Friday, March 31, 2017

Beware of the techno-optimists!

Again and again, I read articles in magazines which are claiming that some new technology will save the world’s poor or hungry, produce food with almost no environmental impact or make cities independent on that boring “junk space” called countryside. I am astonished how people cling to these news and uncritically spread propaganda from individual researchers seeking more funds or startups needing investors. The latest months it has been new “impossible foods“, the lab burgers (again), 3 D printing, green skyscrapers, aquaponics, you name it. Genetic engineering and precision farming are perennial such tales. 

The romantic ideal of small organic farms providing everyone with healthy natural food is impossible on a planet of seven billion people, soon to be nine or ten billion, argues Jayson Lusk (a food and agriculture economist at Oklahoma State University). In his new book, Unnaturally Delicious: How Science and Technology Are Serving Up Super Foods to Save the World. In his view, not only is it impossible, it is also not desirable as it would mean that we reject the multiple benefits that the modern food system already has given us. And there is a lot more to come if we embrace modern food technology. Lusk presents the readers with stories how innovation and technology have found new solutions for, among others, production of eggs, 3-D food printing, robot cooks, synthetic biology, food fortification, genetic engineering, precision farming, meat tissue culture and food safety. 

According to Lusk, we don’t have to choose between prohibitively expensive organic eggs and eggs from hens held in miniscule cages. Instead we can design smart cages that combine the industrial scale with better consideration of the needs of the hen. Smart cages are just an example of how technology can solve most of our problems. “Sustainability and using agricultural technology is one and the same”, he states boldly – without providing any convincing evidence for it. 

Lusk relates many stories about new technologies. The relevance of the stories varies and a critical analysis is often lacking. Lusk readily admits that 3-D printing of food is expensive, incredibly slow (start your dinner while eating your lunch), demanding (3-D printers require CAD software) and not capable of making most of the food we like to eat - today. But he thinks those are all teething problems. My concern is more that 3-D printing of food and robocooks seems to be far-fetched solutions to marginal problems, and it certainly has nothing to do with “solving the world’s largest food and farming problems” as the jacket of the book claims.

Lusk claims that everything we eat is the result of hundreds or thousands of years of unnatural selection: “Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and kale didn’t exist before humans came along. All these veggies are descendants of the same plant, and they originated through artificial selection.” In the same vein he argues that genetically modified organisms are simply the next step in our technological evolution. Lusk states that the main obstacle to success is that the precautionary principle is taken too far. 

There is no doubt that technology has improved life for huge numbers of people. Plant and animal breeding have given us a variety of useful crops and livestock products – it is another thing if we should call breeding “unnatural”. Mechanical devices and tractors have made farming a lot easier. Food processing methods have made food safer to eat and sometimes tastier (think cheese). Sometimes, innovations have improved nutritional quality and the environment, but probably more often not. Technology and innovation will also in the future sometimes make wonders and other times wreck havoc. Some precaution has merit. 

But most importantly, technology can’t at all solve all problems of our food system. Like so many other techno-enthusiasts, Lusk forgets or neglects that food is a lot more than the intake of exact prescribed quantities of nutrients and that farming is an important tool for mankind’s stewardship of nature. He forgets that farmers and other actors in the food chain to a very large extent make their choices based on profitability, which is very different than making choices based on “science” or best practice. He seems to forget that trade-offs are not only mediated by technology or markets but more often by governments, local communities, farmers themselves or food activists. 

The messages of the techno-optimists is both deceptive and dangerous as it makes people believe that most problems can be solved by technological innovation which in turn make them passive in the political, social and economic arena. Of course, we can always improve technology, but in essence we already have (know) the technologies to feed the world’s population with healthy food in a sustainable way. The obstacles are economic, social and political. And that is where the struggle should be.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

From extraction to regeneration: Food and farming as keys to transformation

Industrial food and farming is based on practices, principles and mechanisms which are not compatible with equitable and truly sustainable development, human or planetary welfare. Since agriculture dominates over 50% of the primary biological metabolism of the planet’s terrestrial systems and food production is also shaping the development of the seas and arctic regions, how we manage food production is essentially how we manage the planet. Almost all major environmental challenges are strongly linked to our food production system.

Most people feel a profound discomfort over how their food is produced and how this affects both the quality of the food and the world we live in. As a response to this organic farming, fair trade and alike has developed. However, these systems are by and large still subject to the endless competition in the market place, and increasingly so the more successful they are, which limits their transformational power. Real change of our farm and food system must be linked also to changes in social institutions. Because of the pivotal role of food and its way of engaging people it is also the best starting point for the building of such institutions. This has already begun with efforts such as community supported agriculture, local food movements, participatory guarantee systems and urban farming.

A truly regenerative food and farm system will close loops of flow of energy, nutrients and most importantly meaning and culture. It will also have to reflect the role of our agriculture system for management of the planet at large. Such a system can’t be based on the capitalist market’s imperatives of endless competition and rent-seeking.

This new path is a one of re-generation and co-production of resources, innovation, knowledge and meaning embedded in new relationships which to a large extent transcend the division between producers and consumers imposed on us by a capitalist market economy. Increasing prices of energy and general discomfort with the results of globalization will assist in the transformation. Like most earlier profound transformations of human society it will develop by a mix of new relations and adaptations of existing components and institutions.

Summary of speech at the 18th IFOAM Organic World Congress 2014.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The lost innocence of the soy burger

All soy in the world would be needed to replace the proteins that we now get from animals. Therefore, the companies that market vegan soy products should not claim that they are not part of the environmental problems linked to soy cultivation. The global soybean complex is sick regardless if the beans are used for feed, food or fuel. 

I am neither a fan of industrial agriculture nor the large scale soybean production which is taking place in the US, Brazil and Argentina. And I am vehemently opposed to the agriculture model by which large animal operations in Europe import soy beans from Brazil to feed pigs or chicken (to a lesser extent to dairy cows and even less to cattle destined for meat). 

However, when proponents of a vegan diet promote soybeans as the main substitute for meat, and at the same time argue that the environmental issues (deforestation, GM soybeans, pesticides etc.) around soybean production is almost uniquely linked to its function as animal feed, I find that it is appropriate to correct that misconception.  

I have done the math based on the database of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, FAOStat. That database is not flawless but it is the best there is for global data on crops. 

The total soy supply 2013 was 267 million tons. Of this 11 million tons was kept for seed, which leaves us with 256 million tons. Of this, 17 million was used directly as feed and 11 million tons directly for food. 227 tons are processed in soy mills, where they produce 179 tons of soy meal and 42 million tons of soybean oil and around 2 million tons of soy lecithin, a ubiquitous food additive. Of the 179 tons of soybean meal just 3 tons are used for human consumption. Of the 42 million tons of soybean oil 24 million are used for human consumption and the rest is for industrial use and biodiesel. 

If we sum up and classify the various streams of use for feed, for food and for industrial use it looks like this.

Use of global soy bean harvest 2013, million tons

Industry & biodiesel

Whole beans

Soy meal

Soy lecithin


Soy oil



Percent of total
77 %
16 %
7 %

Source: FAOSTAT, Gunnar Rundgren,

Thus, approximately 16% of the weight of soybeans is used for human consumption. However, if we consider the relative value of the products from the soybean production things look a bit different. Soybean oil has a much higher value than soybean meal; it represents only 18% of the weight but 35% of the value*. If we take that into consideration as well as the price of soy lecithin we find that approximately 25% of the soybeans are used for food production.


What would happen if we all quit eating animal proteins and replaced them with soy products? The global consumption of protein 2013 was 81 gram per capita and day, which represent 212 million tons protein. Of this 84 million tons were of animal origin (the rest thus of vegetable origin, mainly grains, pulses and tubers, read more in “Where does the protein come from?) The protein content of the soy which today is used for feed is around 88 million tons. If we were to replace all animal proteins with soybeans we would need the same quantity of soy beans that are grown today. A vegan diet based on soy as a major protein source would thus require the same acreage of soy beans that are grown today.



Clearly this is not a defense for industrial livestock or for soy bean mono-cropping. It is also not, in itself, an argument against veganism. In many parts of the world there could be grown and consumed other crops for protein, such as lentils, potatoes, peas. People can also eat more grain, which they did in most parts of the world earlier. Of course that also applies to livestock rearing. There are mainly economic (and political) reasons that farmers in Europe import soy beans for feed. It is not lack of land in Europe that cause the imports; Europe has retired 100 million hectare of arable land because it was been more economic to buy feed.

This discussion focus protein, but in my view the supply of fat is a bigger challenge for vegan diets. The share of fat of animal origin (45%) in the global diet is even higher than the share of protein. In addition, most of the vegetable oil production is based on crops (soybeans, rape seed, sunflower, and to a lesser extent palm oil) where the by-products are used as animal feed. If we were to replace all animal fat with vegetable oils, oil palm and soybean production would most likely expand even more than today. Read more:  Where shall the fat come from?

I make this calculation to correct misconceptions about vegan soybean products. In a similar way I have shown that the frequent argument that meat eating is driving deforestation is enormously exaggerated. I make them to refute erroneous arguments against animals, but I don’t make them in defense of industrial animal production.  In my view it is counterproductive to make general statements about the merits of “animals” or “plants”. We need to look at what kinds of production works well in the many different climatic and ecological conditions there are in the world. In my view, the starting point is local, regenerative, production and consumption.

The global soybean complex is sick regardless if the beans are used for feed, food or fuel.  

*In lifecycle assessment it is common practice to use the relative value of the various streams to distribute the environmental impact.