When it comes to feeding the world with a growing population in an era of shrinking resources, engineers play a more critical role than ever before. But the challenges do not come without opportunity.
To feed an exploding population, we’re going to need a food supply that is not just plentiful but sustainable. Although it’s a contentious subject, most scientists agree climate change is a real issue with far-reaching consequences that will continue to have an increasing impact on food security and sustainability. We will have no choice but to learn how to provide enough food for everyone amidst diminishing natural resources like fresh water, healthy soil and arable land, while also learning how to reduce waste and mitigate greenhouse gases (GHGs) to avoid further damaging the atmosphere in which we live.
While moving away from fossil fuels toward alternative sources of energy is expected to have a positive impact on mitigating climate change and reducing GHGs, there’s another area where consumers can have an immediate and significant impact: their food choices. In the competition for land and water, agriculture has been singled out as a cause for concern and identified as an area where innovation is desperately needed.
IMPACT OF AGRICULTURE
The Canadian Academy of Engineering (CAE), in partnership with the Trottier Family Foundation and the David Suzuki Foundation, undertook a project—the Trottier Energy Futures Project—to address the serious issue of climate change. Completed in 2016, the project was a comprehensive engineering analysis of Canada’s future energy systems with an eye toward achieving an 80 per cent reduction in GHGs by 2050 as compared to 1990 levels, and a goal of reducing them by a further 100 per cent by the end of the century.
While the project focused on energy, the field of study also included the impact of non-combustion sources of emissions, including agriculture, industrial processes and waste. The study confirmed agricultural emissions, due to enteric fermentation—methane from the digestive processes of animals—and manure management are responsible for a significant amount of GHG emissions. The study also pointed to soil nitrous oxide emissions due to the application of nitrogen-based fertilizers and crop residue decomposition, and waste sector emissions, including solid waste disposal on land, waste water treatment and waste incineration, with the dominant type of emission from waste products being methane from municipal landfill sites.
“I’m in agreement with the vast majority of engineers and scientists out there who think [climate change] is actually a problem, that it was actually caused by humans,” says Kevin Goheen, PhD, P.Eng., executive director of the CAE and an adjunct professor of engineering at Carleton University in Ottawa. “We’ve missed the boat in terms of being able to stop it entirely so now we’re going to have to take a two-pronged approach: reversing the GHG production and lowering GHGs in the atmosphere, so that’s part one. But part two is, okay, given the fact that we’ve managed to change the climate, what are we going to do about it?”
Claude Laguë, PhD, P.Eng., FEC, a professor of engineering at the University of Ottawa, is an agricultural engineering expert who has made a career out of focusing on the agricultural and food sectors. He’s worked on countless projects to improve agricultural technologies, including the design of field machines and equipment to increase productivity and the development of techniques for the control of weeds and insect pests to reduce the reliance on chemical herbicides and insecticides. When it comes to climate change, he and Goheen are on the same page: “[Climate change] will definitely have an impact on agriculture because agriculture is highly dependent on climate,” says Laguë. “If you have changes in temperature regimes and precipitation patterns, obviously you’re going to have an impact on the type of crops you can grow. But I think our biggest challenge will be on the adaptation side—how we adapt agricultural production to a world where greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere is much higher relative to what it was before and what it is right now. I don’t think we’ll be able to skirt that issue; as engineers, we’ll definitely need to address it head on.”
With a world population expected to surpass 9.8 billion by 2050, and in an era where deforestation continues to exacerbate climate change and threaten biodiversity, Laguë also worries about shrinking land resources in the face of an increasing demand for agricultural and food products.
“I think the most important question is: How are we going to feed 10 billion people with a shrinking reserve of agricultural land? Each year we have less land available to grow more food, and the population is growing, and the population wants more and better food. How are we going to be able to produce more food and better food to feed more people when the main resources we need to do that, which is typically agricultural land, is continually shrinking?”
And, with agriculture consuming 70 per cent of the world’s fresh water—dwarfing both industrial and municipal use, at 23 per cent and 8 per cent, respectively—conservation has never been more critical. In March, the United Nations released its annual World Water Development Report, which predicts water shortages could affect five billion people by 2050—that’s about 50 per cent of the predicted world population—and called for the immediate implementation of environmental engineering strategies to, among other things, protect critical wetlands and stem the damage. The report points to agriculture as the biggest source of water consumption and pollution and identifies it as a key area for change.
Laguë says water is needed not only to irrigate crops and sustain farm animals but it is also used along the chain to, for example, wash agricultural products and to dilute, and he stresses the importance of using better irrigation technologies to conserve it.
“I think those problems are going to multiply in the near future, and as they multiply and people start asking why we don’t have enough water to meet our needs, then they’re going to be looking at areas where water is not used in the most efficient way,” Laguë says. “They’re going to be looking at agriculture because agriculture is using such a large proportion of our fresh water resources.”
We can’t escape our basic need for healthy water and soil, and due to what is, in large part, the ingenuity of engineers, we do a much better job today in terms of managing soil, increasing productivity and conserving water. Still, there’s room for improvement.
Professional agrologist, agronomist and entrepreneur Robert Saik, who has worked with The Gates Foundation on solutions geared toward food sustainability and food security, says: “I think the concerns a lot of people have when you talk about food are: Can we make it sustainable, can we make it plentiful, and can we make it affordable? And sustainability, to me, really comes down to three main metrics: 1. Soil health, and you can largely measure soil health according to organic matter; 2. water use efficiency, because agriculture uses a great amount of fresh water resources on the planet, so how can we measure and make better use of water; and 3. greenhouse gas balance, so how can we mitigate or remove greenhouse gases, and agriculture—while it’s being vilified in a lot of press—can play a very large role in contributing to a positive GHG balance of the planet.”
Saik is a big proponent of synthetic biology, or genetic engineering, and believes it’s the answer to producing enough food for everybody in a sustainable way. “The only science I see on the horizon that would allow us to reduce the use of fertilizer and reduce the use of pesticides is genetic engineering,” says Saik. “By engineering crops that can fight their own battles, ward off insects and diseases, that enables us to reduce the utilization of fertilizers and pesticides.”
He tells a compelling story about an engineered tomato designed to resist blight—a disease that affects all tomatoes, organic or not—created at the University of Florida: “So, here’s your choice: one gene from a sweet pepper into an engineered tomato, with zero fungicide applications, or spray up to 44 times. Now you tell me which one is more sustainable? There’s not a tomato grower in North America willing to step up to the plate and bring that GMO tomato to the marketplace because they’re not prepared to deal with the backlash. These are the things that drive me insane,” says Saik. “If we’re going to feed the planet going forward, we have to embrace the technology that’s going to allow us to do so. You can’t feed the population of 2050 on yesterday’s technology. That just will not work”.
WASTE NOT, WANT NOT
Food waste is another piece of the puzzle when it comes to both polluting the environment in which we grow our food and not having enough. According to Laguë, food wastage can occur at multiple points—whether it’s insufficient conservation technologies, failures in packaging and transportation, or people purchasing more than what they need—all of which present opportunities for improvement.
“There are a lot of interventions that are necessary at those different points, and all of those require engineering expertise and innovation,” Laguë says. “The wastage of food, especially in the developed world, is a big issue. I think in Canada the latest estimates are somewhere between 40 and 50 per cent of the food grown or raised is wasted. It can be wasted at the farm or in the production facilities, it can be wasted along the distribution chain, it can be wasted in the grocery store and the restaurants, and a lot is wasted by consumers at home. And, given the fact that the world population is continuing to grow and people all over the world are aspiring to a higher standard of living—which translates into more and better food—I don’t think we can afford to continue to waste 50 per cent of the food we produce. It’s just not sustainable.”
Levente Diosady, PhD, P.Eng., an active food researcher and professor emeritus of food engineering at the University of Toronto, is working on a solution to the food wastage problem with a project that would see the use of a food crop in its entirety for multiple purposes. Currently, Diosady and his team are making proteins and other useful materials out of Canadian food crops, such as mustard, which is being explored due to its ability to thrive in marginal areas with very little rainfall, such as Ethiopia and other parts of Africa.
“Canada has become a major exporter of vegetable oils,” says Diosady. “Canola has become the third largest edible oil source in the world and the meal that is left over is going into animal feed. The meal itself contains protein of very high quality, and there have been numerous attempts to make this available as a food ingredient. We ourselves have a process we’re evaluating with some companies now, in Estonia and in Canada. Canola is not great in the sense that the protein is very difficult to extract and the yields are relatively low. However, there is another Canadian crop, mustard, which is suitable for growing where there is not much else growing…and the protein in mustard is very, very high quality. What we’d like to see is mustard grown for both industrial use and for food. So, we’ve been looking at developing an integrated process where we would take the mustard seed and we would extract high quality edible protein out of it, and at the same time recover the oil as an industrial raw material, either for fuel or for chemicals.”
BEANS VERSUS BEEF
At the same time, other experts are studying the effects of certain foods, like meat consumption, on the environment and climate. William Ripple, PhD, a distinguished professor of ecology at Oregon State University and widely published researcher, and his colleagues have studied the environmental effects of plant-based diets versus meat-based diets extensively and published their findings in a series of scholarly papers, including Substituting beans for beef as a contribution toward US climate change targets. In that report, Ripple and his team demonstrate how the US could meet most, if not all, of its GHG emission reduction targets by making the simple substitution of beans for beef.
The report stresses the powerful potential of simple animal to plant food shifts. According to the report, ruminant animals—cows, goats and sheep—are the biggest emitters of methane due to their unique digestion processes, and reductions in global ruminant numbers could make a substantial positive impact on climate change mitigation. In the study, Ripple and his team calculated a replacement of beef with beans would mean a 46 to 74 per cent reduction in GHGs, which is needed to meet 2020 US GHG targets. Additionally, they identified 42 per cent of cropland (692,918 square kilometres) would be freed up.
Ripple also authored Global Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A second notice, which includes the signatures of 15,364 scientists from 184 countries. Its purpose: to send a message to humanity to step up to the sustainability plate—and quickly—to prevent widespread misery and devastating biodiversity loss and environmental damage. While broader in its environmental concern, it addresses the need to mitigate food waste and shift to eating more plants. “One of the biggest things people can do to lower their greenhouse gas emissions is to eat lower on the food chain by choosing more plant-based foods over animal products,” says Ripple.
Ripple and his team aren’t alone in this assertion. According to a report published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Livestock’s Long Shadow, the animal agriculture sector generates more GHGs than cars and is a major source of land and water degradation. At the time the report was written in 2006, livestock accounted for 30 per cent of global land use and meat production was projected to double by the year 2050 due to an ever-increasing demand for animal protein. The report concluded urgent action is needed to remedy the situation to avoid catastrophic environmental damage.
In the face of an ever-increasing demand for protein, Canada’s federal government recently announced it will invest $150 million in the country’s plant-based food industry. The funds will go toward developing foods based on pulses as well as flax, hemp and oats. Pulses are Western Canada’s largest crop and, due to their high protein, fibre and health benefits, many view them as the answer to challenges of having enough protein to go around the table.
“Pulses used to be absolute staples,” says David Jenkins, PhD, MD, a professor in the departments of nutritional sciences and medicine at the University of Toronto, and director of the Clinical Nutrition and Risk Factor Modification Centre at St. Michael’s Hospital. “You’ve got dal in India, you’ve got Boston baked beans, black-eyed peas in the south, etc., so right away, across the board, pulses have been important. They’ve just gone out of style in the last half century or so. It’s not a case of a rise of something new; it’s simply a case of going back to our roots.”
Jenkins thinks a plant-based diet is the answer to feeding the world in a sustainable way: “There’s no question about the amount of soil, the amount of water, the amount of fertilizer, the amount of crops that have to be grown to support the beef industry, the cattle industry in general, the pork industry, etc. These industries require enormous inputs of food, which could be processed through the human gut quite comfortably,” he says.
Some argue the only way the demand for traditionally produced meat will decrease is if there’s a viable replacement, and that’s a revolution that’s occurring in a petri dish. Clean meat, also known as cultured meat, lab-grown meat or in vitro meat, is on its way to becoming a reality, with several start-ups working to make it happen. Still more companies are focusing on plant-based meats that look and taste like the real thing.
“It’s very interesting that there’s a fairly big push to have products that totally replace meat, and this is entirely possible,” says Diosady. “Once you have protein isolate, there are technologies to make it into things that look like and feel like meat. Depending on how complex you make it, that actually gets better and better—by using more complex processes, the quality of meat replacers from plant proteins gets closer to real meat.”
Award-winning tissue engineer Milica Radisic, PhD, P.Eng., a professor and principal investigator at the University of Toronto’s Laboratory for Functional Tissue Engineering, explains the method behind clean meat: “The idea is you would take a biopsy from an animal and then isolate muscle stem cells from this biopsy, and then grow and expand these cells in large bioreactors, and cultivate them on carriers, biomaterial carriers, to get meat that looks like meat. And people have done these experiments before…but the cost of that process is so high right now that it’s not practical.”
What is expensive today is moving closer to reality and mainstream commercialization, as more and more investors put their money behind what they believe is a key shift towards sustainability with implications for health and nutrition as well as animal welfare, food safety and food security. Even meat industry giants like Cargill, Tyson and Maple Leaf Foods are investing in these and similar start-ups or purchasing already established plant-based companies.
Start-ups like Impossible Foods, founded by biochemist CEO Patrick Brown, PhD, MD, a professor emeritus in the department of biochemistry at Stanford University, have successfully created plant-based meat, right down to the bioidentical, genetically engineered heme, an iron-containing compound found in muscle that makes meat taste like meat. The impetus for starting Impossible Foods was motivated by concerns for the environment and sustainability and the goal of making the largest positive impact possible—and the company has been backed financially by heavy-hitters like Bill Gates and Google. Their flagship product, the Impossible Burger, tastes, cooks and bleeds like real meat and is already impressing people in the mainstream restaurant market, many of whom are unable to distinguish it from beef. Impossible Foods plans to create plant-based products to replace chicken, pork, lamb, fish, eggs and cheese.
When it comes to finding solutions to the challenges of feeding a growing population in an era of diminishing resources, Laguë believes there are multiple opportunities for engineers to get involved. “I think it would be great if we could have more people think of the agricultural and food industries as great opportunities for engineering innovation in the same way we’re always talking about nanotech or artificial intelligence or autonomous vehicles, and all kinds of cool stuff we hear about when we think about engineering,” Laguë says. “It would be great if we could be as excited about agriculture and food as we are about those other fields that may be more glamorous. At the end of the day, if we cannot eat, we won’t be able to enjoy artificial intelligence or travel in our autonomous vehicles. We need to meet our basic needs, and food is right there at the top of the list.”