With the world population set to reach nearly 10 billion people by 2050, ensuring there’s enough affordable, nutritious food to go around is one of the biggest challenges that we face – and it’s one that affects us all. What potential does technology hold for ensuring food security far into the future?
It’s no surprise that the food security appears at the top of the list of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals. (Goal 2: “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”.) It’s a challenge that is set to grow as the population does. Even today, with enough food to feed the roughly 7 billion people alive today, nearly one billion of those are hungry or malnourished – usually due to poverty and unequal distribution of resources. What will have to change in order for us to be able to feed the additional 2 billion people who are predicted to be living on the planet by 2050? And what about helping to feed those who are currently hungry at the same time?
Water shortages, land degradation (often caused by intensive farming) and the extreme and unpredictable weather conditions caused by climate change are all exacerbating the situation by making food production more difficult. Whether helping farmers adapt to climate change, increase crop yields or reducing waste and improving distribution – tech has huge potential for securing food for all into the future.
Vertical Farming: Growing Greens Inside… and Underwater
At Aerofarms, the world’s largest vertical farm, leafy greens are grown completely without sunlight or soil, using an aeroponic system. The roots of the plants are exposed to air that is enriched with water vapour and nutrients, and the entire area is lit with LEDs. The result? Compared to conventional methods, the farm needs 95 per cent less water, zero pesticides or fertilisers, and produces a much higher yield per square metre.
In Berlin, InFarm is also pioneering indoor, inner-city farming – moving their modular vertical farming units directly into the supermarket. In the German capital, rather than scanning the aisles for pre-packaged salads and greens, customers can pick their food directly from the shelves – slashing supply chains down to zero.
And vertical farming doesn’t have to be confined to the indoors – they’ve already moved underwater too. GreenWave has developed a system of sustainable underwater vertical shellfish farms consisting of floating ropes for crops, that uses the whole water column from sea-bed to surface to grow seaweed, scallops and mussels. They can help reduce pollution, acidification and overfishing, while also being zero input – meaning they do not require any fertilisers, pesticides, antibiotics, or freshwater.
High Tech Greenhouses
From Africa to the Arctic, the humble greenhouse is also benefiting from a bit of technological optimisation.
In India, a non-profit called Kheyti hopes to help small farmers in the region with a new (and affordable!) type of greenhouse that can fortify crops against harsher weather conditions. Their greenhouse uses a new aluminum-coated cloth material which protects crops against heatwaves and drought and uses a drip-irrigation system, which dramatically reduces water-usage by as much as ninety per cent.
Already at work in arid areas in Australia, UAE and Oman, and now moving into Somalia, Seawater Greenhouse is developing and constructing greenhouses for extremely arid environments – where seawater is used to humidify and cool the interior of the greenhouse and then evaporated and distilled to produce fresh water for agriculture. The result is a closed-loop growing facility that’s virtually drought-proof.
In the Arctic, rising temperatures are also disrupting traditional ways of sourcing food – such as hunting – and dramatically changing the seasons, meaning communities are ever more reliant on food shipped in from the south. There, igloo-shaped greenhouses, strong enough to withstand the winter wind and snow, are being used to grow food powered by solar energy and by the burning of used coffee grounds.
Urban Gardening Projects
Growing your own food, or taking part in a community garden project means shortened supply chains, reduced transport costs, less CO2 emissions and more autonomy, self-sufficiency and sense of community.
Developed by IKEA’s innovation lab in Copenhagen, the Growroom is just one example of an urban gardening hub, a place for communities to set up inner-city gardens and grow their own food. In Paris, they’ve turned a disused carpark into an underground farm and roofs and walls into spaces for inner-city food production.
Meanwhile in Belgium, a supermarket is cutting out the middle man altogether and growing sustainable, zero-mile food in its own roof garden.
Food Saving Solutions
Twenty-first century famines are not caused by a lack of food – they’re the fault of unfair distribution. While we produce more than enough food to feed the entire world, the problem is that we’re also wasting huge amounts of it. According to a study, 88 million tonnes of food are wasted every single year in the European Union – a shocking 173 kilos per person, each year.
Both ResQ and ToGoodtoGo are both European-based apps that let you pick up cut price food from outlets at the end of the day – saving you money and stopping good food from going to waste.
In Germany, SirPlus is a supermarket that sells saved food tossed out by other supermarkets. In addition to two stores in Berlin, they also have an online shop that delivers throughout the country. In Denmark, WeFood is inspired by the same concept.
Feeding India is tackling food waste in one of the world’s most undernourished countries – saving and re-distributing meals to the needy that would otherwise end up in the rubbish bin.
Finding Alternative Protein Sources
Western diets are currently characterised by a large amount of animal products – a problem not only for human health, but also for the environment. Meat and dairy production needs more land and water than plant-based alternatives, and also has higher greenhouse gas emissions. Changing our own diets, and consuming non meat-based sources of protein, could help.
There are over 2000 types of edible insects already known to us, but bugs have never been a part of most Western countries’ diets. Cheaper, more accessible, and of course, much less environmentally damaging than animal protein – would people be more open to eating bugs if they were processed in some way that made them not look like bugs anymore? That’s what one initiative in Guatemala is doing, by turning bugs into nutritious flour and baking it into bread and cookies.
And in Indonesia, Biteback is developing a brand new palm oil alternative that’s extracted from beetle larvae. Indonesia is the largest producer of palm oil in the world, and the market is harming the country’s natural environment, with palm oil production the single biggest cause of deforestation in the country.
Another unexpected source of protein? The science lab. While you’re unlikely to sizzle up a piece of lab-grown meat tomorrow, it’s a concept that is now most certainly on the horizon. Analysis by scientists from Oxford University and the University of Amsterdam indicates that lab-grown meat products versus traditional protein sources emit up to 96 per cent fewer greenhouse gas emissions and consume 45 per cent less energy.