Category Archives: Technology

HOT, HUNGRY PLANET: The Fight to Stop a Global Food Crisis in the Face of Climate Change

The world is on the cusp of a global food crisis. In only a couple decades, an additional 2.6 to 4 billion people will be sitting down at the global table wondering what’s for dinner. That’s the equivalent of adding another New York City each month to the world’s grocery lines for the next 35 years. In HOT, HUNGRY PLANET: The Fight to Stop a Global Food Crisis in the Face of Climate Change (St. Martin’s Press; On-sale: May 9, 2017; 9781250084200; $26.99) I address what needs to happen to reconcile two extreme global threats: climate change and global hunger. Christiana Figueres, diplomat and former executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, says Hot Hungry Planet is, “A deep dive into the realities of some of the Sustainable Development Goals. Through moving personal stories Palmer shows how increased food security and addressing climate change are mutually reinforcing. We can and we must do both at the same time.”

Hot, Hungry Planet focuses on three key concepts that support food security and resilience in a changing world: social, educational, and agricultural advances; land use and technical actions by farmers; and policy nudges that have the greatest potential for reducing adverse environmental impacts of agriculture while providing more food. Palmer breaks down this difficult subject though seven concise and easily-digestible case studies over the globe and presents the stories of individuals in six key regions—India, sub-Saharan Africa, the United States, Latin America, the Middle East, and Indonesia—painting a hopeful picture of both the world we want to live in and the great leaps it will take to get there.

Early reviews:

“This lively, concise book is packed with practical and often surprising ideas for meeting the profound challenges of global food scarcity. Lisa Palmer is a clear-eyed realist, but her fascinating tour of our Hot Hungry Planet will leave you more optimistic than you may have thought possible.”―Dan Fagin, Pulitzer-prize-winning author of Toms River:A Story of Science and Salvation

“A penetrating and sensitive analysis of the urgent need for a sustainable global food system despite widespread socioeconomic inequality, swelling population, and ominous climate change.”― Richard C. J. Somerville, Ph.D., climate scientist

“The global food crisis is a critical issue. Producing more food is key but insufficient by itself. Palmer speaks in no uncertain terms about the peril we find ourselves in. But she also manages to find the bright spots―areas of hope that those of us in the environmental, business, and policy communities can address to cope with and even reverse some of the most alarming trends.”―Jason Clay, Senior Vice President, Food & Markets, World Wildlife Fund

“The time to talk about diet for the health of people without addressing the health of the planet is past. With inspiring examples of sustainable agriculture, thoughtful attention to matters as disparate as biodiversity and family planning, and precautionary tales from around the globe, Hot, Hungry Planet gives us a clear-eyed view of the perils we face, and the promise of overcoming them by truly understanding them.”―David Katz, M.D. President of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine and author of Disease-Proof, The Way to Eat,  and The Flavor Point Diet

“A deep dive into the realities of some of the Sustainable Development Goals. Through moving personal stories Palmer shows how increased food security and addressing climate change are mutually reinforcing. We can and we must do both at the same time.”―Christiana Figueres, diplomat and executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), 2010-2016

Hot, Hungry Planet is a sober analysis of the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead in feeding a changing and growing world. Palmer takes her readers on a journey from Vermont through Colombia, India, and the shores of Lake Victoria, examining innovations for sustainable and climate-resilient agriculture all along the way. Her work trumpets the benefits of smaller, more varied systems of food production that increase yields without the ecological harms of monoculture. Above all else, Palmer pens a passionate plea for the inclusion of women in all levels of food production through education and smart investments that forge a path toward a planet that can feed itself in a hotter, more crowded future.”―Shenggen Fan, Director General of the International Food Policy Research Institute

Engineering better food ingredients

Walk down any baking aisle at the grocery store, and you’ll notice two types of vanilla on the shelf. The one with the higher price tag is vanilla extract, made from the seedpods of the vanilla orchid, which grows in the shade in tropical areas like Madagascar and Indonesia. The other “vanilla” is a much lower-priced flavoring made from a chemical compound called vanillin, using a chemical process with petroleum as the base.

Pioneering synthetic biology efforts, however, are leading to a third option that now allows food scientists more control over its flavor profile: the first “synbio” vanilla flavoring. Synbio vanillin, the primary chemical inside the vanilla bean that gives it its flavor, is produced with brewer’s yeast that has been genetically engineered to be able to make a chemical compound—in this case, vanillin. This process is also being used to produce synbio stevia (a sweetener), synbio saffron, and synbio resveratrol, a dietary supplement with antioxidant properties, says Todd Kuiken, a senior program associate with the Synthetic Biology Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. Synbio vanillin and synbio resveratrol have been on the market since 2014, while synbio saffron and stevia will likely be available next year, he says.

Unless we are eating directly from a local farmer, we don’t have a good understanding of what’s in our food.” —Todd Kuiken

And that’s just the start of a wave of new “synbio” food products, predicts Kuiken, whose program at the Wilson Center aims to inform public and policy discourse on synthetic biology. He envisions synbio increasingly being used to make food flavorings and key perfume ingredients that, like vanilla or saffron, are very high in value and difficult to grow or produce.

Synthetic biology uses tools like computers, DNA sequencing and chemicals to design organisms that do new things. The fermentation process that results in the new synbio vanillin, made by the Swiss company Evolva and sold almost exclusively as an ingredient to food companies, is just one method of synthetic biology; others more closely resemble breeding.

“Basically they [Evolva] are able to use yeast as the production factory,” says Kuiken, who adds that the synbio fermentation process is less energy intensive than using petro-chemical methods to make flavorings. Evolva also claims that this process allows the flavor profile of vanilla in foods to be controlled more precisely.

Read the full article as published in Future Food 2050

India’s climate tech revolution is starting in its villages

Camels pulling wooden carts loaded with coconuts plod down the main road amid speeding motorcycles, buses, rickshaws and cars. Farmers sit atop slow-moving oxcarts loaded with grasses and other cattle feed. In this region of central Gujarat, India, it appears that rural life has not changed for decades.

But drive down a dirt road outside the village of Thamna, about an hour north of Anand, and the 21st century comes into view. Solar panels drive a water pump that irrigates the fields of farmer Raman Bhai Parmar, 65, who grows bananas, rice and wheat on seven acres of land.

Raman Bhai Parmar
Raman Bhai Parmar. Photograph: Lisa Palmer

Parmar’s solar energy pump is one of the technologies being promoted by a new project designed to help rural Indians adapt to climate change. The project, run by the international NGO, the Consultative Group for International Agriculture Research programme on climate change, agriculture and food security (CCAFS), aims to create 1,000 so-called climate smart villages across six Indian states including Haryana, Punjab and Gujarat.

Haryana and Punjab are known as the grain basket states of India, producing the majority of the country’s staple wheat and basmati rice for export to the Middle East and European markets. The pumping of groundwater for irrigation over the past thirty years has led to a spike in productivity and increased food security.

However, the region faces increases in temperature up to 5C by 2080 and wheat is particularly vulnerable to heat stress. A recent study by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute indicates that climate change may reduce wheat yields in India between 6% and 23% by 2050. Environmental problems such as depleting groundwater and variable rains – delayed monsoons and intense rainfall – limit yields. Indian farmers also typically use almost twice the amount of fertiliser needed, damaging soil, contaminating groundwater and adding to greenhouse gas emissions.

Read the full article originally published in The Guardian.

Hot, Hungry Planet will be a book!

I’m happy to report that my book, Hot, Hungry Planet, will be published by Palgrave Macmillan. Look for it in Fall 2016. The contract is signed. Let the writing commence!


Hot, Hungry Planet is a narrative about the people attempting to reconcile the threat of climate change with the need to feed a growing world population. In Hot, Hungry Planet, I take readers on a global journey that explores the human story behind complex, hot-button issues of food security, social justice, climate change, and the environment. I started to post some of my food/ag/environment-related stories on this blog,, and you will find more original reporting here in the weeks and months to come. 

Hi, honey. I’m home. What did you print for dinner?

Technology on the Menu 256px-FoodMeat

By Lisa Palmer

A few weeks ago I attended a panel discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C. about food technology of the future. Much of the discussion centered on the production of meat. That’s because Andras Forgacs was on the panel. Forgacs is the CEO of Modern Meadow, a Brooklyn-based, venture-funded company that uses tissue engineering to develop meat and leather in a laboratory setting. Using a 3D printer, the meat is bioprinted onto pectin, the leading ingredient in making jam, and then grown in a sterile vat. It’s a method of beef production from the cells of healthy cow, and it is opening eyes. I wrote about the cutting edge of meat alternatives and cultured meat last May. You can read the story here.

Since becoming a public policy scholar at The Wilson Center in July, I have focused my research and writing on sustainable food production. I’ve written extensively on food technology, beef production, and the search for how to produce more protein for the world’s growing population without using too much water, destroying forests, or depleting ocean fish stocks. So I perked up when heard about the resource conservation methods of Modern Meadow and the potential for printed meat.

Raising animals for food contributes to climate change through the emissions of greenhouse gases and the destruction of forests and grasslands to grow the grain they eat. It also consumes a lot of water. Today it’s a bothersome problem, but it’s increasingly becoming a serious one. Beef production is a driver of global change and the problem will likely get much worse very soon, given the expected growth in the world’s population and demand for meat protein.

You can read about bioprinting and 3D printing of food in my article for FutureFood2050. For the piece, I talked with Hod Lipson, director of Cornell University’s Creative Machines Lab, whose team created the first food 3-D printer about a decade ago. “What food printing offers is a way to combine information technology software and biometrics with cooking in a way that was never possible before,” Lipson told me.

From Lipson’s perspective, 3-D printing is in its infancy and food printing is in the gestational stage. But a handful of companies like Modern Meadow are printing meat (though it’s not yet available to consumers) while others are producing commercially available machines that can print food. I write:

In the future, Lipson anticipates that sophisticated 3-D printing will offer home cooks the ultimate control over the ingredients that go into their food without giving up the convenience of manufactured products.

Here’s the complete story: