Food For Thought: How the food we produce and eat will affect the future of Sustainability
Written By: Sukhdeep Singh
Edited By: Fleur Allé
Agriculture, something which has defined civilization for thousands of years, is a means of feeding the human population. As simple as it may sound, the exponential growth of the world's population has led to multiple challenges. We are currently at the tipping point where our agriculture is no longer environmentally sustainable. This is primarily due to deforestation for pasture land. Deforestation has caused the decline of biodiversity and the increase of net greenhouse gases (GHG) (IPCC, 2019). How must we ensure that future generations, maybe during our lifetimes, can provide a basic need to individuals across the world in a way that is both environmentally friendly and sustainable?
The challenge of feeding the world now and in the future is daunting enough but climate change and the environment make this already difficult task harder. Over the past few decades, the human population has exploded, and this will make it necessary to produce more food for the growing global community. The UN department of economic and social affairs predicts that the world’s population will reach 10 billion by 2050 (UN Desa Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2017). With the growing demand for not only food but other agricultural products, we must use environmentally sustainable methods to find these high yields.
There are many factors to consider when we think about the sustainability and environmental impact of such a vital industry. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has compiled statistics from many different factors of agriculture, specifically energy usage and greenhouse gas emissions. Here in Canada, we emit around 60 million tonnes of carbon annually through agriculture. Carbon emissions are not the only factor when considering the impact of the industry, agriculture also uses around 70 million megawatts of energy per year (OECD, 2020), keeping in mind that 1 megawatt is enough to power 1 000 homes. Due to the location of farming/ agricultural land in this country being in provinces like Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba a large volume of this energy is coming from burning fossil fuels. This is in no way because we want to use GHG emitting sources for agriculture but simply because the energy supplied to these provinces consists almost entirely from burning fossil fuels, namely oil and natural gas.
Saskatchewan is moving towards more renewable energy by 2030, aiming for 50% of total energy to be renewable. This is a step forward but currently natural gas and conventional coal account for a majority of energy usage (40% and 34% respectively), so there is still quite a bit further to go (Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce, 2019). Saskatchewan is home to more than two-fifths of cropland in Canada, nearly 37 million acres (Government of Canada, 2018), so if sustainability in agriculture is to move forward in a meaningful way we need to start here. Along with energy usage and how green the energy being used is, there are other ways we can make agriculture more sustainable.
We can’t phase out agriculture simply because it isn’t green enough or because it’s using too much energy. Many different methods have been used to make this industry more energy-efficient and a key to that is to change the crops we are growing. Canada has achieved this through the advancement of various technologies used in farming.
Here at McGill, we have many renowned researchers looking into various methods of making agriculture in Canada more energy-efficient and sustainable. One of these researchers, Dr. Jaswinder Singh, Associate Professor in the department of plant science, has been looking to use gene editing to achieve these goals. Dr. Singh was one of 50 leading researchers to be interviewed for the Bicentennial time capsule, in his piece he stresses the strain of agriculture on the global energy crisis and how we developed new technologies to tackle these issues.
Dr. Singh is the program director for Gene Editing for Environmental Sustainability and Food Security (GEFSES) whose goal is trying to find out “how will modern technologies such as genome editing change biotechnology aspects and their applications in agriculture?” By simply tweaking existing genes we can make crops more resistant to drought, obtain higher-yielding, etc.
Crop variety development will be accelerated due to new gene-editing techniques via tools like CRISPR. Plant scientists will be able to make precise alterations to plant traits at a reduced cost and with greater frequency than current Genetic Modification (GM) technology allows. Unlike traditional genetically modified organisms (GMOs) we aren’t introducing new genes to the crops’ genetic structure but simply tweaking or improving existing genes. This editing will take place within the gene structure of the plant, making targeted modifications to improve desirable features or decrease negative traits.
Conventional breeding also allowed modifications but was dependent on generations and it was time-consuming, CRISPR allows this slow process to be expedited. It will be critical to adopt new tools such as whole-genome sequencing and gene editing. This new biotechnology allows lessening the use of fertilizer as well as increasing yields, in turn using less energy for more product in return (Singh, 2021).
Another way we can support the green movement in agriculture is by supporting the land we grow these crops on. Grain producers in the prairies are now storing more carbon than they are emitting. They now store 16 million metric tonnes per year, the equivalent of 3.47 million cars' emissions. Higher-yielding crops absorb more carbon from the atmosphere, and the carbon-rich crop waste is left on the land after harvest, boosting organic matter and safeguarding it from erosion(Protein Industries Canada, 2020). Climate change is being aided by high-yield agriculture.
We have found different ways and made many strides towards a more energy-efficient future in agriculture here in Canada, but there is still a long way to go. These new technologies, which have been developed over the past few decades have laid the foundation for a cleaner agricultural industry. Many of us consider what we eat when it comes to sustainability but few of us actually consider how we fulfill the need for food in our society such as a burden on climate change or the energy crisis; Food for thought.
Climate change and land. Special Report on Climate Change and Land. (2019). Retrieved November 4, 2021
Current state of renewable energy in Saskatchewan. (2019). Retrieved November 4, 2021
Government of Canada, S. C. (2018, March 23). Farm and farm operator Data Saskatchewan remains the breadbasket of Canada. Saskatchewan remains the breadbasket of Canada. Retrieved November 4, 2021
Oecd. (2020). Agri-environmental other indicators The world: AEI by countries. Retrieved November 4, 2021, from https://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?QueryId=77296&lang=en.
Protein Industries Canada. (2020, March 4). Canada can become a leader in sustainable food production in the 21st Century. Protein Industries Canada. Retrieved November 4, 2021
Singh, J. (2021, October 31). personal.
United Nations. (2017). World population projected to reach 9.8 billion in 2050, and 11.2 billion in 2100 | UN Desa Department of Economic and Social Affairs. United Nations. Retrieved November 4, 2021