10 technology breakthroughs that may help feed the world

July 18, 2019

How can the world feed nearly 10 billion people by 2050 while also advancing economic development and reducing the food system’s pressure on climate, land, and water? According to the World Resources Institute’s (WRI’s) new report Creating a Sustainable Food Future, it can be done. This report explores a 22-item “menu for a sustainable food future,” which is divided into five “courses” that together could close three great “gaps” by 2050: the food gap, the land gap, and the greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation gap. The five “courses” are as follows:

  1. Reduce growth in demand
  2. Increase food production without expanding agricultural land
  3. Increase fish supply
  4. Reduce GHG emissions from agricultural production
  5. Protect and restore natural ecosystems

Some items in the menu require more farmers to implement best practices. Others need consumers to change behavior, or governments to reform policies. And still others rely on technological innovations. So which technologies might work? WRI posits 10 breakthroughs with the power to help put us on a path to a sustainable food future in a recent blog post.

  1. Plant-based meat. Beef has some of the biggest impacts on land use and GHG emissions of any food. A technology breakthrough that could reduce beef consumption—while still satisfying meat lovers—is inexpensive, plant-based products that mimic the experience of eating beef.
  2. Extended shelf lives. About one-third of food is lost or wasted between the farm and the fork. Fruits and vegetables are a common food item wasted in more developed markets. One breakthrough to address this is the emergence of inexpensive methods that slow the ripening of fruits and vegetables.
  3. Climate-smart cold storage. Poor storage is an underlying cause of food losses in developing regions, where many farmers lack access to grid-connected refrigeration. Rapidly scaling up solar-powered cold-storage units could help.
  4. Anti-gas for cows. About one-third of all GHG emissions from direct agricultural production (excluding land-use change) come from methane, released primarily as cow burps. Several research groups and companies are working on feed compounds that suppress the formation of methane in cows’ guts.
  5. Low-emissions fertilizers. About 20% of GHG emissions from direct agricultural production come from the formation of nitrous oxide as unused fertilizer breaks down in the soil. Effective, low-cost compounds are emerging that reduce the formation of nitrous oxide by increasing the amount of fertilizer absorbed by crops.
  6. Nitrogen-absorbing crops. Another way to chip away at nitrous oxide emissions is to develop crop varieties that absorb more nitrogen and/or inhibit the process of nitrification.
  7. Methane-light rice. About 10% of GHG emissions from direct agricultural production come from the methane produced in rice paddies. Researchers have identified some common rice varieties that emit less methane than others, and they’ve bred one experimental rice strain that reduces methane by 30%.
  8. Yield enhancements via crop breeding. One of the most important items on the menu for a sustainable food future is to boost yields on existing cropland. One way to do this sustainably (without over-application of fertilizers or over-extraction of irrigation water) is to unlock traits in crop genes that increase yields.
  9. High-yield oil palm. Dramatic growth in demand for palm oil, a product of the oil palm tree found in everything from shampoo to cookies, has been driving deforestation in southeast Asia for decades, and now threatens forests in Africa and Latin America. One way to reduce this threat is to breed and plant oil palm trees with 2–4 times the production per hectare of conventional trees.
  10. Algae-based fish feeds. One element of a sustainable food future is to reduce pressure on wild fish stocks. Fish farms, or “aquaculture,” is one way to do this, but it can increase pressure on the small fish species used as fish feed for larger species like salmon. One technological innovation to circumvent this challenge is to create substitute fish feeds using algae, seaweed, or oil seeds.


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