BBC Series Explores How Agriculture and Science Will Feed a Growing Planet

'Follow the Food' is a global farm-to-fork journey that's ultimately hopeful.

James Wong and Stephen Jones
Stephen Jones (L), founder of the British Quinoa Company, stands with James Wong (R) in a quinoa field.

BBC/Follow the Food

The global population is expected to reach about 10 billion by 2050, which raises the pressing question, "How will we feed everyone?" The question feels more urgent than ever in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, which disrupted food supply chains and caused shortages in many grocery stores. Having been affected firsthand, many people are now realizing just how important it is to ensure a stable food supply that can withstand future challenges, whether brought on by climate chaos, population pressures, or more pandemics.

A new eight-part series from the BBC called 'Follow the Food' delves into this question of food security, exploring the many ways in which farmers, scientists, engineers, fishermen, inventors, and countless others around the world are working hard to ensure everyone gets fed. Each half-hour episode, hosted by botanist James Wong, focuses on a different aspect of agriculture, from farming techniques to artificial intelligence to gene editing and more.

Wong remarks in one episode that people tend to view agriculture through a dichotomous lens: you're either a proponent of cutting-edge technology or you're nostalgic for old-fashioned ways of growing crops organically by hand. It shouldn't be one or the other; the future of food involves solutions from both sides, with plenty in between.

It's also common to blame farmers for many climate-related problems, such as greenhouse gas emissions, soil erosion, and water contamination; but Wong points out that farmers care deeply because they're often first in line to feel the effects of the climate crisis, and are thus usually quite willing to embrace new solutions.

The first episode looks at reducing greenhouse gas emissions in cattle herds, which is a huge problem. Cattle are responsible for 40% of methane emissions in the food industry. New research has found that when certain types of seaweed are mixed into cattle feed, it can drastically reduce the amount of methane emitted – up to 98% in one case. 

harvesting seaweed
Harvesting seaweed off the Faroe Islands to add to cattle feed. BBC/Follow the Food

"Why not just get rid of the cows?" Wong asked Mette Nielsen, a professor of animal sciences at Aarhus University in Denmark. She explained that cattle (and other grazing animals) possess the ability to digest and transform plant matter into a highly nutritious food source for humans, and are capable of surviving in places that could never be planted with crops. They are a vital source of food for many people in developing countries.

The second episode explores the impending extinction of the Cavendish banana, the fourth most important food crop on the planet after corn, wheat, and rice. It is being decimated by Panama disease, also known as Tropical Race 4, and researchers worldwide are scrambling to find a disease-resistant substitute to avert widespread starvation. (Read more on Treehugger about this crisis.)

Kenyan banana market
Banana market in Bungoma, Kenya. BBC/Follow the Food

The BBC takes viewers to a research lab in Kenya that has come up with a promising variety called FHIA-17. One farmer, George Mtate, said, "The FHIA-17 is the banana of the future. Most diseases do not affect it in the way that they affect other types. It’s quite a promising type of banana. I’m hopeful."

The show explores the rise in precision agriculture, with tractors in Salinas, California, hauling huge 125-foot booms with smart "see and spray" technology that can differentiate between weeds and crops in a vast farm field, spraying only the former with pesticide, and cutting down on chemical use. The show also digs into regenerative and agroforestry farming techniques, and how finding ways to restore soil health leads to better crop yields, carbon sequestration, and less need for chemical inputs.

There is an episode dedicated to urban farming, including the impressive shiitake mushroom production that's going on in Paris' empty underground parking garages and the super-efficient automated vertical farming operations that are popping up across North America and Europe. Even urban rooftop farms, which will never replace traditional agriculture as a way to feed a dense population, can be meaningful contributors to a city's food supply, with numerous other social benefits.

80 Acres Farm
Automated vegetable production at 80 Acres Farm. BBC/Follow the Food

This is just a small taste of what Follow the Food explores over its eight episodes. Viewers will come away with a sense of hopefulness – an unusual feeling these days – as to what can and will be accomplished over the next critical decades. 

You can learn more here.