Blame the plants as much as the power plants.
Fossil fuel engines are not the only ones needing an overhaul to address the threat of climate change; food production engines need one too. But unlike other carbon challenges, food production is both a climate change culprit and a potential cure. New innovations in agriculture could be one of the most potent carbon-reversal opportunities, not just in the technically appetizing sense of literally eating our excess C02 but also, perhaps even more importantly, in their political palatability.
Food production is a major source of global emissions. Most of the innovations addressing reductions in food-related emissions mimic approaches to other carbon-producing sectors by emphasizing reduction, whether it’s the carbon footprint of fertilizers or transport, or changing the nature of food demand itself, such as reducing food waste or meat consumption. However, these efforts, while critical, are still working only half of the global carbon equation.
The climate change algebra at its most fundamental level is a chemical imbalance. Industrialization drives powerful engines to turn highly concentrated fossil plant matter (fossil fuels) into carbon gases faster than the much more dispersed, and much less powerful, photosynthetic engines of their present-day descendants can remove it from the atmosphere.
This notion of balance, taken to its logical conclusion, raises an obvious but seldom posed question: What if in addition to planting more trees and reducing emissions to rebalance the carbon equation, innovation took a page from fossil fuels, and concentrated the plant power itself? In the same way we figured out how to compress the power of 250 horses under the hood of a car and accelerate emissions, could we similarly concentrate the photosynthetic power of hundreds of acres of agriculture into an area the size of a football field, to speed up the reduction?
Something like this will need to be done anyway to meet the upgraded food requirements of a global population that is projected to reach almost 10 billion people by 2050, a task made more difficult since agriculture is one of the sectors already most hurt by climate change. We can’t rely on our previous trick of throwing land, fossil-fuel-based fertilizers, mechanization, and irrigation at the problem either. For starters, we would need an estimated India’s worth of additional farmland; our carbon credit card is clearly overdrawn; and water’s local availability and over-availability (flooding) is becoming more unpredictable by the day.
There is an urgent need for new approaches for food production that can meet this future demand, be insulated from climate effects, all while using less carbon, land, water, and fertilizer. In short, it means moving a significant amount of food production indoors.
The good news is that there is already a rapidly emerging ecosystem around high-value products grown indoors, such as vertical farming, fermentation, and lab-grown alternative meat. The much higher energy and labor costs of moving the outdoors indoors remains an important barrier to wider deployment, but innovation is also not confined to the products found in the grocery produce aisle.
Microorganisms like algae and cyanobacteria are also a promising source of the industrial agricultural inputs that make up more than half of current agricultural production. We have only scratched the surface of their enormous biodiversity and potential for addressing needs ranging from animal feed to bioplastics. Advances in LED lighting, machine learning, and microbiology are well-suited to concentrated, lower-cost industrial configurations, and together can potentially yield as much “crop” per hectare in weeks or even days as is produced by a conventional farm in a year.
Not only could this help meet the future requirements of an expanding population, but many of these indoor farming innovations could be configured to be carbon neutral or even carbon negative, all while requiring a fraction of current land, water, and nutrients. In the same way land and fossil fuels underpinned the first Green Revolution, these emerging indoor platforms could be the foundation for the next one.
But all revolutions, even technological ones, are inherently political, and if the recent COVID-19 pandemic taught us anything, it’s that the politics are as important as the science — maybe more so. In much the same way that vaccines brought (most of) us together again, the real impact of these new agricultural platforms is their potential to recruit more of the planet in the effort to cool itself.
It’s hard to remember now, but fossil fuels were initially celebrated as a key enabler of human progress. Climate change was an unintended, and then gradually realized, side effect. One of the political side effects of our subsequent decarbonization dialogue is the emphasis on personal morality and sacrifice, a sort of climate asceticism, often framed in defense of “nature.”
The political energy mobilized by these movements has been indispensable to our global reckoning on both climate change and the environment. But the moralizing can de-energize and divide too, especially against the backdrop of general political decline. Populist attacks on technosplaining elites, and social media’s widespread privatization and fragmentation of shared reality, conspire to undermine both expert authority and the shared experience necessary to tackle these challenges.
But even if we were able to agree on a common set of facts defining the problem, a common set of global priorities and solutions are another thing entirely. If we limit our efforts to personal sacrifice and defending nature from humankind, it may clear our immediate conscience, but it’s unlikely to clear the air to the extent required and in the time we have remaining.
These new indoor food production platforms, on the other hand, more easily align nature with our human natures. With small footprints and greater water and nutrient efficiencies, they can be deployed almost anywhere — even in cities, where most food is consumed. This not only addresses growing food insecurity caused by climate change, but also discourages additional deforestation and makes food production accessible to countries or regions that are currently unfarmable. Even existing farms could refocus and diversify away from growing only commodity inputs like soybeans and corn to explore the other 150-plus eligible crops as well as more sustainable farming methods, such as crop rotation.
Our pursuit of fossil fuel-driven progress had the unintentional side effect of greenhouse gas emissions and subsequent political dissonance. Innovating photosynthesis could channel many of the same ambitions; only this time, the side-effect can be greenhouse gas reduction and political consonance.
Focusing on plants as much as power plants and innovating photosynthesis can provide a timely catalyst to shift the global conversation on food production and greenhouse gas reduction. In fact, it’s not even necessary to acknowledge climate change to pursue these innovations; we need only to be hungry.
Tim Fitzgerald is CEO of ForeLight Inc., a Cambridge-based company developing energy efficient platforms for the indoor cultivation of microalgae.