The restaurants and cafeterias and stadiums that had consumed them were shuttered during the pandemic. The second shows a devastating scene outside of the San Antonio food bank. Thousands of carloads of people lined up, waiting for food with not enough supply to go around.
"How is it possible these two photos exist at the same time, in the most prosperous and technologically advanced moment in our history," tweeted Andrés. In the months after the photos were published, the crisis got worse.
Billions of pounds of potatoes and other fresh produce were chucked by American farmers. At the same time, food banks all over the country were reporting demand increases and 40 percent were facing critical shortfalls.
Outside the US, especially in the Middle East and throughout Southeastern Africa, COVID-19 was paralyzing food systems that were already vulnerable. Oxfam has predicted that by the end of 2020 12,000 people per day could die of hunger related to COVID.
That's more than the highest daily mortality rate recorded so far. But what's worse and what's much more concerning to all of us is that COVID is just one of many major disruptions that have been predicted in the years and decades ahead.
More chronic and complex than the pressures of COVID are the pressures of climate change. And those of you who live in California have seen this on your farms. You've seen withering heat and drought and fires disrupt avocado and almond and citrus and strawberry farms.
This summer, we saw the devastating impacts of storms on corn and soy farms. I've seen the various pressures of drought, heat, flooding, superstorms, invasive insects, bacterial blight, shifting seasons and weather volatility from Washington to Florida, and from Guatemala to Australia.
The upshot is this. Climate change is becoming something we can taste. This is a kitchen-table issue in the literal sense. The International Panel on Climate Change has predicted that by mid-century the world may reach a threshold of global warming beyond which current agricultural practices can no longer support large human civilizations.
The USDA scientist Jerry Hatfield put it to me this way: the single biggest threat of climate change is the collapse of food systems. The reality we face, one that was exposed by those mountains of potatoes and the cars lined up during the pandemic, is that our supply chains are antiquated.
Our food systems have not been designed to adapt to major disruptions or preempt them. Addressing this challenge as much as any other is going to define our progress in the coming century. But there's good news.
And the good news is that farmers and entrepreneurs and academics are radically rethinking national and global food systems. They are marrying principles of old-world agroecology and state-of-the-art technologies to create what I call a third way to our food future.
We’re going to see radical changes in what we grow and how we eat in the coming decades, as these environmental and population and public health pressures intensify. I studied these changes for my book “The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World.”
I traveled for five years into the lands and the minds and the machines that are shaping the future of food. My travels took me through 15 countries and 18 states, from apple orchards in Wisconsin to tiny cornfields in Kenya, to massive Norwegian fish farms and computerized foodscapes in Shanghai.
I investigated new ideas, like robotics and CRISPR and vertical farms. And old ideas, like edible insects and permaculture and ancient plants. I began to see the emergence of this third way to food production.
A synthesis of the traditional and the radically new. There's a growing controversy about the best path to future food security in the US. Food is ripe for reinvention, Bill Gates has proclaimed. Huge flows of investment are funding new methods of climate-smart and high-tech agriculture.
But many sustainable food advocates bristle at this idea of reinvention. They want food deinvented. They argue for a return to preindustrial and pre-green revolution, biodynamic and organic farming. To which skeptics inevitably respond, "Nice, but does it scale? Sure, a return to traditional farming methods could produce better food, but can it produce enough food that's affordable?" The rift between the reinvention camp and the deinvention camp has existed for decades.
But now it's a raging battle. One side covets the past, the other side covets the future and as someone observing this from the outside, I began to wonder, why must it be so binary? Can't there be a synthesis of the two approaches? Our challenge is to borrow from the wisdom of the ages, and from our most advanced science, to forge this third way.
One that allows us to improve and scale our harvests, while restoring rather than degrading the underlying web of life. I belong to neither camp. I'm a failed vegan and a lapsed vegetarian, and a terrible backyard farmer.
If I'm honest, I will keep trying at this, but I may fail. But I'm hell-bent on hope, and if my travels have taught me anything, it's that there's good reason for hope. Plenty of solutions are merging that can help build sustainable, resilient food systems.
Even if we can't rely on a critical mass of backyard-farming vegetarians to do this on their own, from the ground up. Let's start with artificial intelligence and robotics. Jorge Heraud is a Peruvian-born engineer who now lives in Silicon Valley, and his company developed a robotic weeder named See and Spray, and I went to Arkansas to see the maiden voyage of See and Spray.
And I was half expecting a battalion of C3PO-style robots to march into the fields with pincer hands to pluck the weeds. And instead, I found this. A tractor with a big, white hoop skirt off the back of it.
And inside that hoop skirt are 24 cameras that use computer vision to see the ground beneath and to distinguish between the plants and the weeds. And to deploy with sniper-like precision these tiny jets of concentrated fertilizer, or herbicide, that incinerate the baby weeds.
I learned how robotics can end the practice of broadcast spraying chemicals across millions of acres of land and how we can reduce the use of herbicides by up to 90 percent. But the bigger picture is even more exciting.
Intelligent machines can treat plants individually, applying not just herbicides but fungicides and insecticides and fertilizers on a plant-by-plant, rather than field-by-field basis. So that eventually, this kind of hyperspecific farming can allow for more diversity and intercropping on fields.
And big farms can begin to mimic natural systems and improve soil health. Heraud is the embodiment of third-way thinking, right? Robots, he told me, don't have to remove us from nature, they can bring us closer to it, they can restore it.
Increasing crop diversity will be crucial to building resilient food systems. And so will decentralizing agriculture so that when farmers in one region are disrupted, the others around, they can keep growing.
The rise of vertical farms, like this farm, built inside a former steel mill in Newark, New Jersey, can play a key role in decentralizing agriculture. Aeroponic farms use a tiny fraction of the water that is used in in-ground farms.
And they can grow food much faster, about 40 percent faster. And when located in and near cities, where the food is consumed, they eliminate a huge amount of trucking and food waste. It struck me at first as creepy in kind of a "Silent Running" way that we'd be growing our future fruits and vegetables inside, without soil or sun.
And after weeks of spending time in these plant factories, I began to see it as oddly, almost perfectly natural to deliver the plants only and exactly what they need, with zero herbicides and radical efficiency.
Here again, we see innovators borrowing from, and perhaps even elevating the wisdom of natural ecosystems. Developments in plant-based and alternative meats are also profoundly hopeful. And they follow a similar trend toward local, resilient, low-carbon protein production.
Consumers are excited about this, and during the pandemic, we've seen a 250 percent increase in demand for alternative meats. A study by the Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that the participants who were eating the plant-based proteins saw a drop in their cholesterol levels, in their weight and eventually, a drop in their risk of heart disease.
The potential environmental benefits of plant-based meats are astounding. And there's even potential in lab-grown or cell-based meats. Uma Valeti fed me my first plate of lab-grown duck breast, harvested fresh from a bioreactor.
It had been grown from a small sampling of cells taken from muscle tissue and fat and connective tissues, which is exactly what we eat when we eat meat. This lab-grown or cell-based duck meat has very little threat of bacterial contamination, it's about 85 percent lower CO2 emissions associated with it.
Eventually it can be grown like those crops inside vertical farms in decentralized facilities that aren't vulnerable to supply-chain disruptions. Valeti started out as a cardiologist, who understood that doctors have been developing human and animal tissues in laboratories for decades.
He was inspired as much by that as he was by a 1931 quote from Winston Churchill that says, “We shall escape the absurdity of growing the whole chicken in order to eat the breast or the wing, by growing them separately in suitable mediums.”
Like Heraud, Valeti is a quintessential third-way thinker. He’s reimagined an old idea using new technology, to usher in a solution whose time has come. I’ve met with dozens of farmers and entrepreneurs and engineers who emulate third-way thinking, all over the world.
They're using modern breeding tools like CRISPR to develop nutritious heirloom crops that can withstand drought and heat. They're using AI to make aquaculture sustainable. They're finding ways to eliminate food waste.
They are scaling up conservation agriculture and managed grazing. And they’re reviving ancient plants, and they’re recycling sewage and gray water to develop a drought-proof water supply. The upshot is this: Human innovation that marries old and new approaches to food production can, and I believe, will usher in this third way and redefine sustainable food on a grand scale.