Globally, approximately one third of all greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture and food systems. Their carbon footprint includes all emissions from growing, processing, transportation and food waste.
Agriculture is also vulnerable to the effects of climate change and, as the conflict in Ukrainegeopolitics can affect food systems.
Several technologies can already help decarbonize the complex systems that connect producers and consumers. They can also make our food systems much more resilient to global threats. Here are five that we believe have immense potential.
1. Carbon farms and regenerative agriculture
Most food-related greenhouse gas emissions today come from growing food and are emitted when soils are tilled. It is important to know this, because the soils that are left intact store carbon.
However, it only takes a few relatively minor changes in their management for the soils to once again become carbon reservoirs. Thus, planting legumes and forage crops every two to three years, rather than just growing staple crops like wheat or maize, or planting cover crops in the fall to prevent fields from being bare, allows organic matter to accumulate and helps the soil absorb carbon. In addition to helping to slow climate change, it protects soils from erosion.
The idea of crop diversification may seem very simple technologically, but it works. Moreover, a new generation smart farming toolssuch as equipment that uses big data and artificial intelligence, will soon help farmers adopt practices that produce food while sequestering carbon.
Smart tools are part of a digital farming revolution, also known as precision farming, which will enable farmers to reduce their impact on the environment and measure the amount of greenhouse gases captured by their fields, creating a carbon registry that documents their efforts.
2. Smart fertilizers
To turn nitrogen from the air into fertilizerit usually takes a lot of fossil fuels. Moreover, it is not easy for farmers to put exactly the right amount of fertilizer in the right place and at the right time for cultures to use it effectively.
We often spread too much fertilizer. These are then not absorbed by the crops, which generates pollution in the form of greenhouse gas or of contaminants in water. But the new generation of fertilizers could solve these problems.
Smart biofertilizers use microorganisms that have been cultivated or modified to live in harmony with culturescapture nutrients from the environment and deliver them to crops without waste.
3. Precision fermentation
Human beings have always used micro-organisms to transform sugars and starches into fermented products such as beer, wine and bread. But before long, precision fermentation will be used to make many other products.
This technology has long been used to create almost all of the insulin in the world as well as the rennet, an enzyme used in cheese making. The United States recently authorized the use of fermented dairy proteins of non-animal origin – obtained by inserting milk-producing genes into microbes – in the manufacture of ice creamswhich are now commercially available. It’s only a matter of time before the products from precision fermentation only become mainstream in supermarkets around the world.
In the future, if fermentation microorganisms are fed with waste products (such as leftover brewers’ spent grain or starch waste from plant proteins), farmers could create low-impact, high-value foods. from organic materials that would otherwise be wasted and decomposed into greenhouse gases.
4. Vertical Farming
While nothing beats fresh fruits and vegetables, picked when ripe and eaten immediately, the sad reality is that most of the fresh produce consumed in Canada, the northern United States and northern Europe comes from factory farms in the south. western United States or southern hemisphere. The carbon footprint of this long-distance cold chain is considerable, and the quality of food is not always optimal.
A new generation of vertical farms can be a game-changer by using energy-efficient LED lights to grow food locally all year round. These environmentally controlled agricultural facilities require less water and effort than traditional farms, and produce large quantities of fresh fruits and vegetables on small plots.
These facilities are popping up all over North America and in Europe, but more particularly in Singapore and Japan. Although the question of whether current vertical farms are better in terms of energy consumption still the subject of much debate, they are more and more inclined to use renewable energies to ensure a carbon neutral supply of fresh food throughout the year, even in the Canadian North.
Manure from livestock facilities is difficult to manage as it can become a source of water pollution and greenhouse gases. However, if the manure is placed in a anaerobic digesterit is possible to capture the methane produced to make a green natural gas.
If designed well, biogas digesters can also turn municipal organic waste into renewable energy, giving agriculture the opportunity to contribute to sustainable energy development. This is already happening on farms in Ontario, where a new generation of biogas digesters are helping toincrease farm income and replace fossil fuels.
Encourage systems transformation
These technologies are even more interesting when they are linked together. Thus, biogas collectors installed in livestock farms could provide the energy needed to operate fermentation facilities that produce dairy products of non-animal origin.
Similarly, if plant-based proteins, such as those from legumes like peas, are produced on farms that use regenerative agriculture techniques and processed locally, leftover starch can be used for precision fermentation. . While we don’t know if this process can be implemented on a large scale, its potential sustainability benefits are immense.
Taking advantage of these opportunities requires developing agribusinesses that form circular food systems, so that waste from one stage becomes valuable input at another stage. A key addition to circular food systems will be carbon tracking from field to fork, in a way that highlights the benefits.
The technologies allowing to have a circular food economy carbon neutral will soon reach maturity. Within a few years, the five technologies described above should be commonly used.
The world is now facing one of the greatest challenges of the century: how to feed the growing world population well while dealing with climate change and avoiding destroying the ecosystems we depend on to live.
But we should soon have the tools to feed the future and protect the planet.