Are You What You Eat?

May 16, 2018

Why is Food so Important?

Besides being essential for life, next to language and religion, food and drink are perhaps the most significant aspect of human culture.  We typically eat three meals a day; there is nothing else we do as frequently.  Yet, food is going in many divergent directions at once, with megatrends abounding, some of which introduce ironic dichotomies. Food affects and is affected by many societal factors and economic sectors. For example, with locally inadequate food supply, persistent hunger and malnutrition are rampant in the developing world and war zones (1 of 9 people in the world go hungry), while obesity and related diseases like diabetes and heart disease are growing problems (30 percent of the global population is overweight or obese).  Urban food deserts exist in major cities and even some rural areas in America where food retail establishments are too few and/or too poorly supplied to provide good nutrition conveniently and affordably to the local community.

For Nexant’s clients in the chemical and energy industries and electric grid, business has many tangencies with food – packaging and food service disposables, plastic film for mulch and greenhouses, food and animal feed versus biofuels and chemicals, refrigeration for transport and storage, anaerobic digestion of food waste for electricity or fuel production, biochar and other soil amendments, conventional fertilizers, the energy/water nexus as affects irrigation, crop protection chemicals, single cell protein and algae processes, food processing in general, industrial enzymes, amino acids in feeds, food acids, etc.  Nexant's investigations for its clients have reached tentacles into many of the most controversial and promising aspects of food -- from waste transformation to genetically modified organisms (also engineered to produce industrial petrochemical alternatives) to greenhouse gas abatement.

Ultimately, Malthus Had a Point

Between my mother’s birth and death the world population went from about 1 billion to well over 6 billion. To keep pace, the food supply has increased, but not without polluting the planet and depleting natural resources.

A general and fundamental problem that GMOs are hoped to help mitigate is the nutritional needs of this vast and growing human population, and the political and economic situations that thwart equitable distribution. But another is culture and attitude – what people prefer to eat and what they think about food. Ironically, in many Middle Eastern countries, the content of organics in municipal wastes is very high, up to 80 percent, due to preparation of food from fresh ingredients, but more due to a culturally-driven tendency to waste food.  (For statistics, see Nexant’s report, Biorenewable Insights (BI): Municipal Solid Waste.)

Nonetheless, there is probably enough corn and soy to feed the entire world population grown in a few “breadbaskets”, like the USA, Brazil, and Argentina, but as the global middle class grows, people want to eat more meat, and that is a big issue.  Besides starch, of course, a healthy diet requires protein, fats, fiber, vitamins and minerals, enzymes, and other micronutrients.  In the 1970s Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet taught America the social and personal downsides of food production and consumption that emphasizes grain-fed flesh food. Her work did effect some changes in America’s diet. This USA feed-to-food energy flow diagram illustrates the fact that feeding mostly grains to livestock is calorically inefficient. 

Shepon et al., Environ. Res. Lett. 11 (2016)

Food Production Pollutes

Of NPK fertilizers, we can keep building N (ammonia) plants as long as we can make hydrogen from fossil (or eventually, renewable) resources, but P and K are minerals that are being depleted, and most importantly P (phosphates). Also, runoff from fertilization of fields and from raising animals in confined systems has created a vast “dead zone” on the sea bottom at the mouth of the Mississippi, and similar ones at other major river outfalls, as well as eutrophication in lakes and estuaries.  

This picture is being altered, somewhat on the negative side, as more steers and pigs are being raised and/or fattened in CAFOs (confined or concentrated animal feeding operations), but also on the positive side as more of the fuel ethanol byproduct DDGS is being fed, which is more healthful than corn for cattle, and by the counter-trend of the upscale market demanding more grass-fed beef, pastured pork, and free-range poultry and eggs.  However, another liability of industrial farming with CAFOs is massive air and water pollution. For US ammonia emissions alone, the EPA estimates for 2014 that animals contribute a total of 50 to 85 percent.  The total was 1.67 billion tons, with 655 million tons from swine, 540 million tons from beef cattle, 210 million tons from meat chickens, 200 million tons from dairy cattle, and 70 million tons from egg layers. An enigma is that “free range” chickens appear to have higher ammonia and dust emissions than caged ones for various complex reasons, but mitigation strategies are being explored.

Besides ammonia from impounded manure, cattle emit as belch and flatulence “biogas”, a mixture of methane and CO2, wherein methane is about 23 times more potent as a GHG (greenhouse gas) than CO2. Impoundments of all types of manure can ferment to emit similar biogas.

All vegetables contain proteins, but not so much. The broader overall feed-to-protein efficiency spectrum for high protein foods is: cattle, pigs, poultry, eggs/dairy, tilapia/catfish, shrimp, crickets/meal worms, and tofu/edamame.  That’s right, food insects are not that odd, globally. 

For livestock, “free range” may not be enough. Traditional integrated, organic farms have better environmental profiles than factory farms, with either free range or more confined animals. In these, cow flop in the meadow engenders insects, which are eaten by poultry, and all vegetable wastes are composted or fed to swine and poultry. Manure is used as fertilizer and soil amendment. Pigs root in the soil and thus till it sustainably, and so on.  There is a heated debate afoot as to whether such traditional organic farming can feed the billions. Again, it largely depends on how much meat, and what kind, people want (not need) to eat. 

The Landscape and Seascape are Shifting

World trade in food is increasing, accompanying improvements in refrigeration, packaging, and logistics.  According to The New York Times, more than half of the fresh fruit and almost a third of the fresh vegetables Americans buy now are imports.  It was 1/4 of fruits and 1/10th of vegetables being imported 40 years ago.  Similar situations exist within the EU and between the EU and other regions.

There is growing interest in affluent societies in artisanal foods and beverages, heirloom vegetables and livestock, farm-to-table dining, home cooking (“slow food”), and diversity in ethnic cuisines for which ingredients have greater accessibility in supermarkets today. Who was, or even knew a “foodie” or an avowed “locavore” in the 1980s?  At the same time, fast food / junk food consumption increases globally, as the overall diversity of most farm plant and animal species decreases.  We are emptying the oceans of fish and other seafood. Fisheries, the last hunting practiced on a large scale by humans, are being replaced by aquaculture, which carries risks of various kinds of pollution.  And, we are sweeping the oceans of smaller, less popular species to grind up and feed to the few types of fish and shellfish that dominate the market, like salmon, tuna, and shrimp.  Farmed catfish and tilapia are fed soy meal. Many see non-grain GMO foods for aquaculture as our salvation. Fish did not evolve to eat soy meal.  Under development are feeds like single cell protein (SCP) made by fermentation of sugar, methane (Calysta), methanol or ethanol (KnipBio/ICM), or by algae-based processes.  These feeds are closer to what marine animals need to eat. Some of these technologies are based on GMO microorganisms and others are not.

To GMO or not to GMO? That is the Question

Complicating an already fraught food situation is growing food tribalism, also rampant in other aspects of society. Many otherwise reasonable people who tend to base their decisions on science nonetheless identify with the anti-GMO crowd. Marketers shamelessly play to this tribe (have you not seen water labeled as GMO-free, gluten-free, and/or BPA-free?)  It is perplexing that some types of plants or animals that are created by transgenic means are acceptable to this tribe and others they call “frankenfoods”.  But, if you look at most apple, pear, citrus and other orchard trees, and notably, grapes, you will see desirable fruit-producing branches grafted into hardier rootstock. This is also done with some vegetables such as tomatoes. The rootstock would itself typically produce awful-tasting fruit. Are these genetically mixed, conventionally grafted trees producing “frankenfoods” and if so, are they ok because they are simply grandfathered?  Europe and parts of Asia are trying to hold the line against GMOs, but in America, the fix is in – most foods are either GMOs, or are from animals fed them, or are mixed with them.  A similar backlash occurred when hybrid corn was introduced in the US in the 1930s, but the Great Depression “sold” hybrid corn to hungry doubters. Today, about 95 percent of US corn acreage is planted in hybrid corn, producing at least 20 percent more corn on 25 percent fewer acres than in 1930.

What about using nuclear sources for “irradiation mutagenesis”? This is considered non-GMO in the Americas as well as in the EU and Asia, because it is seen as close to “natural mutation”, that is, it is random rather than deliberate (lucky rather smart). What about the new and powerful CRISPR Cas9 technology for gene editing without necessarily going outside a natural genome?  This is just genome “editing”, like with a text or letter, without necessarily cutting and pasting from a different document.  The USDA has just ruled that CRISPR gene-edited plants can be designed, cultivated, and sold free from regulation. The FDA regulates animals, so it is not clear if the same will hold for meats. Likely, elsewhere such as in the EU and Asia, CRISPR-modified crops and livestock will be seen as GMO, but we don’t really know yet – opponents do not generally apply logic.

Other GMO cultured foods are being created that satisfy social, humane, and ethical goals, like non-meat heme-containing “hamburger” made by Impossible Foods, and Perfect Day’s cow’s milk analog that yields fluid milk, yogurt, cheese, and any other dairy product with the same protein assay as the natural product (but lactose and cholesterol-free), without the cow. This might pose a dilemma for the anti-GMO vegan.  Imagine a vegan kosher look/taste-alike cheeseburger. White Castle, the original slider hamburger restaurant chain, is now offering Impossible Foods’ product.  Actually, “cloned pork” is also being developed (a paste of single cells made in fermentations, not bacon and pork chops) that prominent Israeli Rabbi Yuval Cherlow has opined is Kosher. He reasons it is removed from the pig (i.e., not similar to Dolly, the cloned sheep), thus involves no animal suffering, and avoids the “unclean” perception thought to be behind the Mosaic Law and the Halal protocol of Islam.

Other Options

Other non-traditional methods of food production include certain types of CO2-infused greenhouses and hydroponics (soilless growing in a nutrient-infused water bath).  There is also interest in growing various types of seaweed for food, which are traditional in Asian, Celtic, and other cultures. Agricultural enhancements using biochar, other soil microbiome strategies, and drip irrigation are making less fertile soils more feasible for producing grains, vegetables, fruits, and fodder. Systems are being developed to utilize the soil microbiome for crop protection (to mitigate use of pesticides and herbicides), nitrogen fixing in other crops besides legumes, and assist in water and nutrients retention in soil. See Nexant’s Market Insights – Specialty Fertilizers.

The Circular Food Economy

According to US EPA statistics, of the 38 million tons of food discarded in municipal waste, about 29 million tons go to landfills annually, where this mass risks generating GHG landfill gas emissions that may not be collected and used for energy.  Only about 2 million tons is currently composted.  Another 7 million tons is sent to incinerators, where, because the waste is wet, it does not contribute net energy to the power generation, and instead can be a negative factor. Food is the largest single source of waste in the U.S., where we toss about $165 billion worth of groceries annually.  Half of U.S. land and 80 percent of freshwater consumed goes to growing this food, but 40 percent of what is grown is wasted, all along the value chain from farm, to transport and storage, to retailing, in meal preparation, and as discarded uneaten food. 

An expanding solution is to collect this waste from residential, commercial, and institutional generators, often together with other organics in municipal wastes, such as paper, compostable food service items, and yard waste, plus manure, other agricultural or forest wastes, and food processing residues, and compost the materials, either aerobically, to make compost for soil amendment, or by anaerobic digestion (AD) to generate biogas.  This mixture of methane and CO2 can be combusted to produce electricity and heat, or be cleaned for supply to the natural gas pipeline grid, or compressed for CNG vehicle fuel.  The digester produces residual compost for soil amendment.  Or, the food waste can be aerobically composted, along with leaves, grass clippings and other yard waste, manure, and/or sewage sludge to produce soil amendment.  Unlike AD, aerobic composting is a net energy consumer in equipment for handling, aerating, and harvesting the compost. In a landfill, the food waste will ferment anaerobically to generate the same biogas, which will vent from the landfill as “landfill gas” (LFG). Landfills generally attempt to capture LFG, sometimes with mixed success, for flaring to avoid emissions of the contained methane GHG, plus the CO2 contained.  Under the best of conditions, the captured LFG can be treated with the same options as AD biogas.  (See Nexant’s report Biorenewable Insights: Biogas and LFG.)

On Earth Day, 2018, the New York Times Magazine published an article, “Can Dirt Save the Earth?” that features the experimentation of a California rural couple and others in restoring the soil by adding compost to rangeland, managing cattle grazing to resemble patterns of the native buffalo, and by other measures, to result in sequestering carbon.  The science of their approach is not completely settled, but it looks promising and practical. 

We need a clear-eyed examination and comparative assessment of the technological, economic and ethical aspects of food production, transport, waste, and associated activities, which together comprise a significant fraction of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.  Nexant has the experience and tools to do this for clients who are stakeholders in these value chains and those that are affected by these issues.