Globally, food and natural resource production is going through the biggest change since the industrial revolution. Rather than merely focussing on improved and cheaper production, current changes are driven by a maelstrom of influences, many of them with sustainability at heart.
From concerns over food security and dietary health, to choosy customers with increased awareness of climate change impacts and to agtech that uses water and energy more efficiently. Join me on a journey of exploration and wonder as we navigate through these forces and their sustainable and technology solutions. Hear about encouraging bees back into our farms to sustainably increase crop yields; using DNA tracing to eliminate illegally logged timber from global supply chains; reducing food waste through transformational conversion into nutraceuticals and cosmetics; and harnessing the biofoundry of plant cells to produce new proteins, pharmaceuticals and biodegradable materials that will ultimately allow us to live on Mars.
Edited transcript from the Study Australia Masterclass Series
Hello. I’m Professor Andy Lowe, based here at the University of Adelaide, and welcome to my Study Australia Masterclass. I’m a biologist by training and specialise in genetic resources and the dynamics of biodiversity, genomics and ecosystems, particularly forests.
Globally, food and natural resource production is going through its biggest change since the Industrial Revolution. But unlike previous periods, todays changes are a complex mix of new technologies and global drivers that are changing food production systems, and many of those are focused on sustainability issues.
We’re going to be taking an exciting journey of discovery in todays Masterclass, looking at how we can reintroduce bees onto farms, use DNA to track illegally logged timber in supply chains, transform food waste into useful products, and how we can harness the cellular mechanism of plants and animals to produce the foods of the future.
So, let’s take a look at some of the key drivers that are changing our food production system.
THE CHANGING LANDSCAPE OF FOOD AND FIBRE PRODUCTION SYSTEMS
We know there are many issues around food security. Our global population is growing and is estimated to reach 9 billion by the year 2050. We’re producing enough food. It’s just not being distributed equitably around the planet. We’re also seeing incredible changes in demography. The proportion of ‘middle-class’ families across the world is increasing, and they express their new money and choices through food. And this group are becoming choosier. People want to eat better. They want to eat organic foods. They want to eat locally. They want to eat sustainably produced foods. And that consumer choice is having a massive influence on food production systems.
At the same time, the food production systems that we rely on are driving waves of environmental devastation across the planet. Global systems are changing. We’re having economic crises, global pandemics, and these are all affecting the way that we move foods and trade food around the world. And the other key driver is really around technology and the role that technology can play in helping to solve some of these solutions (see post State of Innovation).
Technology in the context of agriculture – AgTech – comes in many different forms. We might have robots on the grounds lasering out weeds. We might have drones that are surveying the fields and the growth of those plants. We might use computer vision to capture that imagery, and we might have a network of sensors or the ‘Internet of Things’ around farms that are capturing information and processing that information to deliver decisions up to farmers so they can best optimise their production. The dream is to have a fully automated farm that the farmer can just drive from their kitchen while they’re making a cup of tea and the drones are out there in the field doing the hard work. Well, we’re probably a few years away from that at the moment, but it’s coming.
A lot of technology solutions are being driven by sustainability outcomes. And when we look at where technology is being applied, we see issues that are tackled around energy consumption, more efficient use of water, and reduced inputs into farming, particularly reducing pesticide and herbicide use that will allow farms to move towards organic production and open up new markets in discerning locations (see post The agtech revolution is here).
We’ve recently had COP26 in Glasgow, and you might have your own opinions on how successful that was, but its clear that there is this increasing awareness of the importance of sustainability that’s influencing thoughts and action around the globe. An important framework in this context are the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. These goals aim to highlight and ultimately achieve sustainability in key sectors. Food production is one of those. Zero poverty is another,. Gender equity, education for all, these are all key milestones of sustainable societies. But we also need to achieve sustainability around life on earth, life in the sea, and climate adaptation as well (see post Having our cake). And achieving sustainability is around balancing these outcomes and pressures, without diminishing quality of life.
It sounds like an impossible task, but if we demand solutions for sustainability challenges, then investment and technology gets applied into these areas. So there’s a very intricate and complex relationship between consumer demands and technology and sustainability solutions.
Let’s consider for a moment the scale of environmental degradation that we’ve wrought upon the earth.
Sounds a bit dramatic. Well it is a bit dramatic. 80% of all land clearance has been driven by the agricultural sector, and mainly cleared for food production. Of course, we need to eat. We need that food production to sustain the 7 billion people that are currently on earth, but we’re running out of land to sustainably support eight, nine, even 10 billion people. In addition existing farmland is becoming less productive on average due to environmental degradation problems.
In addition, we’ve driven to extinction large numbers of species. Many of those species haven’t even been described yet. They’re called the ‘dark taxa’ – a bit like the dark matter in the universe, we know they’re there we just haven’t seen them yet. We haven’t put a name to many of these species and many will go extinct before we even knew they existed. Many of those species will be in the Amazon, the Congo Basin, in Indonesia, these large tropical rainforests that harbour more than 50% of life on land on this planet. But also, we’ve wrought a broad range of environmental degradation on all of earths ecosystems.
In fact if we were to take all the degraded areas on earth and put them together in one place it would make a pretty large continent. Let’s for sake of argument call this continent the ‘Federated States of Degradia’. So how big would this nation state be? Well, it would be larger than Russia, and it would be populated by more than 3 billion of the most disadvantaged peoples on earth (see post The Federated States of Degradia).
SOLUTIONS TO ENVIRONMENTAL DEGRADATION – HARNESSING ECOSYSTEM SERVICES
We need to reverse this environmental degradation, and there are important large-scale initiatives in place to do just that. The Bonn Challenge for example, is aiming to restore and revegetate many of these degraded areas. And we’ve just entered the decade of restoration as declared by the United Nations. However we are only really at the first stage of addressing these issues, but at least we’ve recognised the problem.
Part of the solution is being able to harness the ecosystem services that we take for granted from our natural systems and environments. Ecosystem services are basically the life support system that the planet provides us with. It’s the clean air, the clean water, the foods, the materials for building, it’s provision of medicines, and it’s also the kind of physical, mental, and wellbeing that we get by spending time in nature. It’s also our cultural associations with our place on earth.
But a lot of land degradation has also impacted these ecosystem services. Ecosystem services have been significantly impacted in 50% of agricultural systems. There’s a chance a chance to farm in a different way that design systems to encourage, develop, and harness the benefits of ecosystem services towards a sustainability solution.
The livestock industry and carbon farming
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the livestock industry has been getting a lot of heat recently. Charges levied include excess greenhouse gas emissions and overuse of water. And some of these charges are true. A large proportion of the greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture come from livestock rearing and water use can be relatively inefficient, but that’s also because many livestock systems are rain fed . They’re not intensive agricultural systems. They’re not irrigated systems. So they’re not using more water than just falls from the sky.
Many of livestock systems are very extensive, particularly in the arid interior of the country – the rangelands. The rangelands cover about 80% of Australia and rainfall is generally below 350 millimetres. Farming in these sector doesn’t permanently plant crops. Livestock is grazed around the landscape as different vegetation flushes with the seasons. The opportunity in many of these extensive systems is to combine agriculture with other ways of managing and living off the land. Carbon farming is one option that is now being explored seriously. In some locations it is cost effective to reduce livestock stocking rates to increase the carbon sequestration rate of vegetation and below ground carbon sinks. Harnessing this ecosystem service also leads to a number of other fertility, water course purity and livestock protection benefits. It’s a win-win scenario (see post Protein is the new black).
Harnessing pollination services to reverse the global bee decline
Let’s look at another ecosystem service – pollination. We’re seeing globally that bee populations are disappearing. Pesticide usage, pests and diseases are causing what’s known as the ‘great bee decline’. One of the reasons we’d want to maintain bees is to preserve the pollination services that bees provide (for free!). Many of the fruit and vegetables we consume require bees and other pollinators to transfer pollen between plants and produce the seed and fruit we enjoy so much, like apples, berries, mangoes to name a few.
If we don’t have bees, then we don’t have these crops and we don’t have their food products.
So what do we do if we don’t have enough bees in our farmscapes? Well we can either bring in hives of European honey bees or we can think about designing landscapes to support native bees.
We’ve been working on a project here at the University of Adelaide to design hedgerows around pollination dependent crops to encourage native bees back into the landscape. We have somewhere in the region of 1,500 native bees here in Australia, that’s an awful lot of species. But we’ve seen a big decline in those species mainly because of the removal of habitats (see post Buzz around pollinators).
Currently many of the pollination services offered here in Australia are supplied by European honeybees, which were introduced decades ago to help with pollination and honey production. But recently we’ve seen the Varroa mite decimate European honeybee populations around the world, and its only a matter of time before that threat hits Australia. Native bees here in Australia aren’t affected by Varroa mite. So if we can establish plantings around pollination dependent crops that improve and increase native bee populations, then we’re going to be able to make those systems much more robust and resilient (see post Reversing the great global bee decline).
Designing effective pollinator habitat requires a couple of tricks, which have been worked out through research. One trick is have native vegetation flowering around the time of crop flowering, but not at the same time. Synchronous flowering is likely to lead to the bees staying on the diverse vegetation, not moving onto the crop. Also plantings need to start flowering quite early in the season. That way bee numbers can built up in time for crop flowering, ensuring maximum pollination. It’s important that there’s a continuous food source and habitat source for bees in the landscape so they can overwinter and maintain populations for the next year.
This work has led to the development of an app allowing farmers to trial planting designs on their properties (see post How do we engage farmers in conservation). So far, we’ve designed the system to work with apples and pears here in the Adelaide Hills, but also with lucerne seed and other broadacre crops that’s occur further east and into New South Wales and Victoria.
FIGHTING FOOD FRAUD AND WASTE
A key area where sustainability interacts with technology solutions is on the issue of food fraud. Food fraud is a big issue globally. There’s approximately $50 billion worth of food fraud going on every year around the world. In one recent example, 14,000 bottles of wine being imported from Australia were purported to come from one of our most famous wineries, Penfolds wine. The label on these wines actually said, Benfolds, not Penfolds, but being sold into a non-English-speaking market it’s possible to fool the market because the look and the script of the label was the same as a Penfolds’ wine. So not technically claiming to be Penfolds, claiming to be Benfolds, but still fraud.
If you look at the consumer demand side of these issues, if customers are spending money on premium food, they want to be sure that they’re getting the food that it says on the label. Different technologies are in place to help police food supply chains. Markers can be put into food or on packaging that can act as tracers in supply chains. You might use edible inks, or you might use some other kind of marker that can be identified quickly and easily within packaging. You want might use a blockchain so you know every point that a particular product has been through in a supply chain, and you can trace that through digital tracing technology. Or you might actually analyse some chemical or some DNA profile within the foods to trace back origin. Often several of these technologies are used together and can be used, for example, to verify that you’re eating tuna and not dolphin for seafood products (see post Food fraud is big business).
Using fraud detection technologies to help stop illegal logging
Here at the University of Adelaide, we’ve been developing many of these scientific test for application into timber supply chains, largely to stop illegal logging. About 30 to 40% of timber traded internationally is illegally logged in some form. The global timber trade is worth about $180 billion so that puts the trade in illegal forest products up there as one of the most lucrative illegal crimes on earth, alongside illegal arms, drugs and people trafficking. Also, the problem with illegal logging is not only around buying the wrong products or potentially buying a threatened or endangered species. Illegal logging removes revenue from timber producing countries by introducing illegally logged products that often aren’t part of the revenue stream for those countries. This activity also drives conflict with forest dwelling communities, many of which just don’t have the capacity to combat these types of pressures and can have their livelihoods and homes removed.
There are several different DNA-based technologies that can be used (see post behind the scenes work to stop illegal logging). The first is identifying the species of timber. We’ve developed a range of species verification tests for the top 250 traded species. These methods have been applied with the Australian Government to police timber import supply chains. In a series of ‘blind shopping’ tests – where timber sellers are asked to specify the species and origin of timber for sale. These claims can then be checked using DNA verification technologies. We found that 40% of the claims around species origin for timber imports in 2020 were false. Whilst it doesn’t necessarily mean that the timber is illegally sourced, it probably does mean that the timber supplier doesn’t know exactly what timber is in that supply chain.
The second set of methods can be used to verify geographic origin – does a wood product come from a particular country. These DNA tests have been implemented for many premium and high-value timber species, such as teak in Myanmar, but also has a complex interaction with socioeconomic problems. It’s not just a case of banning timber supply chains. If you ban that timber supply chain, there are many communities and forestry workers that are some of the lowest paid within a country that will be decimated by that type of action. So being able to support legal and sustainable forest practises is really the aim here.
And the third set of methods use DNA fingerprinting to identify the tree a piece of timber came from. I was rung up about a few years ago by US Forest Service officer, Ron Malamphy. Ron had seized some logs of big leaf maple from a local timber yard in Washington State. He suspected that the timber had been sourced from a local National Park as he’d seen some trees that had been felled about a week before. We conducted DNA profiling of the felled trees and also about 400 other trees around the region to build up a map of a genetic variation for the area. We also genotyped the timer seized by Ron and were able to show that it matched at least one of the felled trees from the National Park. This evidence was used in a court case to prosecute four people who were convicted under the recently re-aligned Lacey Act (see post If a tree falls in a forest).
So this technology is being implemented and its really is helping to tackle some critical sustainability issues. But tackling these issues also require global cooperation. Timber supply chains are often very, very complex with multiple points within the supply chain and often, processing points. So it’s not only a question of developing the technologies to verify the claims, but a policy framework that can provide the support and prosecutions, but also a deep knowledge of supply chains and when and where verification and certification claims and checks need to be undertaken to effectively police and eliminate illegally logged products (see post Science can identify illegally logged timber, so lets start implementing).
Transforming food waste
Globally, estimates are that about 1/3 of all food is wasted. That’s about 1.4 billion tonnes of food. It’s unforgivable that food is wasted when we’re also facing starvation issues in some parts of the world. There are many things that can be done about food waste. Starting with encouraging supermarkets to relax very stringent standards of particularly fruits and vegetable quality. You might’ve seen the odd bunch at some supermarkets that sells misshapen fruits and vegetable. That’s a good thing. Those perfectly edible fruits or vegetables might have ended up as waste but are now ending up on shop shelves.
Across the pyramid of food – from high value, processed products to field-based production – different opportunities occur to prevent food waste across supply chains. Processed foods can be recycled and reused. Farm production can be diverted into other supply chains, such as animal feed, or in some cases, can actually be converted into a high value product that is not food (see post Creating opportunity from food waste).
Here in Adelaide, we house the Cooperative Research Centre for Fight Food Waste, established with an investment of about $65 million from the federal government and over 50 industry partners, all working together to solve some of these food waste issues. The centre produces practical recommendations on how to reduce and eliminate food waste in supply chains. The centre also looks at opportunities to transform food waste. For example, lycopenes and other vitamins can be harvested and concentrated from food waste and used for nutraceutical or cosmetic products, potentially elevating the value of those products into a premium product.
The centre also has a key focus on engagement strategy – offering food waste reducing options for farmers, suppliers, supermarkets, and consumers. Being able to change behaviour is at least as important as technology solutions (see post Food waste is a big global issue).
DUAL DRIVERS – EXTENSIFICATION VS INTENSIFICATION
We talked earlier about the extensive nature of livestock and food production and opportunities for combining with ecosystem services such as carbon and pollination. But we’re also seeing globally a change towards a dichotomy between more sustainable practices in extensive farming, and more intensive farming production closer to population centres. And the interesting change around these systems is also these are often linked with our dietary changes.
The influence of consumer choice
One of the challenges for the livestock sector is increasing consumer awareness around meat over-consumption and potential dietary problems. Overconsumption of meat, particularly saturated fats, has driven a wave of non-communicable disease related to obesity, diabetes, strokes, and heart attacks. And this awareness is driving some interesting changes in food demand.
We’re seeing an increasing shift away from an omnivore diet, balancing meat and vegetables towards vegetarianism and in more extreme cases, veganism (see post Milking the plants). But these aren’t the only changes. Many people are opting not to eat meat for a particular meal, known as flexitarianism. The rise of the flexitarian is one of the key changes in the food sector at the moment. And when you’re seeing large burger chains like Hungry Jack’s, respond to this driver by offering vegetarian burgers, the ‘Rebel Burger’, then you know that that demand from consumers is influencing supply chains.
If this trend continues it will change meat production patterns, those producers able to demonstrate a sustainable system of production, for example through carbon farming, are likely to be able to ‘premiumise‘ their product and increase profitability.
We’re also seeing drivers of intensified production linked with changes away from animal-based protein production. Plant-based protein is a new market, which has exploded in the last five years. A sophisticated range of processing techniques have ben developed to make plant-based products almost indistinguishable from animal products. The Impossible Burger, for example, claims that it bleeds like a cow and uses a product called heme, which looks and tastes a bit like blood within meat burgers.
It’s quite an extreme solution to create something that is so close to an animal product. For a flexitarian, they might just want a plant option, but don’t want to change the taste. Although many plant-based products are incorporating more ‘planty’ flavours into our diets. And over time, we’ll be likely to change our flavour preference.
The rise of synthetic biology
Intensive production of pulses and other plants is helping satisfy the plant-based protein market, but microbial and fungal protein production are also filling the demand for alternative protein (see post Alternative protein sources). Animal meat production is also moving away from the cow in the field to lab-based production. Cells harvested and then grown in nutrient vats with growth hormones allow muscle tissue cells to be harvested and compacted into a patty to form burgers or other mince-based product. It tastes like animal tissue because it is, it hasn’t come from an animal.
Although the cost of this process is still relatively high, the costs are rapidly decreasing. And the cost of a lab grown meat is likely to achieve a five to ten dollar per kilo mark, which makes it very competitive in the protein marketplace.
We’re really getting to a situation where we’re harnessing and manipulating the biofoundry of plant and animal cell production. We’re coopting cellular mechanisms and changing the kind of products that can be produced – known as synthetic biology. And it’s not only foods that can be produced this way, it includes a range of pharmaceuticals and medicinal products and also biodegradable plastics.
Ultimately, it’s this type of technology combined with intensive production, whether that be intensive glasshouses, vertical farming, urban farming, that will allow us to move into off world colonies. Food production harnessing synthetic biology will ultimately allow us to colonise Mars.
IT’S A WRAP
So, we’re coming to the end of this Study Australia Masterclass. We’ve been through a bit of a tour de force of some of the major changes that are underway in food production systems and seen how technology and sustainability is at the basis of many of those changes. But to keep advances moving, we really need to understand the technology piece. We need to understand what and where it can be applied, and need to help keep track of the developments within the sector. Lifelong learning, training and education is part of that piece. Training in the food industry to understand and adopt appropriate technologies is key.
And as John Kerry, US Secretary of State said at the recent Global Table event in Melbourne, “We need to make sure that the UN sustainability goals are being supported through the application of technology to achieve true sustainability.” That’s the only way that we’re going to be able to bring this whole system together to achieve these global sustainability targets (see post Taking a seat at the global table).
I’m Andrew Lowe from the University of Adelaide. And thank you for listening to my Study Australia Masterclass.