America’s Shrinking Farms: A look at more sustainable food production

From by Bonnie Averbuch
America’s Shrinking Farms: A look at more sustainable food production

The United Nations (U.N.) predicts that global population will exceed 9 billion people by 2050. To feed the growing population food production will have to increase by 70 percent, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). One way to achieve this would be to focus on foods that require less land and fewer resources to produce. In a new Collectively documentary titled America’s Shrinking Farms correspondent and documentary producer Charlet Duboc speaks with food innovators across America about alternative farming methods that may help feed the world. Food Tank sat down with Dory Carr-Harris, the managing editor at Collectively, to talk about the inspiration behind the film and the innovators she met along the way.

Food Tank (FT): Why don’t we start by talking a little bit about what motivated and inspired you to make the film.

Dory Carr-Harris (DCH): At Collectively we’re really trying to reframe the conversation around sustainability through the lens of culture. By showing people how sustainable living and best-in-class sustainable innovation plays into the interest and passions that fill their daily lives, whether that’s food, technology, fashion, travel. Through that, really demonstrate how sustainability should become a part of people’s daily existence, rather than this thing that sits outside of it that people have to participate in as an extra cause or by making sacrifices in their daily lives, etc. With that in mind, we decided that this month we were focusing in on food. We wanted to really explore how people are addressing the question of how we’re going to feed our growing population in the coming years. Obviously farming is the main source of food in the world today, but looking at the system it’s incredibly inefficient in terms of the resources used and we’re not actually feeding large portions of our global population. So we decided to take a look and see what cutting edge innovations are really being developed to address some of those solutions. That was sort of the impetus for the film. We decided to start in the U.S. Obviously this is a global issue, but since the U.S. diet is often criticized highly for being very protein heavy, very meat heavy, very fat heavy, with less emphasis on vegetables and legumes, and also having an incredibly unsustainable system in terms of their impact on the planet. We started there to sort of see what was going on close to home.

FT: Can you explain some of the groundbreaking farming methods that you came across?

DCH: Of course! We explored a bunch, especially looking for stand out ones in terms of the impact they could have and the progress that we have made thus far. Obviously vertical farming, which is quite a trendy topic. Definitely one that has been the source of a lively debate, especially around admissions fee and implementability. But it is really an interesting one because of its ability to take place almost anywhere. There have been a lot of articles and discussions about food desserts especially in the U.S. and I think that vertical farming is a great way to address these because you really can, with a certain amount of capital investment and technology, set up in an abandoned warehouse and create a food source in the center of a city, as opposed to having to cultivate acres and acres of land. And obviously, like we laid out in the film, the amount of land it takes to feed just a hundred people is quite intense. Whereas in vertical farming you can feed at least ten times as many more in a fraction of the space. I know a lot of people have questions about efficiency of the vertical farm. I think that there are certain impacts. They are not zero impact, in terms of the electricity used to power the lights and the energy that’s used to create a water system and pump water around. There is certainly an impact. But if you’re comparing it to the impact that traditional farming has, the balance is off. Vertical farming is more efficient. Right now in terms of where the technology is it only allows us to provide foods to specific areas and certain socioeconomic classes, to be honest. Because usually the types of greens that are being produced are then being sold at a higher price point, like microgreens and baby kale. But I think that, looking to the future, this is definitely a method that should be explored in terms of scaling up.

FT: And hopefully you can eventually get more sustainable energy sources, like wind or solar power, to lower the emission of the farms as well.

DCH: Exactly. And the LED lights that some of the farms are using are between 50 percent to 70 percent efficient, which is a big jump. Some farms that have been written about are still using the sodium powered LED lights, which are less efficient. But I think that what’s important to realize is that we may not have solved it immediately right now, but the infrastructure is starting to develop and the complementary technologies are starting to develop that could really push this type of farming to a completely sustainable model. It’s really now about people picking up the gauntlet and running with it. And pushing that forward.

FT: How about the other farming methods in the film - the cricket farm and the vegetarian “meat” guy. Can you explain a little more about those methods?

DCH: Yeah, I think we all know that, like I said, the Western diet is a very meat heavy diet. There has been a ton of research years and a lot of articles written even within the last six months about how cutting back on our meat intake is an easy way to create less impact on the planet. And from that I think people are starting to readily explore alternative protein sources. Beyond Meat’s model is to take the molecular components of meat--protein, carbohydrates, amino acids, etc--and sort of recreate, using plant cells, a similar model. So augment the plant cells to mimic the way the meat cells are structured, thus creating a texture of plant-based meats that is quite similar to actual meat. Obviously the flavor is going to be different, and they’ve worked quite hard to create a new flavor profile -- it’s not like a plant-based burger is going to taste identical to a regular hamburger. I think what they’re really focusing on is creating these new flavor profiles but also focusing on the texture, because thus far I think that’s one of the weaker points of plant-based products, if you want to put it that way, and kind of getting over that hurdle. Also, if we’re working with pea protein and soy protein, it’s a lot easier to farm that type of product sustainably, therefore sort of reducing the impact that that type of product can have.

Crickets obviously now are a much more efficient source of protein in terms of space that you need to farm them and the bang for your buck that you get with cricket protein versus meat protein. They have half the fat and two-thirds as much protein as regular meat, so they’re actually a lot healthier and take up less space. I think is really interesting about cricket protein and insect protein in general is that the rest of the world, well, a large portion of the world has been eating bugs for centuries and eons. I think what the job is here and now and what some of the innovators that we were talking to in the film show is that it’s really mainly an image problem right now. I think that figuring out ways to take the cricket flour and package it into products that are a little bit more desirable is really what we have to do now to get people in the western world to move to a different type of protein.

FT: Do you think that becoming used to eating insects in non-recognizable forms will eventually translate into eating actual whole crickets?

DCH: Yeah, exactly. I think it’s all about learning and introducing these products early on in people’s lives. I think if you grew up eating bugs then it doesn’t seem like a weird thing, whereas if you’re coming to it now as an adult it might seem gross, or bizarre, or just not as appetizing. So I think that if we start the execution process earlier in people’s lives it will just become second nature. One thing that Megan from Bitty Foods said that didn’t end up getting into the final cut of the film is that a lot of the people who she sees buying her products are actually moms from the Midwest because they’re looking for healthier snacks to give their kids. So I think there really is the potential to change mindsets early on. That’s really what we need to start doing.

FT: You touched on some of the barriers with regards to distribution--the cost of the greens from vertical farming and the idea of eating crickets. Did the farmers talk about any barriers with regards to general production and operation, or with getting the farm started, that they encountered?

DCH: Yeah, I think there are some barriers that they’re encountering, like with any new technology. Trying to get all of the basic approvals is a process. I know cricket flour is now FDA approved, which was a big hurdle to get over. And obviously there are economic costs. I think that in order for the average farmer to start working on either a vertical farm or a cricket farm, there is capital investment that needs to happen. But I do think that as these technologies become more commonplace hopefully we’ll be able to see government subsidies for microgreens and crickets instead of corn, soy, wheat, rice, etcetera. And I think that the change that is going to need to happen is going to have to come from that level in order for it to really be scaled up in time in order to see the impact that we need to see.

FT: So right now how feasible would you say it is for farmers to create new farms or to transition their farms into a vertical farm, or mimic one of these models that you see in your film.

DCH: It’s hard to say generally. I think it’s really going to be on a case-by-case basis. I know in the case of Kevin, our cricket farmer, he felt really passionate about it. And Youngston, the town in Ohio where he started his farm, was hit quite hard during the recession. They were traditionally an industrial manufacturing town. And he saw a lot of unemployment and poverty in his town and he really wanted to revitalize Youngston with a new industry. So he decided that cricket farming would be that way. And now they’re selling crickets to local restaurants and creating jobs at the farm, so I think that it is feasible, but there are obviously economic constraints like there would be in any other industry.

FT: Did get to taste all of the different foods?

DCH: Yeah, I did try most of them. And honesty, they are delicious. I do think that crickets really taste like cashews and sweet corn like Kevin says. It’s kind of just a crunchy thing that you can flavor any way you want. The cookies taste like cookies. There’s a ginger spice one that’s really good. And I think that you’re not really sacrificing flavor. You’re just widening your palate and experiencing a whole bunch of new tastes. The team here went out for dinner in New York here at a restaurant called Black Ant where they actually do serve grasshopper tacos and it just sort of tastes crunchy. I’m a relatively adventurous eater, but I’m definitely not seeking out the weirdest and wildest things, and I think that we put a lot of things in our mouth that are not really good for us, and when you think about what they’re really made of it’s pretty disgusting. So the thought of eating a bug that was naturally raised, I know Kevin feeds all his crickets with organic feed, so what’s inside them is a lot better probably than what’s inside really any junk food. So it’s really just about shifting mindsets.

FT: That reminds me of an interesting quote from the film where you said people are going to have to know where their crickets come from, but meanwhile they couldn’t care less about the slaughterhouses that the cows and pigs they’re eating go through.

DCH: Yeah, exactly. And it’s just about not having that double standard and really sort of getting people a lot more connected to their food. That's really one of the biggest ways we’ll get people to start making more sustainable food choices. Understanding where their food comes from, what the production process is like. I think that people’s blissful ignorance about what they’re eating just comes from that lack of knowledge. It doesn’t have to be hard to learn about it. In fact it can be really exciting and rewarding to have an understanding of where your food comes from. It can even heighten the experience of eating it, which I think we can see from all of the farm to table restaurants that are popping up. Part of the experience of eating is the story behind the food and I think that the more we can implement that on a global scale, the more thoughtful people will become about their food choices.

FT: Is the main take-away you hope people to get from the film is that idea of knowing where your food comes from, know how it’s produced, and know its effect on the environment?

DCH: Yeah, I think it’s really about opening people’s minds, getting them to shift their perspective, and giving them a little bit of knowledge. I think it’s really easy for us in our busy lives to not really think about what we’re eating. So the goal with our film is really just to get people to stop and think about it. And then, based on that, they can decide if they want to eat differently or how they want to make changes in their lives.

FT: Is there anything else I didn’t ask you that you want the Food Tank readers to know?

DCH: I think one thing that we’re really trying to convey with the film is that making sustainable choices doesn’t have to be a sacrifice. It doesn’t have to be this hard thing. It can actually make your life better or more interesting, or allow you different avenues of exploration, whether it's in terms of the food you’re eating and expanding your palate, or just how you live your day-to-day life. I think that’s really what is driving all of our content - this idea that living a sustainable life can be better than living a regular life.

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