A better food chain explained in three sketches
October 25, 2022
In his book Regenesis, George Monbiot mentions that our food chain is showing more signs of instability year by year. The author points out that it resembles the financial markets just before the crash of 2008. But does that mean that our food chain will crash and cause worldwide starvation?
How a war in Ukraine impacts the price of British chicken
Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. But if such events were to happen, we could look back at all the signs and say “We should have seen that coming”. Our global food chain has been demonstrating volatility for quite a while now. Like when a container ship stuck in the Suez Canal caused disruption for months. Or when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine caused feed and energy prices to rise so sharply that many poultry farmers considered quitting the industry.
And we haven’t even mentioned harvests disrupted by the changing climate. To decouple climate change from food security is impossible. The more we emit, the more adverse events we will experience. Last year, the cost of durum wheat soared by 90% after record heatwaves in Canada, one of the world’s biggest producers of the grain.
This is just the beginning. Experts warn that we may have to say goodbye to staples such as coffee as suitable land declines. Brazil, which is currently the world’s largest producer of the bean, can expect its most suitable land to decline by 79%.
What doesn’t work
It seems that growing enough food to feed the world is not a problem. On one hand, we already grow enough food to feed 1.5 times our global population. Yields of key crops, including wheat, rice, and corn, have been rising steadily for the past 50 years.
But it is the distribution of food, and the way we use the Earth’s resources to grow it, that is so challenging. We waste 1/3 of all food we produce. Of the key grains that we grow, including soy, wheat, and corn, more than half goes to either animal feed or biofuel. In the meantime, food production is responsible for over a third of all global GHG emissions.
A better food chain is possible — but what would it look like?
#1 A resilient network.
Complex systems theory tells us that three things make a system resilient:
- When no nodes within the network are dominant.
- When all nodes are loosely linked.
- When the nodes are not synchronised.
Our food chain is far from perfect as a network. Only three grains: wheat, corn, and rice dominate our calorie intake,accounting for more than half of calories eaten worldwide. We rely too much on those few crops — and the handful of companies that handle them. Our food system is also tightly linked, with disruption on one end causing chaos on the other.
For a more resilient future, our food chain needs to become independent on a local level. For example, instead of importing soy feed from South America, we could grow alternatives locally. We also need a bigger diversity of crops and different ways of growing them. This way, when one node fails, others can still support us.
#2 No room for waste.
The Circularity Gap Report shows that less than 10% of all raw materials get recycled. The food industry also plays a role in this problem. According to WRAP, over 3.6 million tonnes of food were wasted on UK farms each year.
In a world where over 800 million people go hungry, food waste is a jarring efficiency. We need to minimise it in the first place, but also learn to capture its true value. But how?
‘Waste’ is a human concept, alien to nature. Nature upcycles everything with the help of insects and soil bacteria. The insect bioconversion industry — which we at Better Origin are a part of — works within that concept. We feed food waste to insect larvae and use said larvae in animal feed, pet food, and even human food.
By closing the loop on food waste, we can prevent it from going to landfill where it would emit methane. Although methane does not stay in the atmosphere for as long as CO2, its immediate heating effects are 25 times bigger — so the reward for treating it seriously.
#3 Saving the land.
The way we use our land will directly impact climate and food security in the future. If we continue on our current trajectory, we could soon run out of places to grow food. Half of the world’s habitable land is used for agriculture.Farming continues to take over areas rich in biodiversity, such as the Cerrado forest.
Currently, 33% of the arable land in the world is used to grow feed for our livestock. We could cut out the middle man and opt for a plant-based meal wherever possible. According to Our World In Data, this would reduce global land use for agriculture by 75%.
But even within the existing system, much better feeds are available. Insects, algae, or even fungi use fraction of land to deliver the same amount of protein such as soy or wheat. Not only could they feed our livestock — they could also become humans’ new favourite proteins and open up large areas of land.
So you want to know more about a better food chain?
At Better Origin, we have perfected the art of bioconversion – converting food waste into food – and we have put it to use in collaboration with farmers and supermarkets.