Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Leon Kaye headshot

Technology Is Disrupting Agriculture Worldwide – a Plus for People and the Planet

By Leon Kaye
Plant-based alternatives could become even more popular if entrepreneurs can score the access to capital that would allow them to scale up their ideas and bring them to market; if these products look good, taste good and are nutritious.

Plant-based alternatives could become even more popular if entrepreneurs can score the access to capital that would allow them to scale up their ideas and bring them to market; if these products look good, taste good and are nutritious.

It’s natural for sustainability discussions at events such as this week’s annual Ceres Conference to focus on energy. After all, the links between fossil fuels and climate change are obvious. But as Janet Ranganathan of the World Resources Institute (WRI) pointed out, the global food and agriculture sector is also a huge emitter of greenhouse gas emissions.

The numbers are staggering. Agriculture worldwide contributes 3 percent to global GDP yet consumes about 70 percent of the earth’s freshwater supplies. And almost a quarter of the total emissions that scientists attribute to agriculture is due to food wasted or lost as it moves from farm and eventually to fork. Groups including WRI suggest we’ll need to grow 56 percent more food than we do today if we’re going to feed a planet that could be home to almost 10 billion people by 2050. And if your head isn’t spinning from these numbers by now, here’s another reminder: The world’s farmers will have to grow all of that food on the same amount of land, or even less.

Food technology could be an answer, but according to Ranganathan and other sources, total investment in this sector last year was only $17 billion. That may sound like a lot of money, but considering the global food and agriculture industry is worth more than $5 trillion, it's a relative drop in the bucket. If we hope to develop more alternatives to seafood and depleted oceans, grow food on less land and with less water and fertilizer, and convince people to ditch meat for other choices that are protein-rich and tasty, we’ll need more investments in this emerging industry sooner rather than later.

So there you have it: Farmers, scientists, and even those who sail the seas in search of fish and mollusks will have to reduce the growth of demand in conventional food choices, increase production without expanding land for farms and ranches, and protect and restore ecosystems so we can replenish our oceans’ fisheries. And by the way, consumers, especially those in emerging markets with rising incomes and changing tastes, are going to want to eat dishes like the one shown above, thanks to mass media and Instagram.

As Chevy Chase’s timeless impersonation of President Gerald Ford summed up, “It was my understanding . . . that there would be no math.”

But the math could add up, if more entrepreneurs can score access to capital to scale up their ideas and bring them to market—provided, of course, these products look good, taste good and are nutritious.

Adam Lowry, the co-founder and co-CEO of Ripple Foods, insists his company is one that can help nail this massive challenge. The company manufactures a yellow pea-based milk alternative that emits far fewer emissions than dairy milk and has more nutrients than nut-based beverages. “We can get a lot more people eating plant-based foods,” Lowry, also a co-founder of natural household brand Method, told an audience at Ceres. “But in order to do so, we need to make this food delicious and nutritious.”

It’s clear that the pallid, grainy, carb-heavy and mushy veggie burgers of yesterday don’t compare to what companies like Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and Gardein now offer. That puzzle has been solved—just witness the response to Burger King’s Impossible Whopper pilot in the St. Louis region and the buzz over Beyond Meat’s IPO.

The climate change data is out there, and the science that has allowed meat- and dairy-free foods to become comparable or even better-tasting than conventional choices is definitely succeeding. Egg-free mayo is increasingly popular; plant-based milk alternatives have prime real estate on more supermarket shelves. New (or timeless) grains could replace the carbon-intensive foods we've eaten for centuries.

Now it’s time for the marketers and branding experts to step in. And it’s clear that in order for the food sector to do its part to help society avoid the risks linked to climate change, part of their messaging will have to be that the little choices we make every day can make a difference. The reality is that a dogmatic either-or philosophy over dairy versus yellow pea milk, or beef versus coconut oil and soy protein burgers, won’t win over consumers.

“The world of food is full of rules,” Lowry noted. “Every brand tells you what to eat and not to eat, and what was bad was good and what was good was bad. We don’t want to be the brand that chastises you for the burger on Friday night; we want to be the brand that rewards you for making better choices.”

Image credit: Leon Kaye

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye