The Future of Food Production on a Changing Planet

Jason Clay

Jason Clay, Senior Vice President, Markets | Executive Director, Markets Institute May, 2021

Where and how we produce food impacts the environment more than any other human activity. The choices we make about what we eat have lasting consequences for wildlife, our water supply, critical ecosystems, and the climate. As the global population and incomes worldwide increase, both are driving changes in what’s consumed. And as climate change introduces layers of uncertainty for where and how food can be grown, and for those who grow it, there has never been more at stake. In this webinar, hear from Jason Clay, WWF’s senior vice president for Markets and the executive director of the Markets Institute, about the future of food. Jason leads WWF’s work to promote environmentally sensitive practices across our supply chains by bringing together governments, foundations, researchers, NGOs, and private companies to address problems at a global level.

Q&A with Jason Clay

See below for written answers from Jason to questions he was unable to get to during the live event.

Q from Kitty: I am very frustrated about so many foods I like containing palm oil. What’s being done to control this?

A from Jason: If your concern is about the nutritional impact of palm oil, that's a bit out of our lane. If it is about the environmental impact, then a lot is being done. WWF established the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certification program to reduce the most significant impacts of producing palm oil and make the product more sustainable. From an environmental perspective, oil palm is one of the more sustainable ways to produce vegetable oil, so long as it is not linked to deforestation. If it is linked, then it is not sustainable. Most of the US companies that purchase palm oil are buying oil that is RSPO certified. We think they can do more, however, not just with regard to production but how production fits into the larger landscape. We recently published a palm oil scorecard that shows how major companies are doing. It is safe to say that there is room for improvement, but most have come a long way. As I mentioned in the talk, though, what is sustainable today will not be tomorrow. Many companies want this to be an issue that they can put to rest. Instead, this is a journey of continuous improvement. 

Palm Oil Buyers Scorecard
RSPO Certification

Q from Eric: Is there a certain type of food that generates the biggest threat? Or the smallest?

A from Jason: Generally speaking, plant-based foods generate fewer impacts than animal proteins. But how the plants are produced can vary tremendously even for the same species. Generally speaking, those that require fewest inputs would have the fewest impacts. But there are tradeoffs between inputs and intensity. Without some intensification, our food production could cover most of the land. Algae would generally have fewer impacts than land-based plants. But it all depends on how it is grown. For fish (especially aquaculture), the lower the trophic level (e.g., more carnivorous fish have greater impacts than those that eat plankton and phytoplankton) the less the impacts.

Q from Jane: Do you think that the decreasing population will naturally assist with more sustainably producing food in the future?

A from Jason: That is a good question, and it is certainly an issue that many are watching. The issue, though, is a bit more complicated. Reduced population growth will certainly reduce the number of new mouths to feed (as well as the food for a lifetime). However, we are seeing that increased income, consumption in general, dietary shifts to more animal proteins, and even lifestyle choices like pets can cause increased food demands from fewer people. To put this in perspective, when I was researching material for a talk, I came across a study in Australia that suggested that the average cat in the EU consumes more resources in its lifetime than the average African. So yes, population is an issue. But we all need to look in a mirror as well. We are all the problem. Hopefully, increased income will help reduce the number of people to be fed in absolute numbers, but what will remain as the key issue is what those people consume, and how we produce it.

Q from Sarah: Are there countries around the world who are better at sustainably producing food?

A from Jason: Producing food more sustainably depends on many things. Several poor countries produce food relatively sustainably with ancient traditions and practices because they do not have pressure to produce more. Likewise, some of the wealthiest countries produce food more sustainably as they invest more, develop new science, technologies and practices, and understand better how to do that. Everyone is on a journey. It will get harder. The real issue is that none of them are really sharing what they do, how it works, what problems it solves, which it creates, etc.

Q from Susan: Is there anything I can do to help make a change? 

A from Jason: You eat food and you vote. Both of those are important--they each send signals and those signals can be mutually reinforcing.

Q from David: Are products like new, plant-based meats really better for the environment than eating beef?

A from Jason: They will likely reduce some of the impacts of animal proteins but not all. And they require signifcant energy inputs, tillage, and access to soil, which will produce different impacts on ecosystem functions and biodiversity. The bigger issue is that with all the talk and investment in alt proteins the demand for beef has continued to grow in absolute tonnage more than that of alt protein substitutes. Moreover, in the US market, we see no decline in the consumption of animal protein whatsoever with the increased consumption of Alt proteins. Rather, we are seeing that the latter is pushing fruit and vegetables off the plate. That is not a good outcome. My sense is that within 40-50 years it will be a portion of the plate that is still quite small compared to animal proteins. But niche markets in the US can still be lucrative.

Q from Peter: On the consumer side, are the biggest culprits of not following sustainable practices - individuals or restaurant/grocery stores?

A from Jason: We buy food from restaurants and grocery stores, but that is not where the impacts happen. They happen in the production of the raw ingredients and to a lesser extent at home and in landfills. That said, with the exception of large chains like McDonalds and Starbucks who work and invest a lot in sustainability, retail is much more concerned about sustainability than most smaller restaurants or even chains.

Q from Shannon: What are your thoughts on the popular documentary Seaspiracy? The film encourages people to not eat seafood and critiques NGO’s working to make the industry better/more sustainable. It seems to me that cutting seafood from our diets is a luxury not afforded to everyone around the world. Is the film pushing a realistic way to make the industry better or is there a different message you would like people to know on the topic?

A from Jason: Thanks for your comments. The documentary highlights some of the major issues facing our oceans today, issues such as plastic pollution, overfishing, ghost gear and safety of observers and fisheries workers that we have been working to raise awareness on over the years as well. We firmly believe healthy oceans are vital to the health of our planet, and people everywhere. 

It seems to me that the film is not really trying to make the industry better, it is trying to make it go away, which you are right - is not necessarily an option for all. Some 3 billion people depend on seafood for both a main source of protein and livelihoods. You could argue that the industry and the groups working on these issues are not doing enough and should be doing more, but that is not in the documentary. WWF has supported the development of MSC and see it as an important market driven solution to help make fisheries more sustainably managed. We also see aquaculture as a good alternative to wild caught seafood, if it is done right. Certification programs are not the only or even best solutions in some cases. Fisheries management is critical in every case and we are just now developing and piloting a fisheries improvement project (FIP) fund, where companies would pay a fee into a specific FIP program based on the amount they purchase of each species. This kind of system is critical to expand management well beyond its current limits and to also ensure that there is money and interest in covering the costs of FIPs if/when fisheries move from one country's jurisdiction to another due to climate change.

Q from Dave H: Have you considered how to accelerate development of an algae protein and oil industry that would transform agriculture and change the trajectory of the whole plant by reducing water by 93% and land use by 97% for protein production relative to soy and reduce land use by 90% relative to palm oil?

A from Jason: I answered this question through the lens of what aquaculture producers are doing about this since that is where most of the demand is to date and these two factors, especially fish oil, are the key factors that limit overall production and growth of the industry. WWF has made an investment and is looking at two more in the algae aquaculture space. These investments are intended to help solve some of the issues about producing algae at scale for human food, animal and fish feed, and the sequestration of carbon. In the 1990s we realized that aquaculture was the future of seafood, but we had not thought that it might be the future source of food, feed, and carbon sequestration. We will be doing more of these impact investments, so stay tuned. 

More resources:
WWF Impact Investing
Farmed Seaweed

Q from Amanda: Are there any existing business models that would actually be economically advantageous for businesses to use?

A from Jason: What is economically advantageous is not static. Going forward climate change will push companies to find and retain more resilient supply chains. They will likely use long-term contracts to try to accomplish this. They will also buy carbon and perhaps other environmental services. But they will need to consider new relationships with suppliers, too. The DEI movement is making it very clear that producing low-cost products for relatively wealthy consumers is not a way forward that will build income, equity, and assets for everyone. In fact, we know that most poverty and malnutrition in virtually every country is in rural areas and especially with farm families and farm worker families. Globally, about 75% of poverty and malnutrition are in rural areas. This is one reason that ESGs are so important and why so many companies and now financial institutions are looking more closely at this.

Q from Richard R: Do you have any success stories / accomplishments?

A from Jason: My answer to this in the session was rather perfunctory because it caught me off guard. I would say that many of our successes are in terms of awareness and tools that are now being used more broadly. For example, we were pivotal with the formation of the Global Salmon Initiative and now are spreading that system/info to others. USAID, the World Bank, and International Finance Corporation all use my ag commodity book as a handbook in each of their offices and with all their loan officers (ditto on an aquaculture workbook). A TED talk I gave in 2010 about our Market Transformation work (a focus on 100 companies) spurred the Consumer Goods Forum to create a deforestation-free commitment, many companies, and banks to replicate the same type of analysis and thinking in their own work, 16 NGOs to begin their own programs to push companies in the same way, and the Moore Foundation to launch a $500M Conservation and Markets Initiative to take deforestation and overfishing out of corporate supply chains. One talk at the AAAS was posted on YouTube and picked up by AFP and had 700 million views.

A few links:
TED Talk: "How big brands can help save biodiversity"
The Business Case for Pre-Competitive Collaboration: The Global Salmon Initiative (GSI)

My book, "World Agriculture and the Environment"

Q from Miriam: Can you speak more the finding about what you called, I think, illegal labor being involved in food production? What is the response of WWF?

A from Jason: This issue is really about governance. Are the laws being enforced? We think this is a liability for many companies, but most still do not take it seriously unless it is slave or bonded labor. Whereas in the US and EU, it is being enforced much more, though not about the same issues, for the same groups, or in the same way. So, standardization would help improve overall enforcement and implementation. Our role has been to make others aware of this--companies and governments for sure, but also the average citizen. This is also at the heart of the current immigration debate right now in the US. Food will be affected more by this than any other sector. I have personally suggested that one way to address this issue would be to invest in development of food production in the countries where migrants do not currently have a way to make a living. They could still be producing our food, but just in their own country. If Americans do not want these jobs, (or producers and companies do not want to pay what it would take to do the work) then lets create the jobs where people actually want them. 

Here are two resources:
Understanding Illegality

Illegality in the Food We Eat

Q from Sandy: If animal protein were to be grown in a positive way to support ecosystems, how many people could that feed if they ate animal protein once a week? I'm guessing it still doesn't support 7.5 billion people. 

A from Jason: Animal proteins can be produced with far fewer impacts globally. If the performance of the top half of global producers became the norm for all production, the impacts would most likely be cut in half and the amount produced would increase in absolute terms. That is why WWF has been less concerned about telling people what to eat, and much more involved in trying to reduce the impacts of whatever people are eating. The strategy involves creating consumer awareness to drive change as well, however.

Q from Stormi: Coming from an agricultural community on the route to California - I wanted to go back to your point about the 'potential next dust bowl'. How are the governors and other stakeholders in that region working to prevent such an alarming and damaging event like that?

A from Jason: To my knowledge there is little knowledge or awareness about what is happening or its overall implications. Likely many did not have family members that were directly affected or that talked about it so much. But we are not seeing anything about replanting grasslands. Producers are still getting a pass to do what they want. If you build a house it must be built to code so that it will not affect the safety of others. There is the same requirement of those that operate vehicles. This is not true of farms. There is a blind eye in this regard.

Q from Rosemary: I have always believed that if we do not control population growth on this planet, we cannot win this battle, but very little attention is ever paid to this. Just imagine how much easier all these problems would be if population did not grow from where it is now or perhaps over time even declined? I'm not sure there is any sustainable solution with our population growth. Do you have any comment on this? What programs does WWF support that involved population?

A from Jason: See the answer to Jane's question above. We need to work on both population and consumption. But as Americans with the highest per capita consumption in the world, we need to start at home. And for us the biggest issue is not population but our consumption. In fact, we have immigration problems because we have an aging and an urban population, and we need more labor to help address our consumption and our lifestyle. WWF has had population programs in the past but most people around the world are not terribly happy about Americans offering advice and programs on very sensitive issues until we clean up our own house. It is like Europeans and Americans telling the world about what to do about deforestation and habitat conversion when we have sacrificed so much of our territory in ways that we are trying to stop others from doing now--and we are asking without offering to pay or reimburse others for what we have done and are benefitting from.

Q from Sandy: You are awesome. On an individual basis, I am doing everything I can to help with climate change and biodiversity through individual actions, non-profits, and pushing towards policy. This is all so discouraging so know that there are those fighting with you.

A from Jason: Thanks for your efforts. Everyone can do something and people like you are doing quite a lot. Today it is voluntary, but in the not-so-distant future actions will likely become mandatory.

Q from Vicky: What is your view of food waste composting? How does that fit into the picture?

A from Jason: Food waste composting is better than landfill, and can help put nutrients back into our soils. And if the food is spoiled and inedible it is probably the best option. In general, though, it takes so many resources to produce food that we should never throw any away. Diverting for animal feed is also an option. We need to find ways to use it as it was intended in order to spare land, water, inputs, transport, energy, and of course labor. If you aren't already familiar, take a look at the EPA's hierarchy.