The reasons to be hopeful our food will fix the planet

Making positive environmental changes need not be hard, says James Wong.


As for most people, last year did not go as I had expected. I started 2020 with plans to visit farmland in some of the driest corners of the world such as Israel, Australia or southern California to learn about how farmers there use saltwater irrigation to grow crops in the absence of freshwater. But a couple of weeks after we started shooting the new series of Follow the Food for BBC World News and, the world went into lockdown.

Suddenly, people who I planned to meet and technologies I hoped to see were in unreachable corners of the world. Like everyone else thrown into this situation, my crew and I had to adapt. Rather than travelling to one of the sunbaked locations we had been expecting, last summer I instead found myself in a wet field of potato plants in Norfolk, UK. While I might have cursed my luck, the serendipitous discovery of innovators in my own backyard taught me some remarkable lessons.

Saltwater irrigation is used in environments where there is an absence of freshwater, or water is expensive and needed in such large quantities it is impractical. It’s not the sort of technique you associate with farmland on a soggy North Atlantic island. But farmers in Norfolk have a good reason to borrow this technology from warmer climes. Much of the land in Norfolk is reclaimed from coastal marshes and contaminated with salt. For different reasons, British and Californian farmers have cause to arrive at similar solutions.

One of the things that shooting Follow the Food during the pandemic taught me is that the food industry is a massive, global, complex system, which means that there are opportunities for farmers in all sorts of surprising places. The fact that British and Californian farmers borrow ideas from each other shows how truly global issues of water scarcity, contaminated land, soil quality and plant disease are.

That complexity is also why it is so difficult to point to one single positive change we can all make. An example of this is rice. The grain is one of the most important crops globally. For 2.4 billion people it contributes one-fifth of their daily calories.

But rice is one of the single biggest contributors to methane emissions. We normally associate methane pollution with beef pollution – specifically with cows’ digestive emissions, to use a polite euphemism. But, microbes in the saturated soil of marshes, swamps and bogs emit methane in large quantities – it’s why methane is sometimes known as “swamp gas”. And what are paddy fields if not huge, man-made swamps?

So, when seeing the headline that say we should cut out beef to cut climate change, it’s not that simple. Many people in Africa, where the land is less fertile, rely on livestock for their food. Likewise, we can’t ask a third of the world to stop eating rice, even if it would help. We have a Western view that “going vegan” or cutting out dairy will save the planet. We think we need to overhaul our diet – but we don’t We need to think creatively.

And what if we could make cows green too? Cow methane is not an issue with the animal, but the microbes in its stomach. The microbial activity can be suppressed by adding small quantities of charcoal or seaweed to the cow’s diet – which has no impact at all on human’s health or the health of the animal.

“Green” foods can turn out to be marketing tricks. We are sometimes told we all need to switch to insect protein to save the planet, but have majority of the consumers ever tried it? In the interest of science, I track some down – a tiny quantity which gram-for-gram set me back more than it would have cost to buy filet mignon. And I had to be quite inventive to make something from it that tasted good.

Had I known that mussels were even better for the environment, I might not have bothered with the insects. Mussels are carbon negative. Not only do they not release carbon, but they actually return carbon to the ground because their shells are made from calcium carbonate.

This was another small surprise from the series, and further proof that we don’t need to make sweeping changes to our diets, which assumes we have the luxury of choosing where our food comes from. Repeatedly, the experts I spoke to showed that science can find answers.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, much has been made of the importance of hyperlocal food, short supply chains, and a return to traditional farming methods. But the picture is much more complex than that. Where I live in London, on the whole, supermarket shelves filled up again after a couple of weeks lying bare from panic buying. Large supermarkets have the heft and decision-making power to keep shipments running and adapt to change. After a brief period of uncertainty, food production carried on.

I found shooting this series of Follow the Food reassuring because time after time I saw the headlines are not based on facts. Food science requires challenging assumptions and testing time in a rigorous way. I went into this with no preconceptions and left feeling optimistic that science will find solutions.


James Wong is ethnobotanists science writer and presenter of BBC’s Follow the Food series. Follow the Food will air at 0130 and 1530 GMT on Saturdays, and 0930 and 2030 GMT on Sundays on BBC World News for eight weeks starting 30 Jan 2021. Audiences can also watch the series online and access special features at the BBC website.