The Future of Farming

Jennifer Leakos
Vertical farming workers
Courtesy of Impact Investing

According to Homer Simpson, “You don’t make friends with salad,” but you might win over environmentalists as more people shift from eating animals to plants. Many diet changes are being driven by consumer awareness of the impact of their food. 

So what does the future of food look like for a world trying to reduce its carbon footprint?

Background: Our food system has greatly improved since agriculture was first developed nearly 10,000 years ago. The amount of land needed to feed each person has decreased by nearly 80 percent since 3000 BCE due to innovations in machinery, fertilizers, and pesticides.

  • These have freed us from working the fields and given us the time to watch TikTok and read sassy energy newsletters. Clearly a win.

Despite needing less land to grow food per person, the total area used for agriculture globally has increased eleven-fold over just the past 200 years.

Global land use for food production, 2016

Global land use for food production, 2016
Courtesy of Our World in Data

Emissions: Agriculture contributes to ~22 percent of the world’s greenhouse emissions, with nearly 80 percent of harvests being used to feed animals. As for meat and dairy products, they make up just 20 percent of our diet but produce the most emissions compared to other food staples. 

  • For beef, this is due to methane that is produced from cow “burps” and fertilizer used to grow animal feed.

Many consumers are already aware of the impacts of eating meat and alternative milks are becoming more common – even Tim Hortons has plant-based milk options.

Environmental impact of dairy versus plant-based milk
impact from producing one litre

Environmental impact of dairy versus plant-based milk
Courtesy of The Washington Post

Alt-milks are more environmentally friendly, and consumers (and investors) have taken notice. Particularly in 2019 and 2020 there was significant growth in plant-based food.

Although the market has slowed over the past couple of years, the industry is still expected to grow from ~$30 billion to $160 billion over the next decade.

Private investment in ~200 plant-based food companies

Private investment in ~200 plant-based food companies
Courtesy of Vox

There has also been shifts in the non-livestock-related agriculture system with several innovative approaches gaining traction:

Vertical farming: Crops are grown indoors in controlled conditions on multi-layer shelves. Although currently expensive, vertical farms can significantly reduced the land footprint and drive more efficiency than standard farming through sensor technology and robotics.

Regenerative agriculture: An approach to farming that includes reducing the use of fertilizers and instead grows multiple crops to keep the soil healthy.

Precision fermentation: Using bacteria to produce specific products, such meat, milk, and even flour. For meat-lovers everywhere, this could produce genetically identical products and replicate the taste without the environmental footprint.

As climate change effects become more pronounced and our food system becomes more vulnerable to extreme weather events, these technologies could make the food industry more resilient and provide alternatives that better withstand nature.

Zoom out: With more pressure from consumers making environmental decisions, there is hope that it will push the current food system to become more sustainable. Some food companies have already started to make net-zero commitments and the United Nations recently hosted countries at a summit focusing on food security and sustainability. 

Collectively, these efforts are laying the foundation for a more sustainable and secure global food system. And as for Homer, at least he was early on the nuclear trend.