Eating Smarter In A Warming World
This story is part of Degrees Of Change, a series that explores the problem of climate change and how we as a planet are adapting to it. Tell us how you or your community are responding to climate change here.
A quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from putting food on the table. From the fossil fuels used to produce fertilizers, to the methane burps of cows, to the jet fuel used to deliver your fresh asparagus, eating is one of the most planet-warming things we do.
And as climate change gets worse, we’re seeing more flooding rains, more heat waves, and more droughts—indicating that this problem in part created by our eating habits is turning round to endanger the future of food.
Science writer Amanda Little examines that future in her new book The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World, and explores innovative ways that farmers are adapting too, from aerial farms and aquaculture to robotic weed pickers. The message is clear: There might be a way out of this, if we rethink how we put food on the table. Read an excerpt from The Fate of Food.
We’ll also be examining the solutions to our carbon-hungry food chain. Stefano Carpin of the University of California Merced is designing a smarter way to water crops, by surveying fields with drones to figure out where to water, and then sending in fleets of robots to send squirts of water from irrigation tubes. He’s currently designing the system for California’s warming vineyards.
Food waste is another significant problem—40% of food goes wasted in this country. Julie Goddard of Cornell University is designing smart packaging that can keep foods fresh, all without the addition of preservatives, which consumers increasingly prefer to avoid. We’ll talk about all those solutions and more in this chapter of Degrees of Change.
David Church in Jacksonville, Florida: What about plant-based meat alternatives? They’re highly processed. I think that would take up a lot of resources.
Amanda Little: Beyond Meat, which is a leading brand in plant-based proteins, runs its pea proteins through a simple process of heating cooling and pressure to create this fibrous structure. So it does take processing, but it’s more sustainable and humane than conventional meats. A University of Michigan study compared the production of Beyond Burger to a ¼ lb US beef burger. It took 99 percent less water, 93 percent less land, and about half the energy. According to the study, the production of a Beyond Burger emits 90 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions.
Ed Whitehouse in Mount Pleasant, Michigan: What is the time frame for lab-grown meat be rolled out and affordable?
The timeframe generally ranges from “a couple years” to “five to ten years.” The startup Finless Foods, a producer of cultured tuna, said they’ll have a product ready for market in 2020, but then shifted to: “we’re not giving public timelines anymore.” Another producer of lab-grown sausage has said they’ll have a market-ready product by 2021 and the Israeli startup Future Meat Technologies has referenced roughly the same timeframe. The biggest brand in cell-based meat, Memphis Meats, has been careful not to give a rollout date — they say they want to achieve optimal quality as well as cost. The cost of cultured meats has come down dramatically the recent years, but it’s still in the hundreds of dollars per pound. There’s little doubt that with economies of scale, cell-based meats will be cost-competitive with, or cheaper than, conventional meats, it’s just a question of when.
1. How much does our food choices impact climate change vs. other life style choices like flying?
2. Is it better to eat imported meat substitutes than locally produced meat?
3. Can food be climate positive (e.g. better than neutral)?
— nielswadsholt (@nielswadsholt) July 2, 2019
Amanda Little: Many of us meat-eaters generate more planet-warming emissions from eating than we do from driving or flying. Broadly, food production accounts for about a fifth of total greenhouse gas emissions annually. Upshot: agriculture contributes more than any other sector, including energy and transportation, to climate change.
There have been claims that you can produce a “climate-positive” hamburger, but the data is vague and the farming practices behind such burgers are very rarely implemented. But there great strategies for climate-positive progress in agriculture, that range from better fertilizer management (chemical fertilizers evaporate into the air, producing nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas) to reforesting unused or poorly used pasture and farmland. See this excellent report by The Nature Conservancy, “Natural Climate Solutions.”
1. What is the relative environmental impact of different levels of animal product elimination? (Just beef, beef + pork, beef + pork + chicken, pescatarian, vegetarian, vegan)
— Alissa Farina (@FarinaAlissa) July 2, 2019
Amanda Little: Let’s compare beef to fossil fuels: if you give up one 5-ounce steak and eat beans instead, that’s the equivalent of saving about 2/3 of a gallon of gas. More excellent deets [in this Washington Post article] Yet another fascinating WaPo piece by Tamar Haspel offers a calorie-for-calorie analysis of the carbon impact of veggies vs. meats. Broccoli, for example, has a higher carbon cost per calorie than chicken and pork. Haspel says: “Beef and lamb are still way worse than anything. Substituting chicken or pork for beef is, from a carbon perspective, almost as good as substituting a plant food.”
2. Are there any veggies that are surprisingly bad for the environment? Are there any veggies with env impact similar to an animal product?
3. Which favorite beverage is the best/worst for the environment: beer, wine, coffee, tea?
— Alissa Farina (@FarinaAlissa) July 2, 2019
Amanda Little (question 2): Yes. Asparagus! If it requires jet fuel. And many other air-freighted vegetables and fruits. Check out this National Geographic piece: “The Surprisingly Big Carbon Shadow Cast By Slender Asparagus” which gives a breakdown of fruit and veggie carbon costs.
Invest in quality science journalism by making a donation to Science Friday.
Amanda Little is the author of The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World, and a professor of Investigative Journalism and Science Writing at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.
Stefano Carpin is a professor of Computer Science and Robotics at the University of California, Merced in
Julie Goddard is a professor in the Department of Food Science at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re continuing with the next chapter of our “Degrees of Change” series–
–about the challenges of a changing climate and how we as a planet and a people are adapting. And this time we’re looking at what’s on our plates. A huge slice of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions– a quarter, a quarter of the total– comes from putting food on the table. And, as the effects of climate change intensify, we’re seeing more flooding rains, more heatwaves and droughts, which endanger the future of food, of growing, farming.
Science writer Amanda Little examines that future in her new book, The Fate Of Food, from supermarkets to fisheries to coffee fields and vineyards. And she uncovered a lot of innovative ways that we are adapting too. There might be a way out of this if we rethink how we put food on the table, she says.
And that’s what we’re going to be talking about for the rest of the hour, taking your questions and calls at 844-724-8255, 844-724-8255. And you can tweet us, as usual, @scifri. And, if you’ve got our SciFri VoxPop app, we want you to tell us have you changed your diet to lower your carbon footprint. We’ll kick it off with Ed in Tallahassee who sent us this VoxPop.
ED: About two years ago, my wife and I went to an all plant-based diet cold turkey. We’d been moving to a vegetarian diet to limit our carbon footprint, but, upon doing more research on the health benefits of a totally plant-based diet and me having a cholesterol problem, made the switch. We haven’t regretted it one bit.
IRA FLATOW: That was a VoxPop from Ed in Tallahassee. Let me introduce my first guest. Amanda little is a professor of investigative journalism and science writing at Vanderbilt in Nashville and the author of The Fate of Food– What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World. We have an excerpt up on our [? sciencefriday.com/ ?] website up there, sciencefriday.com/fate. Welcome, Amanda.
AMANDA LITTLE: Thank you, Ira. It’s a total pleasure to be here.
IRA FLATOW: [INAUDIBLE]. Thank you. It’s very nice to have you because you’ve written something that’s quite important for all of us to talk about.
AMANDA LITTLE: Well, this was a five-year adventure into the lands and machines and minds working on the future of food.
Excuse me. And it stunned me to realize that the main way most people on Earth will experience climate change is through its impact on food. So I appreciate your bringing this topic to your audience.
IRA FLATOW: All right, let’s get right into it. You’ve said that climate change is becoming something we can taste, a kitchen table issue. What do you mean by that?
AMANDA LITTLE: So many of the problems that climate change poses to our food system are sort of in the next 30, 40 years, right? The IPCC predicted that by mid-century, and I quote, “The world may reach a threshold of global warming beyond which the current agricultural practices can no longer support large human civilizations.” That’s from one of the reports.
And there could be a 2% to 6% decline in global crop yields every decade going forward, but population, meanwhile, is expected to soar to 9.5 billion by mid-century. So it sounds like a distant problem, but disruptions in food supply are already evident almost anywhere.
Right now we’ve heard about the soy and corn farmers in the Midwest who haven’t been able to plant their grains because massive storms flooded their fields. We’ve heard in recent months and years about extreme weather disrupting olive production in Italy. I think the headline was, Italy’s Running out of Olive Oil. Also, citrus and peach orchards in Florida and Georgia, apple and cherry orchards in Wisconsin and Michigan, avocados in Mexico, coffee, cacao, and so forth in equatorial nations, livestock operations the world over– so it’s really a very diverse and complex story.
It’s a hard story to tell. But it’s true that this sort of common thread is climate change is becoming something we can taste. It’s a kitchen table issue, literally and otherwise. And I loved your point earlier that we are now beginning to hear it discussed as a politically– as a political priority and a kitchen table issue in that sense.
IRA FLATOW: And you’re right. Absurdly, the greenhouse gases that now threaten the future of the world’s farms are also largely produced by the farms themselves, especially the big, mechanized ones.
AMANDA LITTLE: Right, so it’s interesting. I mean, in some ways, big, mechanized farms create a lot of efficiencies. And they can do certainly economic efficiency, but there are some efficiencies environmentally too.
But the key problems are, of course, huge flows of fossil fuels that go into mechanized food production, that go into the petrol– the fertilizers, the agrochemicals that go onto these farms. And, most notably, those chemical fertilizers can also evaporate into the air to form nitrous oxide, which is a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. We also hear a lot about the methane emissions from livestock.
Anyway, there’s, again, many different ways in which agriculture is influencing climate change, as you said, a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions coming from our food production. But it’s also probably more vulnerable than any other aspect of our lives to these impacts of climate change that are becoming more intense.
IRA FLATOW: Is there one factor of climate change that’s worse than all the others for agriculture? Is it heat waves, flooding, rains? What would you say?
AMANDA LITTLE: This is what’s so interesting. You’d think it was drought, right? I went into this kind of assuming it was drought. And instead I found that it is so various– drought, heat, flooding.
I mean, who would have thought that the middle of the country, which is nowhere near a major body of water, is flooding from intense rains and super storms that can destroy crops or even unexpected hailstorms? Weather volatility itself, just the shifting seasons, can confuse trees and crops and, of course, invasive insects and diseases. We hear a lot about these new fungi that are affecting, for example, coffee production. So it’s really very– it’s really diverse.
IRA FLATOW: That’s quite interesting. Let’s bring on another person on now who’s using robots and machine learning to tackle this water issue in California vineyards. Stefano Carpin is a professor of computer science and robotics at UC Merced. Welcome, Stefano.
STEFANO CARPIN: Thank you. And good afternoon.
IRA FLATOW: Where did this robotic inspiration come from?
STEFANO CARPIN: It came in 2015 during the last California drought. We were talking with some wine growers, and they were expressing their pains with the price of water at that time. And they were wondering if there could be a way to adjust the amount of water that goes to every wine grape, to every vine, because it’s essential both to save water and to deliver the right amount of water to every vine for an increase in quality.
IRA FLATOW: So you use robots to send them out into the vineyards. And what do they do? How do they adjust the water for each of the vines?
STEFANO CARPIN: That’s right. So the idea is to retrofit the existing irrigation infrastructure with extremely simple variable rate limiters that cost pennies and then to shift the complexity and intelligence on a robotic system that consists of an unmanned aerial vehicle that flies over a vineyard, collects imagery. And then we pass the collected data through a machine learning pipeline. And we have trained it so that it can infer how much water is in the soil and in the plants.
Then we present that to a farmer who then indicates how to adjust whether he’s over-watering or under-watering. And then we send out a fleet of robots that are small boxes, 2 by 3 feet with wheels and a normal top. And they slowly move through the vineyard. And then we make adjustments to match the desired condition to the current condition.
We’re in the second year of a four-year project funded by the US Department of Agriculture. So we have a bunch of preliminary results. And we look forward to continue for the next two years.
IRA FLATOW: And so are you finding that you’re saving water?
STEFANO CARPIN: We are not finding that yet because we are not at the point where we can make these measurements. Unfortunately, you have to deal with seasons. So you can only collect data three months or four months per year, during from April, let’s say, to August. But the preliminary data that we collected last year about being able to predict how much water is in the soil from the aerial imagery is very promising.
IRA FLATOW: How big an issue is irrigation? Where does irrigation fit into the bigger picture of climate change adaptation?
STEFANO CARPIN: Well, I believe it’s a big park. For us in California, we have experienced an extreme drought from 2011 to 2015. So it became something that was touching us on a daily basis. And, when we went out and talked with farmers, and we were asking what are your pain points, water was the first thing they would mention all the time. So it is front and central.
IRA FLATOW: Amanda, you write about artificial intelligence and robotics in farming. And it goes beyond irrigation. Does it not?
AMANDA LITTLE: It does. I was astounded to see how AI and robotics are transforming agriculture in different areas. And I looked at one particular innovation by a company called Blue River Technology that has developed the world’s first robotic weeder that can weed crops with sniper-like precision. He sprays tiny jets of herbicide onto weeds when they’re very young. And this could end the practice of broadcast spraying of herbicides across millions of acres of crops.
And I went to the maiden voyage of this weeder called See & Spray, which is the first product on the market. And it was learning as it went. And now the field results are showing up to 90% reduction in the use of agricultural chemicals on the field with this highly– with this precision technology.
IRA FLATOW: Stefano, wine seems like sort of a luxury product if you’re just trying to put food on the table in the future. I imagine that you can apply this to other plants and crops.
STEFANO CARPIN: Correct. As a matter of fact, we see this as applicable to what we call high-value perennial crops. So, for example, also when it comes to almonds, there is an issue about the amount of chemicals that go in. That should be customized on a per-tree basis. So, while right now we’re focusing on water for grapes, there is broader applicability of this technology down the road.
IRA FLATOW: I want to thank you for taking time to be with us today, Dr. Carpin.
STEFANO CARPIN: Thank you.
IRA FLATOW: Stefano Carpin is professor of computer science and robotics at the UC Merced. Still with us is Amanda Little, author of the Fate of Food– What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter, World. 844-724-8255, as you can imagine, a lot of people have questions. Let’s go right to the phones. Let’s go right to Amy in Manhattan. Hi, Amy.
IRA FLATOW: Hi, there.
AMY: I was wondering if there’s any source, online or otherwise, that looks into maybe rates, different kinds of food, maybe even different companies like Shopping for a Better World does on several issues. Is there something where people could easily find out like what the impact of different– not only different foods, but maybe even different brands?
IRA FLATOW: OK, Amanda?
AMANDA LITTLE: Well, there are. In fact, we have put a number of links on the Science Friday website that can steer you toward some really interesting information on this. It’s very hard to give specific examples because it all depends on the way in which the meat is raised or the vegetables are raised.
For example, there are air-freighted asparagus and other sort of tender, high nutrient vegetables and fruits that can have a higher carbon impact than chicken or pork, for example, because the carbon dioxide costs associated with flying those crops to their point of purchase is so high. Air freighting takes 50 times the energy of shipping by sea. So that’s a major, major cost, but we don’t see that when we go and think we’re virtuous, buying the berries and the asparagus, not knowing how it got there. In fact, it actually could have a higher carbon impact then your chicken nugget.
And so it’s hard to say, but there’s really almost no– there’s no debate as to whether beef and lamb are the most carbon intensive foods by a long shot. And we can get into that, but there’s a lot of data on that. And, in part, it’s the methane emitted by ruminants.
They’re also environmentally intensive from a water perspective. A third of all the grains grown in the United States go to livestock. So, certainly, for the most part, the biggest change you can make as a consumer is to really examine how much meat you’re eating and what kind of meat you’re eating.
IRA FLATOW: OK, I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. And, speaking of meat and beef and alternatives, we played a clip earlier from David Church in Jacksonville who asked us on SciFri VoxPop about how beef stacks up to plant-based patties.
DAVID CHURCH: What about plant-based meat alternatives? They’re highly processed. I think that would take up a lot of resources.
IRA FLATOW: And, Amanda, that’s what you’re saying is you really have to look at the total carbon footprint.
AMANDA LITTLE: You do. I mean, there has been some interesting research on this. And I know there’s a lot of concern about the meat alternatives that are coming out in terms of the human health and environmental impact. But, if you look at Beyond Meat, which is the leading brand in plant-based proteins in grocery stores, it runs its pea proteins through this process of heating, cooling, and pressure, which is what creates this very fibrous structure that makes it taste meaty or the texture meaty.
It does take processing, but the ingredients are fairly simple. And it’s certainly more sustainable and humane than conventional meats. The study I was referring to compared the production of a Beyond Burger to a quarter-pound US beef burger and found that it took– and this is critical– 99% less water, which is a major concern going into an era of greater water scarcity, 93% less land, and about half the energy.
IRA FLATOW: Wow.
AMANDA LITTLE: And, according to this study, the production of a Beyond Burger emits about 90% fewer greenhouse gas emissions. So we have to look into this in greater depth. We can talk about lab-based or cell-based meats, lab meats, and the concerns and opportunities there.
But there’s no getting around the fact that the current meat production is unsustainable, especially as we add demand to meet– one critical just quick point is global population has doubled in the last 50 years, and meat consumption has tripled. So it’s not just that we’re adding more–
IRA FLATOW: But you’re also saying that all meat is equal.
AMANDA LITTLE: It’s not. No, no. And that’s true. Ruminant meat from cows and sheep, in particular, is much more carbon intensive than chicken and pork.
IRA FLATOW: And so, if you’re going to choose one and try to have a smaller carbon footprint, stay away from the beef is what you’re saying.
AMANDA LITTLE: That’s right. And, I mean, I’m a meat eater. And I know how hard it is. I live in Nashville, Tennessee. This is land of barbecue. I know how hard it is to think about moving to these alternatives, but the environmental benefits are pretty staggering.
IRA FLATOW: Well, if the cattle producers want to call in, we’re very happy to talk to them. We’re going to have to take a break and come back. And we will talk lots more with Amanda Little, author of The Fate of Food– What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World.
You can call us– 844-724-8255. You can also go to VoxPop. Our VoxPop is SciFri VoxPop if you want to send us– continue to send us your own vocal questions and comments.
Also, on social media, we’re taking tweets, @scifri. 844-724-8255. Back with lots more with our “Degrees of Change” series after the break. Stay with us.
This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow–
–continuing our “Degrees of Change” series about the challenges of a changing climate and how we, as a planet and a people, are adapting. And our focus is what’s on your fork. Our guide is Amanda Little, author of The Fate of Food– What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World.
And we’ve been taking your questions all week long with the SciFri VoxPop app. It’s a new way for you to contribute your voice to our program. You can search for SciFri VoxPop wherever you get your apps. That’s SciFri VoxPop, V, as in Victor.
And go ahead and tell us. Have you changed your diet to lower your carbon footprint? And we got a question on SciFri VoxPop from Ed Whitehouse in Mount Pleasant, Michigan.
ED WHITEHOUSE: What is the time frame for lab-grown meat to be rolled out and be affordable?
IRA FLATOW: Amanda, you investigated and ate lab-grown meat for your book. Can you answer Ed’s question?
AMANDA LITTLE: Yes, well, I did eat a duck breast that was freshly harvested from a bioreactor in a laboratory in Berkeley, California. And I can say that it was in fact edible. I did not begin quacking or growing feathers or anything. So the product is actually in the world, but it’s still in laboratory stages.
In terms of when it will come to market, the time frame generally ranges from a couple of years to 5 to 10 years. There’s a cell-based is what the industry folks are calling it. It’s also called cultured meats and lab meats. But this cell-based product can be applied to beef, chicken, also fish.
There’s a startup called Finless Foods that has said that they’ll have a product ready for market in the next year or two. They’re now being a little bit more vague and saying we’re not going to give a public timeline. But, generally, the range has been sort of in the next three to five years or so.
And the biggest brand in cell-based meat, Memphis Meats– this is where I visited and ate the product– has been very careful not to give a rollout date because it’s not just a question of quality. It’s a question of cost.
The cost of cultured meats has come down pretty dramatically from hundreds of thousands of dollars to hundreds of dollars in recent years per pound. So it’s still pretty expensive, but there’s little doubt that, with economies of scale, this is going to become cost competitive and, if not cheaper, than conventional meats.
IRA FLATOW: Here’s a tweet from Sarah who says, should there be a push for more small, local farms if you want to continue to eat meat? Would that make a difference in the environment?
And I want to– that’s a great point. I want to expand on that about having a home garden. I’m a home gardener, and I produce vegetables in my garden. Am I creating a larger carbon footprint by creating the garden and feeding the garden on my little plot of land versus buying it from a local, larger farm where you might have economy of scale being better?
AMANDA LITTLE: Yeah, I can relate, Ira. I am also a somewhat troubled backyard farmer. In fact, part of the reason why I began to report and investigate this book five years ago is I tried to grow my first backyard garden and failed pretty miserably. And I thought, how are we going to solve these problems, not only existing in our food system, but that are coming if we can’t rely on a critical mass of backyard farmers to solve it from the ground up?
So, yes, the answer is there are certainly efficiencies in large-scale farming, certainly cost efficiency. But there are some potential emissions efficiencies. It really depends on how the farms are managed, right? If you over-apply, for example, fertilizers and other agrochemicals on small or large-scale farms, you’re going to get serious environmental problems, right? I mean, it’s hard to bring it down to a size issue because there are very well managed large-scale farms, and there are very poorly managed small-scale farms.
The other question is agricultural intensity. A lot of the concern is can we increase the amount of food produced per unit of land. And then, on poorly managed or fallow farmland, can we reforest that land? So, yes, increasing the efficiency and productivity on large-scale land while also creating carbon sequestration on other agricultural lands would be optimal from an environmental standpoint.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to New Orleans to Marguerite. Hi. Welcome to Science Friday.
MARGUERITE: Hi, thanks for having me.
IRA FLATOW: Go ahead.
MARGUERITE: Yeah, I’m calling from New Orleans. And I think probably a lot of people know that we have a storm closing in on us right now. And we had really bad flooding two days ago from like a large part because our coast is no longer able to buffer intensified storms. And that has a lot to do with application of fertilizer and like over-application of fertilizer and runoff coming down the river and creating sort of an imbalance in our coastal ecosystem.
But all that’s to say that I think we need to be talking about how we support farmers in transitioning to more sustainable growing practices because capturing carbon and reducing chemical inputs is a really hard transition for a lot of large-scale farmers. And I really support what you’re saying about transitioning large, poorly managed farmlands into reforested area. But we could also transition a lot of that land into better managed food-producing farms.
Kind of all of these thoughts is I’m a farmer myself. And that’s what led me to run for Commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry for the state. And I just think we need to be electing more officials that will help with those transitions because they’re not going to be easy on farmers.
IRA FLATOW: Thank you for calling, Marguerite. What do you say about that, Amanda?
AMANDA LITTLE: It’s so essential. I’m so glad that that listener called in and shared that. It’s so essential to support and elevate and strengthen the support for small and midsize farms and for food webs, local food webs. It’s crucial. And we can’t lose sight of that and that there’s just totally inadequate support for small and midsize sustainable farming right now and helping with that transition.
It’s also critical to make the point that– and I make this in the book. It’s not just high-tech [? whiz-bangery ?] that’s going to save us, right? It’s human innovation, which marries new and old approaches to food production that can help redefine sustainable food on a grand scale.
So I looked at new and old ideas– robotics and CRISPR and vertical farms and a lot of these–
IRA FLATOW: Well, let me bring on–
AMANDA LITTLE: –ideas.
IRA FLATOW: –let me bring on somebody with a new idea. I’m glad you brought that up because that’s a good segue because one of our biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in the food supply is how much food we throw away.
40% of the food goes wasted in the US. You know, imagine coming home and just throwing half your groceries in the trash. That’s essentially what we’re doing by letting the lettuce get slimy, the beef go bad, the fish get, well, fishy.
And I want to bring on another guest who’s working to keep our food fresher, while also preservative-free, through new kinds of packaging. Dr. Julie Goddard is a professor in the Department of Food Science at Cornell University in Ithaca. Welcome to Science Friday.
JULIE GODDARD: Thank you so much for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.
IRA FLATOW: So tell us about this packaging. Why focus on packaging as a solution to food waste?
JULIE GODDARD: Well, so you’ve talked about the quarter of the total greenhouse gas emissions are coming from putting food on the table. And 40% of that food that’s produced doesn’t get consumed. That’s a huge challenge for all the energy, water, and natural resources that go into making that food to begin with, right?
And so you can think about on-farm where can we have some more efficiencies and the manufacturing facility, but an awful lot of that 40% of the food that’s produced that’s wasted happens post-production. So I try to think of it from, OK, we’ve made the food. We’ve produced it through good, sanitary means. We’ve got a good quality product.
Then it’s packaged, sent out to distribution, retail, and then into the consumers’ hands. So how in that post-production, once it’s packaged setting, can we get some new technological innovation to try to prevent it from going bad? And, for many, many years, what the industry has done is use a number of food-approved, nontoxic additives to prevent color loss, nutrient loss, microbial spoilage, and all these kinds of things.
So, at the same time as we’re trying to prevent or mitigate the environmental impact of our food supply, we’re also having a strong consumer demand to reduce some of these additives from our food products. So that’s kind of a contrary challenge where, if you take out all the things that keep our food good for a long period of time, they’re likely to have a shortened shelf life. And we’re actually going to, unfortunately, probably see an uptick in that food waste figure. So what we’re interested in doing is seeing if we can take packaging materials and actually integrate into the polymer structure the functionality of some of these preservatives.
IRA FLATOW: Is this packaging best suited for any special kind of particular food?
JULIE GODDARD: Well, what we’re currently working on is best suited for a liquid, semi-liquid, or kind of gel type product, so anything from a beverage to almost a mayonnaise of consistency. But there’s other so-called active-packaging technologies that we and others are working on that could be used, for example, to keep bread from molding. And you mentioned about different meats and fish and produce to keep it fresher longer.
IRA FLATOW: Amanda, the NRDC has done work showing that the people who eat the healthiest diets tend to be the most wasteful.
AMANDA LITTLE: That was fascinating to me. Yeah, there’s a great report by the NRDC, Natural Resources Defense Council, that called wasted, that analyzed waste streams in three cities. And they found that most food waste in the United States, about 35%, is generated by households.
This is a really critical thing for many of us not just from an environmental standpoint, but from a cost standpoint. The value of food wasted in America each year has been estimated between $162 billion and $218 billion. So we’re throwing away not just resource-intensive food, but also money.
And I think the average American throws out more than a pound of food a day, right? So it’s pretty amazing. And a lot of it is these very high-nutrient, perishable foods that we get ambitious.
I’m going to buy that big bunch of kale. And either our kids won’t eat it or it just molders before we can use it. So, yes, it’s pretty amazing how complicit a lot of us are in the problem.
IRA FLATOW: That’s interesting. And, Julie, what’s next for you? You get this new packaging on the shelves. What happens to the packaging? Is it recyclable? Is it biodegradable?
JULIE GODDARD: Those are excellent and important questions. And so, just like a product lifecycle, packaging has a lifecycle, right? And so how we can improve the environmental sustainability of packaging materials, that can happen at multiple points.
The holy grail, of course, is bio-derived, biodegradable materials with excellent barrier properties and performance, right? And that’s a little ways off. We’re working toward it in some biodegradable research that we’re doing.
But, yeah, so the idea would be that you could create this new packaging material that would have a similar performance, but with this added benefit of this preservative quality, and still fit within current recycle streams. That’s very important of course.
IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. Let me get down to the– we always end our “Degree of Change” with a look at what our listeners can do. Amanda, can you give us a few recommendations on food and our carbon footprint?
AMANDA LITTLE: Yeah, so I’d say three things that I’ve been looking at in my life. And, again, I’m not a very virtuous eater. I have not succeeded in backyard farming. And so I don’t say this as someone who’s really managed to eat a zero-carbon diet by any stretch.
But the key things are, number one, let’s look at our meat consumption. Let’s begin to substitute pork and chicken for beef if we can and, if not, go to these plant-based alternatives that are coming online and have so many advantages. Number two, food waste, this is a huge thing for many of us, first, just observing it and coming to terms with it.
Is your composting making it easier for you to go ahead and chuck that old romaine. Is there something you can do to actually just freeze some of those wilting veggies and throw them into some kind of soup or something else? Can you use your leftovers better? Can you maybe use glass Tupperware instead of plastic, which preserves it a bit longer and just makes us feel a little bit better about what we’ve put in the fridge sometimes?
And, third– I think probably most importantly– think about the public figures that we’re electing to office. And are they taking climate change seriously? And will they help us usher in a new era of climate legislation at the federal level?
IRA FLATOW: Dr. Goddard, do you have any recommendations that you’d like to tell people?
JULIE GODDARD: Yeah, I mean, I think she hit on some really amazing points and certainly about electing officials that are going to continue promoting funding for projects like ours that’s funded by the United States Department of Agriculture. I think that’s incredibly important because that’s really what can look at some 5, 10, 20-year-out research that could help to improve the environmental sustainability of our food supply.
IRA FLATOW: Are you both optimistic that we can actually have an impact on this? Can it go somewhere, Amanda?
AMANDA LITTLE: I am. I think the story of climate change has been too often told as a narrative of despair followed by denial from nonbelievers followed by more anger and despair. And there’s plenty of reason to despair, no doubt, but exploring the future of food allows us to see how climate will most directly and personally impact our lives, while also embracing the instinct for survival and innovation that has made it possible for our species to survive countless challenges for many millennia.
IRA FLATOW: How do you address the argument then– and this is a tweet that came in– that a warmer globe would expand the area of farmable land in colder regions? Have you heard that before?
AMANDA LITTLE: I have. I don’t know if you want to jump in, but, yes, I mean, unfortunately, whatever benefit you might have in added CO2 that would boost plant growth will be severely offset by problems of severe drought, invasive insects, flooding, and so on. So, yes, we’re really, really kidding ourselves if we think that climate change is going to improve food availability.
IRA FLATOW: Well, I’d like to thank both of my guests this hour, Julie Goddard, professor in the Department of Food Science at Cornell University in Ithaca, and also Amanda Little who is author of the new book Fate of Food– What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World. We have an excerpt on our website, sciencefriday.com/fate. Thank you both for joining us today.
JULIE GODDARD: Thank you so much.
AMANDA LITTLE: Thanks for having us.
Christopher Intagliata was Science Friday’s senior producer. He once served as a prop in an optical illusion and speaks passable Ira Flatowese.
Camille Petersen is a freelance reporter and Science Friday’s 2019 summer radio intern. She’s a recent graduate of Columbia Journalism School. Her favorite science topics include brains, artificial brains, and bacteria.
Johanna Mayer is a podcast producer and hosted Science Diction from Science Friday. When she’s not working, she’s probably baking a fruit pie. Cherry’s her specialty, but she whips up a mean rhubarb streusel as well.
Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science Friday. His green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.