Updated: Dec 14, 2022
Inspired by RePlanet’s vision and our Reboot Food campaign, Nilüfer Gündoğan, Member of Parliament in the Netherlands, gave an incendiary speech at the House of Representatives on the future of agriculture on a warming planet. Here’s an edited excerpt.
(Photo: Lori Dunn/Pixabay)
On Sunday, November 27, I attended an evening on The Future of Food at the De Balie debate venue in Amsterdam. The speaker was the very erudite George Monbiot. He summarised the solutions to climate change as follows:
Stop digging up fossil fuels and burning them.
Stop killing farm animals on such a massive scale.
Many of us are well aware of the impact from fossil fuels. Less known is the impact of animal agriculture.
Globally, we kill some 80 billion animals every year. In the Netherlands alone, the number is over 600 million. Apart from the suffering caused to these animals, they take up space, including the area needed for producing their food. They breathe, burp, urinate and defecate, producing gases that affect the climate. Their burps and farts now place a serious burden on the Earth, potentially leading to the end of our planet.
The total land area on this Earth is 144.5 million square kilometres. It’s a puzzle how to use this available area in our best interests. It’s a puzzle of how all living beings live together on 144.5 million square kilometres. Today, that’s 8 billion people, numerous billions of farm and domesticated animals, plus several millions of species living in the wild.
All the wild animals on Earth, put together, still only constitute a tiny fraction of the enormous population of farm animals. Since cows and pigs are not the only animals needing land to live, eat, breathe, urinate and defecate, we’re facing mega pollution, detrimental to our Earth.
That’s why we need to put animal agriculture high on the agenda.
But don’t worry, I won’t be telling a story of doom and gloom. The scientists and activists I’ve been speaking to are hopeful. Nor will I tell a story of moral superiority in which eating meat, having a flying holiday, or enjoying any of the pleasures of life are condemned. Nor will this be a story attacking farmers, as if they are the ones to blame.
Instead, I will tell you a story, hoping to inspire you to think differently and recognise where we should look for solutions.
It’s an ambitious story about our future. I want us to stop climate change, guarantee food security, improve human and animal well-being and increase biodiversity. Yes, all of this. Together. I don’t want to let one come at the expense of the rest.
A dramatic transition in our food production not only addresses climate change. It concerns biodiversity. It concerns food security. It even concerns geopolitical interests
Without national and European subsidies, our current way of producing food can barely be made profitable. If we include environmental damage from food production, it’s a heavy cost.
In today’s complex food chain, we see the most hallucinatory processes imaginable. Let me give you one example. Using natural gas, we make fertiliser, which we export to South America where they use it to make soy. They then export soy back to us so we can feed it to our cows. This is how we get super-cows, which, after a series of vaccinations and antibiotics, give free rein to their super-polluting faeces and urine in our country. Partly because of this, we’re facing an increased risk of uncontrollable, super-resistant bacteria, creating a super-sized public health hazard.
This cannot be our future. It is up to us, politicians working in Parliament, to make sure to change this, and support everyone to make a fair transition in time.
In doing so, we must realise this important topic not only addresses climate change. It concerns biodiversity. It concerns food security. It even concerns geopolitical interests.
We are seeing the US and Canada embrace innovative ways to produce food, as part of an ambitious agenda towards climate neutrality, while remaining major producers. We are seeing China embrace food innovation, mainly because it wants to be able to produce as much food as possible for its population of 1.4 billion.
We Europeans can be slow sometimes. When the digital revolution was happening, the Americans came up with Facebook, and the Chinese came up with TikTok. Will we also lose the race to decide what we eat? Or will we instead launch businesses which are sustainable, profitable and progressive?
I don’t think I need to explain to the Dutch, including the many entrepreneurs in the agricultural sector, the consequences of not embracing and implementing innovations, or the consequences of staying too long in the 20th century. If we fall behind, others will come and eat the cheese off our bread.
It’s obvious that our country, and the European Union as a whole, needs a proverbial kick in the behind.
Applied to food production, the vision of ‘land sparing’ means we need to produce more food on less land, making space for nature to thrive
Up to here, you could say this is a classic green story. But I’m not a traditional green. I’m a progressive green. The ecomodernists’ vision has had a huge influence on me. Their ideas have shaped my political agenda.
In a nutshell, ecomodernists adhere to the conviction that there is a solution for everything, while acknowledging that land area is limited. Ecomodernists recognise land use as the most important driver of climate change and biodiversity.
We use 46% of all habitable land for producing food, especially for domesticated animals on the farm. If we want to provide a growing world population with more food and energy, and make more space for nature, we must adopt policies and develop technologies that support a vision called ‘land sparing’.
When it comes to food production, this means we need to produce more food on less land, making space for nature to thrive.
Land sparing is an obvious route by which we aim towards optimal production conditions – not exclusively on a Dutch scale, but rather a European scale. On this larger scale, it will also be easier to make optimal choices about which crops produce the best yields in which locations, considering variables such as seasonal weather and energy consumption. On Europe’s fertile deltas, we’ll have high yields, while in places where it’s difficult to get anything to grow, we’ll create large natural parks.
If we allow modern crop breeding, an incredible amount of space can be freed up to give back to nature. That’s the cleverness behind it, without reducing the overall amount of food production. This is how a better world emerges.
Europe can follow Costa Rica’s example, by giving 75% of our agricultural land back to nature, without causing cold winters, food shortages or economic scarcity.
Here’s an example. If you grow sweet peppers in open ground, you could get up to 4 kilos of peppers per square metre. If you grow them using incredibly efficient Dutch horticulture, you get about 35 kilos per square metre. And if you grow them using modern techniques such as CRISPR-Cas, you get some 50 kilos per square metre.
In other words, the area needed to produce the same amount of sweet peppers can be reduced tenfold if we use modern techniques.
It doesn’t stop there. Aside from a higher yield per square metre, sweet peppers grown using such modern techniques need less water and less crop protection, and produce less waste.
All in all, if we use modern agricultural technology, so much can be gained that doubling the area of forest and wild nature need not be a problem. It’s a totally realistic scenario to expand food production while using less land.
What is stopping us, you wonder, especially when we know that countries such as the United States, China and Argentina are already doing it. But over here in the European Union, a modern technique like CRISPR-Cas is now banned. It’s wrongly seen as genetic engineering, whereas, in fact, it is modern crop improvement.
I’m not a traditional green. I’m a progressive green
This is not the first time we have run into the limits of our agriculture system. In the 1950s, this became obvious in the Netherlands. Several solutions were considered. One was converting oil and alcohol into proteins through fermentation. However, the biggest breakthrough was the emergence of fertilisers and pesticides, which led to the Green Revolution. Using artificial input allowed us to produce more food much faster. It came at the expense of nature.
Today, we are again at a point where we are up against the limits of the current agricultural system. We have to have a new solution, one that requires drastically less land, takes care of the environment, and uses minimal or no pesticides and fertilisers.
The question becomes: How can we completely decouple food production from land? This brings us to the age of fermentation, a technique that can change the future of food.
Producing food has always required a lot of energy. This is because nature is incredibly good at making complex organic molecules, but not so good at generating energy. Photosynthesis has an efficiency of less than 1%. In contrast, we humans are pretty bad at making complex organic molecules directly, but we’ve become quite good at generating energy.
What if we could make food with nature but without photosynthesis? This can be done with fermentation, a process that has already given us the pleasure of wine, cheese and yoghurt. By fermenting microorganisms, a process known as ‘precision fermentation’, we can make healthier, tastier and more affordable food.
Precision fermentation is quite similar to making beer, but instead we choose to use microbes for their food properties. Instead of using sugar, we use a raw material from clean energy sources, such as renewables and nuclear. Precision fermentation only needs the basics of life – carbon, nitrogen, water and minerals. From these ingredients, we can make products such as proteins, fats, carbohydrates and vitamins.
Precision fermentation is the most sustainable and elegant form of food production we can achieve using existing technologies
When we use clean energy as a raw material, we can make a lot of food in extremely little space. Let’s put some numbers to this. Currently, on 10,000 square metres of land one cow can feed one person. On that same plot of land, soy can feed 40 people. Using the technique of precision fermentation, we can feed at least 520 people.
Precision fermentation is a way of producing food that can be done anywhere, including the Sahara. It is the most sustainable and elegant form of food production we can achieve using existing technologies. It has the potential to become one of the cheapest sources of protein, due to continuous improvements in producing clean energy.
It’s a way to save up land and give it back to nature, so we, as a species, can rebuild our planet.
Precision fermentation is not new. We’ve been doing it for more than 30 years. Once, we extracted insulin from the pancreas of cows and pigs, which led to lots of side effects, but now we can make human insulin by modifying fungi. In addition, many vitamins, dyes and enzymes are used to make our bread better or to hold our meat products together – all made possible by precision fermentation.
What is new is that a range of start-ups and scale-ups are using precision fermentation to make specific egg, milk and cheese proteins. These include companies such as Those Vegan Cowboys, Formo and Perfect Day. (No, I do not have shares in any of these companies.)
We want a transition for the climate and nature, as well as for the health of our children, for the aesthetic value of the places we live. We want this out of a duty to be stewards of the Earth
So far, I have outlined a coherent strategy by which we can start using most of the agricultural land in the Netherlands and beyond for other purposes and priorities.
One is strategic planning with land sparing so we cultivate only the most fertile deltas.
Two is increasing food production and reducing waste using modern breeding techniques such as CRISPR-Cas.
Three is stimulating precision fermentation so that animal proteins and fats can be replaced by alternative proteins and fats.
If we do all this, we will be able to feed many more people on far less land. The results: more nature, a cleaner environment, and a stable biosphere where human civilisation can flourish.
Yet, as a citizen of Europe, I’m embarrassed by the perverse incentive of the EU’s agricultural subsidies. Primary forest in Romania is now being destroyed so that the released land can be classified as agricultural land. Gone is the potential for CO2 uptake, gone is the biodiversity. Europe has got some serious work to do when it comes to restoring nature.
If all of us, or at least those in Europe, save land by cultivating only the most fertile deltas, we can feed just as many people, if not more, on less land. Keeping significantly fewer farm animals frees up land. The combination of land sparing, modern crop breeding and precision fermentation creates space to truly rewild.
Perhaps then, one day, the rainforests of Ireland and Wales could recover. Yes, that’s right. Once, before Ireland and Wales became mostly inhabited by sheep and cows and eaten bare, these countries had rainforests. It may be hard to imagine these rainforests returning, but it is entirely possible.
This is not just a story of green love for vast natural areas. Currently, cities are polluted: air pollution, light pollution, noise pollution... Yet by 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population is expected to live in cities. Nobody wants cities full of drab behemoths and dreary streets. The city of the future will be green, cheerfully coloured, largely or even completely car-free and healthy to live in. The bar is rising.
I see occasional examples of this in the Netherlands, but usually it remains somewhat limited, to a few streets and squares. In the city of Portland in the United States, they have taken a bigger approach. There, they have planted more than 50,000 trees in urban areas. Researchers have since discovered that in the neighbourhoods where the trees were planted, far fewer people die of cardiovascular diseases, among other things. Other reports also point to the beneficial effects of trees and greenery in urban areas.
So we not only want this transition for the climate or nature. We also want this for the health of our children and ourselves, for the aesthetic value of the places we live, for a restoration of biodiversity. We want this out of a duty to be stewards of the Earth.
In the past, not enough information was available to act as stewards. We’ve plundered the Earth, and killed countless animals. Today, we do have the information. We have the science. We have the technology.
The reality is that we have an awful lot to make up for, and repair. But the good news is that we can finally start doing this. Doubling, or even tripling, the space for forests and nature won’t be easy. It won’t happen overnight. But it can be done.
It may be hard to imagine rainforests returning in Ireland and Wales, but it is entirely possible
We could start a political battle about land sparing, about land policy, about regulations on modern crop breeding. I expect I will have a political battle to fight on these issues.
But might it be better not to have a political battle about pioneering innovations that are inevitable? Such arguments seem pointless. They are reminiscent of debates from the 1930s in which some argued that the television was immoral and bad for your eyes, or disputes from the 1860s when some said the trains ran too fast for the human constitution.
If we can produce more food on a fraction of the land we use now, ultimately we will do so. The question is: Will Europe join the food revolution?
If our great-grandparents had known such innovations would come to market, they would have called it a miracle.
Nilüfer Gündoğan is a Dutch politician and independent Member of Parliament, previously involved with Volt Nederland, part of Volt Europe, the social-liberal political movement. She gained prominence when advocating for a more humane response to the 2015 migration crisis.