects and we should avoid them as a precaution. But after decades of use, no one has found any concrete evidence that they are unsafe.
One can have legitimate concerns about genetic modification and the business practices that accompany it. But these must be considered with its benefits. GMOs increase crop yield and reduce the need for pesticides, making them very promising tool for a sustainable future.
Sustainable agriculture is a complex topic. Meat consumption and genetic modification are the most attention-grabbing issues, but there are many other concerns whose immediate impacts will be less noticeable.
When considering it from a political angle, open-mindedness is a virtue. Scientific policy should avoid both reactionary, knee-jerk opposition to change and ideological approaches that oversimplify complex topics.