If you could go to the grocery store and see a list of “ingredients” that went into your produce, the way we can with packaged food, you might be surprised at what you’d find.
Your typical tomato or strawberry, for instance, might have been treated with chemicals like endosulfan, an endocrine disruptor, 1,3-dichloropropene and/or chloropicrin, suspected carcinogens, and neonicotinoids, which have been linked to collapsing bee populations. Now imagine you could also see the true environmental cost involved: the water used, transportation miles, and energy that went into getting those ripe, juicy fruits and veggies onto your plate. You might think twice before choosing them.
We know that eating a plant-based diet is better for the planet — a message driven home in study after study — and it’s a message people have taken to heart. Surveys show Americans are embracing plant-based diets — with nearly a third identifying as “flexitarians” — and 60% consciously reducing their meat intake.
Overall, this is a positive trend. Most meat production has a much higher environmental footprint than fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes. Relying on plant-based foods for our diets is an effective way to reduce our personal impact on the earth. But having a net positive impact is not as simple as choosing tofu over steak.
The fact is, to make the most of this positive shift in eating habits, what’s needed is a critical look at how we grow our food.
Conventional agriculture’s hidden climate costs
When it comes to the primary causes of climate change, most people don’t think about the impact of agriculture — after all growing food seems like it should be good for the planet. But the two are inextricably linked. Conventional agriculture, including growing feed for meat-production and deforestation for ranging, contributes almost a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions (more than the entire transportation industry, which accounts for just 14%). Meanwhile, the runoff from farms — full of synthetic chemical fertilizers, animal waste and toxic neurochemicals used for pesticides — is the leading cause of freshwater pollution worldwide.
At the same time, monocultures of commodity crops like soy — one of the world’s fastest increasing crops — lead to massive deforestation while depleting the soil of nutrients, requiring vast amounts of fertilizer to maintain or increase yields. Ironically, this further compromises soil by leading to acidification and fouling nearby water supplies. Meanwhile, synthetic chemical pesticides applied to protect our food are often comprised of highly toxic compounds that can accumulate in the ecosystem — and our bodies — leading to adverse effects on biodiversity and human health.
And then there’s the added complexity of climate change: the increasing popularity of plant-based diets comes at a time when it’s becoming harder to grow crops of all kinds. Already, record droughts and fires in places like California, which supplies much of North America’s produce, have devastated agricultural communities, leading to smaller harvests and increasing food prices. And studies predict rising global temperatures will drastically increase the amount of crops lost each year due to pests, which could result in additional losses of 10-25% for each degree rise in global temperature.
Growing clean food for a cleaner future
So what’s the solution? The organic revolution is a step in the right direction — it’s the closest thing we’ve got to an environmental and health seal of approval. Yet, less than 1% of land in the U.S. is designated organic. And though more organic farms would do a world of good, the process for certification is challenging and slow.
But there is something that can be done, now. And it starts with bringing the digital revolution to agriculture.
With the environment hanging in the balance, agriculture is ripe for the kind of targeted data collection and innovation that has revolutionized everything from cancer treatment to smart home thermostats. The same mind-bending technologies that, for instance, allow Alexa to order you a pizza can enable us to grow more food — and healthier food — while reducing the draw on precious resources such as land and water, and using fewer chemicals. In short, it’s time to bring farming from the industrial age to the digital age.
“Smart farming” is a radically new update to the way we grow our food. Rather than dousing crops with fertilizers and pesticides in the hopes of maximizing production, farmers are instead drilling down to the level of individual fields and even individual plants to improve both inputs and outputs. Powering it all is the kind of big data and artificial intelligence revolutionizing everything from how we drive our cars to how we make investments.
Already, companies are experimenting with LED “light recipes” to increase yields in indoor greenhouses and extend the growing season into the winter months. Others have developed high-tech sensors that allow for real-time monitoring and response to plant threats or sophisticated tests to monitor the health of soil DNA. My own company develops technology that precision targets organic treatments to plants, right down to the cellular level — improving crop health and better controlling pests. As a result, farmers can use less to grow more.
Admittedly, we’re still a ways away from these approaches becoming mainstream. But bestsellers like In Defense Of Food and Fast Food Nation show that more and more consumers are conscious of what they’re eating and the benefits of a plant-based diet. With this comes greater awareness of not only where our food comes from, but the impact it has on the world around us — and on our own bodies. After all, we’re increasingly cautious about oxybenzone in sunscreens and the BPA that lines water bottles. But we put the plants we eat — along with everything that’s been applied to them — inside our bodies.
Maximizing the benefit of a plant-based diet to the planet, and to ourselves, demands reframing the way we grow our food. We still need to feed the world and ensure clean food is affordable and accessible. But we now have a chance to bring the power of IT, artificial intelligence and other technologies to agriculture — to use data science to take the guesswork out of crop health and, literally, do more with less.