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    What we'll eat on a warmer planet

    enJuly 05, 2024

    Podcast Summary

    • Food production and climate changeThe food industry and agriculture significantly contribute to climate change, but there are ongoing efforts to change the way we grow and consume food to reduce its environmental impact and secure food for future generations.

      The food industry and agriculture are major contributors to climate change, and the future of food production is a pressing issue. Former White House chef Sam Cass, who gave a "last supper" dinner featuring ingredients predicted to disappear due to climate change, emphasizes the emotional connection food can provide to understanding the stakes of these conversations. The good news is that there are efforts underway to change the way we grow and consume food to mitigate its impact on the environment and ensure food security for future generations. This episode of the TED Radio Hour explores how a chef, a farmer, and a biotechnologist are working on solutions to this complex problem.

    • Climate impact on food productionBy 2040, food production for major crops like wheat, rice, and grapes is predicted to decline dramatically due to climate change, potentially leading to massive food shortages. Encouraging climate-friendly practices, developing new climate-resilient foods, and changing cultural attitudes towards food can help mitigate this issue.

      The climate crisis is having a significant impact on food production, particularly for crops like wheat, rice, and grapes, which make up a large portion of the world's calories. By 2040, yields for these crops are predicted to decline dramatically due to rising temperatures and persistent droughts. This could lead to massive food shortages and the need to feed a growing population in increasingly challenging conditions. To address this issue, Sam Cass suggests three areas of focus: encouraging companies to produce more climate-friendly products, developing new foods that help reduce global warming, and changing our cultural attitudes towards food. Consumers can make a difference by supporting companies that prioritize sustainability, even if their claims are not yet proven. Farmers need incentives to adopt climate-friendly practices and sequester carbon through practices like cover cropping and using fungi microbes. Ultimately, small changes in our daily eating habits can add up to a significant impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating the effects of the climate crisis on food production.

    • Food staples and climate changeClimate change poses significant challenges to food staples like chocolate and coffee, threatening losses for farmers and consumers, requiring collective action and advocacy for change

      There are significant challenges facing the production of food staples like chocolate and coffee due to climate change, which could result in major losses for smallholder farmers and consumers alike. Former Obama White House chef Sam Cass, who now focuses on food policy and sustainability, emphasizes the importance of addressing these issues and advocating for change at both individual and collective levels. The food industry and environmental groups are making progress in forming coalitions to find solutions, but it's crucial to continue raising awareness and encouraging more people to get involved. The future of food production is at stake, and the choices we make now can significantly impact the quality of life for future generations.

    • Rice farming innovationThe Whitaker family's rice farming business in Arkansas experimented with zero-grade fields and discovered that rice can thrive without constant flooding, reducing water usage and improving economic and environmental sustainability.

      The Whitaker family's rice farming business in Arkansas, which supplies about one in every three boxes of Uncle Ben's rice sold in the US, started with humble beginnings. Jim Whitaker, a fifth-generation farmer, shared his story of starting from scratch with no financial help from his father and facing challenges in renting a farm at the age of 22. Rice farming has been traditionally done in flooded fields for weed control, but the Whitakers experimented with zero-grade fields, which leveled the fields and allowed them to capture rainwater, reducing their water usage and improving economic and environmental sustainability. Their experiments also led them to question the long-held belief of keeping rice fields flooded and discovered that rice can thrive even when the fields are allowed to dry out. This innovative approach not only improved their yields but also had climate benefits by reducing methane emissions from the soil.

    • Sustainable rice farmingSustainable rice farming practices in Arkansas reduce methane emissions by 79% and water usage, aiming to create a market for climate-friendly rice, and educate and support farmers to adopt these practices globally, increasing yields and reducing greenhouse gases by 50% and water usage by 50%

      The Whittaker family, rice farmers in Arkansas, have implemented sustainable farming practices that significantly reduce methane emissions and water usage, while maintaining rice production. Their "smart rice protocol" has resulted in a 79% emission reduction last year, and they aim to create a market for climate-friendly rice by partnering with other sustainable rice growers. Despite the challenges in getting retailers to sell climate-friendly rice, they are working to expand this practice globally, as rice farming is the largest emitter of methane gas and the largest user of irrigation water. The Whittakers are also educating and supporting farmers to adopt these practices, which can increase yields and feed a hungry world, while reducing greenhouse gases by 50% and water usage by 50%. They believe consumers should pay a little more for this climate-friendly rice, as it can help clean up the climate.

    • Cultivated MeatCultivated meat, grown directly from animal muscle cells, has the potential to reduce environmental impact and offer a more sustainable food system, but is currently expensive and challenging to produce 3D cuts.

      Isha Datar, a cell biology major with a love for meat and the environment, was inspired by a professor's casual mention of growing meat from cells in a lab. This concept, known as cultivated meat, has since gained significant attention and investment, with the first lab-grown hamburger, meatball, ribeye steak, salmon, and chicken nuggets having been created. Cultivated meat could potentially reduce the environmental impact of food production by growing meat directly from muscle cells, rather than raising whole animals. However, the process of growing animal protein into 3D cuts like chicken breasts or steaks is incredibly challenging and expensive. Despite these challenges, companies around the world are continuing to work on improving the technology, with Singapore being the first country to sell cultivated chicken, albeit with plant-based fillers. Cultivated meat could offer a second chance at agriculture and a more sustainable food system, but it still has a long road ahead.

    • Cellular AgricultureCellular agriculture, growing food from cells instead of traditional farming methods, has the potential to reduce environmental impact, create cruelty-free alternatives, and adapt to a climate-changed world, with benefits extending to various food products like meat, vanilla, egg whites, leather, and silk.

      The future of agriculture may not rely on replicating the foods we currently have, but on unlocking the power of cell culture to create new and innovative food products. Isha Datar, the Executive Director of New Harvest, discussed the potential of cellular agriculture, which involves growing food from cells instead of traditional farming methods. This concept is not limited to meat, but could also include growing other food products like vanilla, egg whites, leather, and silk, among others. Datar emphasized that it's not one company or university that will bring this new scientific discipline to market, but an entire collective effort. The potential benefits of cellular agriculture include reducing the environmental impact of agriculture, creating cruelty-free alternatives, and adapting to a climate-changed world. The idea is not new, as we have been transforming food with biotechnology for centuries, from making cheese to producing cell-cultured rennet. So instead of trying to replicate meat, we could be creating the "cheese of meat" by unlocking the power of cell culture to increase food culture. Datar remains optimistic about the potential of cellular agriculture, despite the long technical path ahead.

    • Food Heritage PreservationArtist Sam Van Aiken is creating an orchard on Governor's Island in NY to preserve rare, extinct plum varieties and reconnect people with their food's origins and history.

      Artist Sam Van Aiken discovered a unique collection of heirloom plum varieties and became passionate about preserving them. He's now creating an orchard on Governor's Island in New York, called the Open Orchard, which will grow over 200 rare fruit varieties that have been historically grown in the region but are now extinct. The Open Orchard acts as a living archive and invites people to participate in conservation and learn about their food. Van Aiken believes that we've been disconnected from our food's origins and that the Open Orchard offers an opportunity to reconnect to our past and consider the future of food. Growing up on a farm, Van Aiken initially distanced himself from agriculture, but he now recognizes the significance of this work. The Open Orchard is a testament to the importance of preserving agricultural heritage and reconnecting with our food's stories.

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