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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

The Sustainable Future of Food Must Bring Everyone to the Table

How can we feed the world sustainably? Right now, 325 million people are acutely hungry. 35 million Americans don’t know where their next meal will come from. The world’s food systems are uneven, fragile, and only becoming more fragile with the climate crisis.

“When we talk about from farm-to-fork, we need to transform the food system in a way that, yes, it supports our environment, yes, it supports our health, but also that it provides the economic return to all of the stakeholders across the food system,” says Ertharin Cousin. Cousin is the CEO and managing director of Food Systems for the Future, a nutrition impact investment fund she founded. She has worked on resolving global food insecurity and hunger for two decades.

She spoke at RE:WIRED Green on Wednesday about her work, the need for more innovation, and the opportunity to lift up historically marginalized food entrepreneurs. She also announced a new coalition of investment entities resolving to minimize global hunger through technological innovation. The newly launched Food, Nutrition and Health Investor Coalition (FNHIC) will be led by S2G Ventures, FSF, and other partners. They plan to distribute $2.5 billion in new private investment over the next three years.

“We need to bring all of government together to ensure that we’re addressing access to more nutritious food by all Americans,” she said. “More importantly, we need to bring all of society together to address these issues.”

Cousin was joined in the session by other experts inspiring action on food insecurity: Doria Robinson, executive director of Urban Tilth, who spoke about community-based agriculture; Kayla Abe, cofounder of a climate-change-fighting restaurant and natural wine bar in San Francisco called Shuggie’s Trash Pie + Natural Wine; Isha Datar, executive director of cell-based foods nonprofit New Harvest; Beth Zotter, cofounder and CEO of Umaro Foods, which uses offshore seaweed farms to cultivate bacon; and Magi Richani, founder and CEO of plant-based dairy firm Nobell Foods.

Together, each painted a picture of the future of food that prioritized accessibility, innovation, and collaboration.

Each year, natural disasters and human conflicts threaten people with food insecurity and hunger. “People will say, ‘These are all natural disasters, we had these occurrences long before we were addressing a climate crisis,’” Cousin said. “But the reality is: They’re more erratic, the challenges are coming much more frequently, and impacting more of our food system, more people in their lives because of the climate crisis.”

Our food systems themselves also play a role—contributing about 25 percent of all greenhouse gases. And this feedback loop between climate change and food systems has motivated companies to cultivate food more sustainably, and without relying on livestock. Abe explained that for her part, eaters won’t find prime cuts of meat at her restaurant, and that the only meat products she uses are off-cuts like livers, gizzards, and chicken feet: things normally cast off from meat packing and production. Shuggies, her restaurant, uses upcycled ingredients, byproducts, and offcuts to minimize food waste and educate people about the link between climate and food.

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Throughout the session, the speakers emphasized that technological innovation will be a catalyst for reducing global hunger—things like cultivating meat and dairy from cells, rather than farms. “I think that the shift away from animals toward cells for food is actually an inevitability. I think it’s the next level of domestication after plants and animals,” New Harvest’s Datar said in a panel moderated by WIRED editor Sandra Upson. “It’s just a matter of when.”

And it’s about more than just meat: Cheese production is an enormous source of greenhouse gases, just behind beef. “Most people don’t realize that, and our consumption of cheese keeps going up,” said Richani, from Nobell.

The perennial challenge is to mimic nature accurately. “You want your cheese to melt and stretch on your pizza,” said Richani. Nobell’s technology, she explained, creates the same dairy proteins that a cow makes, but with plants. And it melts.

“When we talk about protein, we’re actually also talking about nitrogen,” said Zotter. Oceans are the planet’s nitrogen supercenter, and seaweed can efficiently tap into those stores of nitrogen to build protein sustainably.

Robinson’s organization, Urban Tilth, prioritizes training local residents in Richmond, California, to cultivate agriculture for themselves and their community. She explained how Urban Tilth grew from a community garden designed to bring sustainable, healthy food to the tables of her community, to a partnership with local farms and families to make sure that, as she put it, people’s “plates changed.” Instead of simply picking a few fresh vegetables here or there, she wanted to transform the diets of the people in marginalized communities like hers.

She went on to explain how Urban Tilth supports over 500 families a week with its CSA program, where many members pay more to make sure that food boxes full of fresh food land in the hands of people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it.

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In the future, cellular agriculture may also become more democratized. Datar likens her vision to the brewing and home-brew industry. “That’s what I’d love cell-ag to be, a world where we could all culture our own cells for meat, or milk, or egg production,” Datar said. “You just buy from a store and grow it yourself.”

Another barrier in cellular agriculture, Datar noted, is an ingrained reluctance to collaborate between the hundred-plus companies in early stages. “I think the companies are stuck in a prisoner’s dilemma,” she said. They all know that collaboration and data-sharing benefits all, “but it’s a question of who’s going to be first.”

Cousin also emphasized the importance of joint action, applauding the Biden administration for what she described as a rare focus on global hunger. “This is the first time we’ve ever had a president stand up before the American people and commit to prioritizing ending hunger,” she said, noting that the last White House conference on hunger-related issues was during the Nixon administration in 1969. “The presidents and members of Congress have not wanted to use their political capital to talk about hunger—because it’s hard.”

Cousin’s new investment coalition against hunger, FNHIC, plans to fund innovation, finance building stores in historic food deserts, and back Black and brown entrepreneurs who have solid plans for addressing hunger but lack the resources to scale. “That's the kind of whole of society action that we need,” Cousin said.

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