Farming has been around for thousands of years and has arguably done more to shape human history and society than almost any other activity. Nonetheless, within the lifetimes of most people now alive and possibly within the next two decades, agriculture as we know it will cease to be. This is a transformation that is creeping up on people and will take many by surprise, but we should all welcome it.
Most people, if asked which human activity has the greatest environmental impact, would say industry or manufacturing. Some might mention mining, while many would choose travel (particularly air travel).
However the activity with by far the most extensive impact is actually one of the oldest and most established: agriculture. Farming, in both its arable and livestock forms, has a massive environmental effect and one that is increasingly damaging. Phenomena such as species loss, habitat destruction, the disappearance of insect and bird life from much of Europe and North America, and even (possibly) declining male fertility can all be blamed on modern intensive farming.
Contemporary agriculture in the form it has taken since the Green Revolution of the 1970s and 1980s is one of the great triumphs of modern science and market economies. The food shortages that were frequent in many parts of the world up to the 1960s have mostly disappeared, and the dire prognostications of worldwide famine made by authors such as Paul Ehrlich and the Paddocks in the late 1960s never came to pass.
World food supply is now at a record high. Intensifying food production has done all of this. Yields per acre or per seed have risen sharply. Some of this is due to things such as the development of new hybrid varieties and simple measures like reducing the amount of harvested food that is eaten by rodents.
However, much of it is due to increased energy inputs in the shape of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. This produces higher yields in the short run but undermines the fertility of the soil and also has damaging effects on the biosphere. In addition, there is a worldwide move toward more meat consumption, as populations become richer and aspire to the diet that was formerly the preserve of the rich. This in turn means that ever-larger amounts of land and crops are consumed in the first instance by livestock, particularly cattle.
Currently nearly half of the world’s grain output is fed to livestock.
Ultimately the current trend cannot be continued indefinitely. The pressure that modern agriculture puts on the planet’s reserves of fertile land is close to the maximum we can have without serious and extensive adverse environmental effects. By most calculations, even if dietary patterns remain the same, to feed the projected world population of 9 billion in 2050 will require an increase in output of 70 percent in developed countries and 100 percent in developing ones. If consumption of meat continues to increase, the pressure will be even greater because of the amount of land and produce that will be diverted to producing meat rather than feeding people directly.
In some parts of the world, such as Africa, there is still a lot of unused or underutilized fertile land, but in most of the world, and particularly developed countries, agriculture is pushing up against the limits of suitable land. The U.K., for example, currently uses 72 percent of its land area for agriculture and related activities.
Essentially, the Green Revolution of the 1970s and 1980s bought humanity time by pushing conventional agriculture to its economic and technological limits, but the time that was bought is close to running out. (The man behind the Green Revolution, Norman Borlaug, made precisely this point.) Even then, its effect was limited. It did nothing to arrest the rising pressure on world fish stocks (exacerbated enormously by the lack of property rights or effective management systems in most of the world except Iceland and New Zealand), and most of the world’s major fisheries are on the verge of collapse.
Moreover, increases in arable crop yields are increasingly moot because of the rising demand for meat. However, a range of new emerging technologies mean that not only will this impending crisis likely never happen but also that our world will be transformed. This will lead to an enormous diminution of our species’ impact on the biosphere.
The first of these is vertical farming. This is a technique of growing some kinds of food crops (typically fruits and vegetables) in a liquid nutrient medium in stacked racks in a building. The building can in theory be anything from a shipping container to a large warehouse to a skyscraper. The building does not have to be new or custom-built; some of the contemporary examples use abandoned industrial facilities. The crops can make use of natural sunlight, but this is most often supplemented by artificial light from LEDs that mimics sunlight. This is obviously particularly needed in northern latitudes, much less so as you get closer to the equator.
The idea of vertical farming as described here was first articulated by Dickson Despommier in his 2010 book The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the Twenty-First Century (although he had been speaking about it for some time before then). Since then, a number of people have taken the idea further, including a fair number of entrepreneurs and start-ups.
The technology of vertical farming has been developing rapidly of late, not least because urban cannabis farmers have significantly improved hydroponic farming (growing crops in a liquid nutrient medium rather than soil). (Furthermore, they have been unable to patent their innovations.) However, it has not become commercially viable — until maybe now. The major challenge has always been the very high levels of energy that vertical farming with artificial lighting and heating requires. In 2016, vertically farmed lettuce used 14 times more energy than lettuce grown in a conventional heated greenhouse.
The primary technological bottleneck, in other words, is the efficiency of LED lighting in terms of energy use and output as compared to natural sunlight. However, in the last two years the Phillips company has made major breakthroughs in this area, improving the efficiency of LEDs by a factor of between three and four. The really significant factor, however, is that in the last 10 years vertical farming has attracted a great deal of venture capital in the form of startup companies, and the usual market processes of competition and innovation and discovery are steadily driving down costs.
In the last two years, several large-scale experimental and commercial vertical-farming facilities have opened. These are in places as far apart as Pontefract in Yorkshire, and Seattle. At the moment, while the most recent ones use only half of the energy that previous best models did, they are still twice as energy-costly as conventional greenhouses. However, the trend of costs, and energy costs in particular, is downward, and the trend does not yet seem to be slackening.
The potential environmental benefits are huge. Because the crops can be grown very close to the point of final sale (maybe attached to a grocery store), the transport costs and associated impacts are enormously reduced while the food is much fresher. It is also of higher and more consistent quality, and because it is grown in a controlled environment there is far less of a problem with pests. This means you do not have to use large quantities of herbicide and pesticide outdoors, where it inevitably enters the wider environment and has significant effects on things like insect and plant life.
Because the crops can be grown all year round, you can have six to seven crops a year instead of two or three, so output is higher and spread throughout the year. Most significantly, vertical farming frees up very large amounts of land, which can be used for other purposes or restored to its natural state.
There are limits, which as always are as much economic as technical. It does not make commercial sense yet to grow many root vegetables such as potatoes in this way (as opposed to greens and fruits). In particular, it is hopelessly uneconomic to produce grain this way, and that is unlikely to change no matter what technological development there is in hydroponics. However, the impact of grain cultivation on the world will be reduced dramatically by the second revolutionary technology that is rapidly arriving. This is cultured meat (lab-grown meat, as it was once called).
Cultivating tissue in the lab has been around for decades. The idea that this technology could be used to produce edible meat has been a theoretical possibility for almost as long and is a staple of science fiction. In the last decade, it has moved to reality, first as a curiosity but now as something on the very cusp of commercial adoption. The theory of how to culture meat was first worked out in more detail than mere musing by Jason Matheny in the 2000s (he went on to set up a pioneer agriscience company, New Harvest).
A team of Dutch scientists at Maastricht University in the Netherlands led by Mark Post was the first to turn this into reality and in 2013 it produced and then cooked and ate the first entirely lab-grown beef burger patty (the actual event took place in London). This first burger had taken two years to produce and cost $300,000.
However, the cost of cultured meat is falling precipitously. Memphis Meats, one of the major companies in this area, estimated in 2016 that its beef cost $18,000 per pound to produce. Just a year later, in June 2017, that had been reduced to $2,400 per pound. Last year, cultured meat cost just nine times more than conventional ground meat, and the confident prediction is that this gap will be almost wiped out by 2020. Mark Post was able to reduce the cost of a burger from the original level to $11 (equating to $37 per pound) in just three and a half years.
There are two indicators that cultured meat is on the verge of a major commercial breakthrough. The first is the amount of capital now being invested in it. The other, even more revealing, is that organized interests such as cattlemen are now lobbying against it and looking to use legislation and regulation to block it. At the moment, the chances that there will be a major breakthrough in the next decade look very promising. If this happens, the effect will be enormous. Cultured meat could meet the world’s needs for meat while using just 2 percent of the land currently used by the livestock industry and producing only 4 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions.
To put it another way, if you put vertical farming and cultured meat together, every hectare used by them would free up 10 to 20 hectares of land used for conventional farming. Both would dramatically reduce demand for water, a resource that is in increasingly short supply (mainly because it is underpriced or unpriced, but if it were priced commercially a lot of contemporary farming would become commercially unviable).
Cultured meat in particular would transform the relations between humans and the biosphere. The impact of our species would be lessened dramatically, and huge areas of land could be returned to wilderness as they would no longer be needed for livestock or growing grain to feed animals. Cultured meat is only one part of a wider sector using biotechnology to produce food. Other examples are synthetic milk (and hence dairy products) and chickenless egg white. An important aspect is that these are not substitutes: cultured meat is actual meat, unlike soy products; it simply comes from a culture rather than an animal.
Agriculture is an example of how markets, free inquiry, and competitive capitalism, and the innovations they generate, can transform the way we live and in so doing address and resolve acute social and environmental problems and challenges.
Our lives are on the brink of an enormous change, and something that has been a part of human life (and the foundation of society) for several thousand years is about to be changed utterly and drastically reduced. Yet few have noticed this — yet.