The Future of Food Systems: A Case for Climate Optimism

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Melissa Benn is an MBA student, a member of the Skoll Center for Social Entrepreneurship’s Impact Lab, and a lover of all things cheese. She is focused on building a career to make food more inclusive, sustainable, and accessible around the world.

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The Future of Food Systems: A Case for Climate Optimism

This blog is the first in a series titled ‘The Future of Food Systems’, written by MBA candidate Melissa Benn. It will explore the ways our food systems can and should pivot in a world that is being increasingly disrupted by climate change.

A few weeks ago, while locked in a passionate discussion with a fellow classmate at the Saïd School Business, I learned a new term: “climate anxiety”. Climate anxiety refers to the stress many people feel when confronted with the intractable, wicked problem that is our current climate emergency, and the catastrophic future we may face if we do choose to do nothing. It’s certainly a feeling I’m well acquainted with, and one I can pinpoint back to middle school when my understanding of the world was beginning to blossom.

As I have a tendency to do, I began to steer the conversation towards my true passion: sustainable agriculture and food systems. The way that we produce, process, package, consume, and dispose of food accounts for one-third of our global greenhouse gas emissions and employs roughly 1.1 billion agricultural production workers, millions who receive little or no social protection in exchange for their labor. This presents a serious existential question we must all consider: how can we shift our current food system to reduce our climate footprint and provide an ethical living wage?

A recent survey of 10,000 youth from 10 countries found that the psychological distress caused by climate anxiety is a major issue. 60% responded that they felt “very worried” or “extremely worried” about climate change, stating that climate change makes them feel sad (68%), afraid (68%), anxious (63%), and angry (58%). Interestingly, 32% stated that they felt optimistic in the face of climate change.

What is the case for climate optimism, in the face of such a dire situation? In the context of food systems, when you peek into the cutting edge of research and thought-leadership, you realize something amazing. There are so many exciting things happening in innovative agricultural technology right now. For the sake of brevity, I’ll name three.

Scientists have created starch out of thin air

Last month, a team of scientists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences published a breakthrough so significant, it has radically altered my view of the future. Using chemical catalysts and carefully selected enzymes, they were able to synthesize starch from CO2 8.5 times more efficiently than corn. This new process has unbelievable implications for climate. Simply put, "if the overall cost of the process can be reduced to a level economically comparable with agricultural planting in the future, it is expected to save more than 90 percent of cultivated land and freshwater resources”.

Growing chicken wings without the chickens

You can’t discuss changing our global food system without addressing the cheeseburger in the room. Of all greenhouse gas emissions associated with our food system, a whopping 60% are due to meat. We already live in a world where most consumers in developed economies can purchase plant-based meats. Impossible Meat, Beyond Meat, and Tofurkey are well-known brands. However, the real disrupter of our current $200 billion meat industry is looming: no-kill, cultured meat. Cultured meat is grown in labs through bioreactors without the slaughter of animals or the plethora of issues stemming from feed sourcing to waste. This is not your Impossible Burger, with beetroot juice to give it the pink center. This is real animal protein cultivated from stem cells, grown into real animal muscle, ready to sizzle on your grill, but with 99% less land and 96% less water than traditional animal agriculture, at lightning speed, without one butcher knife.

A potentially green future

What could we do in a future where we saved 90% of the cultivated land and freshwater resources spent on cultivating starches, and used CO2 as an input into the agricultural process, instead of a harmful externality? Where you could eat a burger guilt-free, knowing you circumvented the ethical nightmare that is Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs)?

To name a few things, we could:

  • Reforest and rewild massive amounts of land
  • Preserve precious water resources
  • Reduce use of environmentally harmful chemicals
  • Majorly cut down on pollution, gas emissions, and environmental degradation

And so much more.

Over the next year, I plan to use this space to continue to think about one central question: what should the future of our food system look like? I can’t wait to find out.