Wild futures: solutions for a sustainable food system

The scale of the food production challenge is clear: a 70% increase in food availability by the 2050s will be critical to keep up with the demand for food from an increasingly numerous and affluent population. This alone will not guarantee human well-being. In addition, food systems must also provide foods of high nutritional quality and diversity in order to support the needs for human health and nutrition, while other crucial big challenges like poverty reduction, gender and equity, and emissions reductions are resolved simultaneously.

To date, most assessments of the future of agriculture and food have focused on examining incremental technologies (e.g. gains in yields through the use of new crop varieties) and investments (e.g. irrigation). There is substantial evidence that even with full implementation of current agricultural technology options, we will not be able to sustainably feed the world’s population. A critical issue is that these traditional assessments do not explore the boundaries of what could be feasible if the world adopted ‘wilder’, more transformative options, the potential game changers. These game changers are no longer in the realms of imagination, but are being developed at a significant pace and have been reshaping what is feasible across different sectors.

We can be ambitious and push the boundaries of what could be feasible if adequate options and investment were available for transforming agriculture and livestock for the benefits of mankind and the environment. Imagine a world with broad implementation and distribution of key vaccines, nitrogen fixing crops, algae as feed, protein synthesis from bacteria, and solar recycling of nitrogen and phosphorus.

We investigate transformative options for agriculture:

  • In work by Herrero et al. (2020), we identify technologies that are critical for the profound transformation the food system needs, assess their readiness and propose eight action points that could accelerate the transition towards a more sustainable food system. We argue that the speed of innovation could be significantly increased with the appropriate incentives, regulations and social licence.
  • In work by Van Zanten et al. (2018), we show that livestock fed on leftover food and grass resources could provide much of our daily protein, while minimising negative impacts on the environment. We found that 9-23 g per capita of animal protein per day could be produced in this way, which is significant considering that a human needs about 50 g protein per capita per day.
  • In work by Pikaar et al. (2018) we show that feeding livestock with microbial protein could reduce deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, and nitrogen losses from croplands.
  • In work by Pikaar et al. (2017) we investigate the potential of microbial protein for the production of high quality animal and human feed. This process bypasses land-based agriculture and minimises significant nitrogen losses to the environment and has no need for genetic engineering.
  • In work by Walsh et al. (2015) we quantify emissions pathways when microalgae is used as a feedstock. We estimate this could free up to two billion hectares of land currently used for pasture and feed crops.

Contact Mario Herrero for more information.