10 billion people to feed

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10 billion people to feed

Where do we come from, where do we go?

I had the great pleasure of opening the 6th Food 4.0 conference organised and hosted by Poznan University of Economics And Business 18th November last year. As the food challenge is, amongst other things, an innovation challenge, I thought it appropriate to share my presentation notes with you – I hope you agree!

… and warning again about the length …  and if you prefer to watch a video, you can do so here !

Where are we here today?

Many are familiar with the 17 Sustainable Development Goal that were established by the United Nations in 2015 to provide a framework towards sustainable development. SDG2 is about achieving Zero Hunger: “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.” Quite a challenge.

The global population is expected to grow to around 10 billion by 2050, and the demand for food with grow accordingly. With an anticipated increase in income in the developing world, overall food demand is expected to increase by more than 50%.  Not only that, demand for animal based food is expected to grow even more, by 70%. You may wonder why that constitutes a particular challenge.

This will become clear when we look at the CO2 emissions associated with the production of different foods. Meat-based food has significantly higher CO2 emissions when compared with pulses, grains, vegetables and fruit.

Agriculture generally does not only affect CO2 output – it accounts for over a quarter (26%) of global greenhouse gas emissions – it is also:

  • using half of the world’s habitable (ice- and desert-free) land,
  • responsible for 70% of global freshwater withdrawals,
  • causing 78% of global ocean and freshwater eutrophication (eutrophication refers to the pollution of waterways with nutrient-rich pollutants leading to harmful algal blooms, dead zones, and fish kills),
  • making up 94% of mammal biomass – livestock – (excluding humans).

This means livestock outweighs wild mammals by a factor of 15 to 1. Of the 28,000 species evaluated to be threatened with extinction on the IUCN Red List, agriculture and aquaculture is listed as a threat for 24,000 of them.

So clearly, the future of food and agriculture has to be significantly different from past and present if we, and all with whom we share this beautiful planet, are to have a  future.

When moving forward we should also aim to address at least three paradoxes.

The first is that on the one hand around 9 million people die of starvationevery year – that is more than from AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. Indeed, a child dies from hunger every 10 seconds.

At the same time we also have 2.8 million people who die every year as a consequence of being overweight or obese.

The second paradox is that an estimated 1.3 BILLION tonnes of food is wasted every year – that is about one third of all food produced for human consumption.

Yet still we are cutting down the forests, diminishing the capacity of the lunges of our planet. The world has lost 4.2 million hectares (10.4 million acres) of primary forests in 2020, compared with 3.75 million hectares lost in 2019. While there is so much talk about planting trees and protecting our rain forests, the opposite seems to be true, at least for the latter claim.

The third paradox concerns the nutritiousness of food.  In our attempts to grow perfect fruit and vegetables in combination with an increasingly depleted soil and impatience when harvesting –  after all, we need to harvest semi ripe fruit if it is to survive the 1,500 journey from field to supermarket and arrive still looking good – we have managed to breed the nutritiousness out of our food.

Where eating one orange was sufficient  in 1980, now, a mere 40 years later, we would have to eat 8 in order to get the same nutritious value.

Yet at the same time the market for food supplements is huge, and still expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 8.6% from now to 2028.

We are literally eating our planet!

The following graph is based on information provided in David Attenborough’s witness statement presented in the book ‘A Life On Our Planet’.

Over the past not even 100 years (from 1937 to 2020) the population has more than tripled, Carbon in the atmosphere has almost doubled, and we have managed to reduce wilderness from 66% in 1937 to a mere 35% today.

If you have been following COP26 you will also remember the urgency with which David called for corrective action, particularly concerning re-wilding our planet. Yet again, POC 26 was too little, too late…


How did we get here?

What were the key drivers for the status quo?

  • Deforestation

I have already mentioned that wilderness has decreased from covering 66% in 1937 of our planets land mass to a mere 35% today. If we are looking at the tropical rainforest and woodlands in particular, we have lost about one third since the mid 18th century – and the data here only goes to the early 2000s.

As pictures often speak louder than words, blow a visual of the deforestation of Borneo over the past 70 years – not much left…

  • Mega-fields

If deforestation is one huge driver for where we find ourselves today, the way we deal with agricultural space does not help either.

With the widespread belief that ‘bigger is better’, trees and hedges have been removed from fields, to allow bigger and bigger machines to be used for the harvest.

However, monoculture farming has many disadvantages:

  • Loss of fertile soil is one of them: an estimated 24 billion tonnes of fertile soil are lost every year due to erosion. That’s 3.4 tonnes lost every year for every person on the planet.
  • Another is that monoculture depletes the soil, which means that more and more fertiliser is needed.
  • But not only fertiliser, we also need increasing amounts of pesticides and herbicides as monocultural fields are much more susceptible to pests and disease

And the stuff we are putting on our fields is often not particularly environmental (or human) friendly either.

For example, Syngenta’s best-selling pesticide, Paraquat, is so dangerous that just one sip can be lethal. Chronic exposure, even at low doses, can cause Parkinson’s disease.

The deadly pesticide was first marketed in 1962, but has been banned in the European Union (EU) since 2007 on the grounds that it is too dangerous for European farmers even when wearing protective equipment. Despite this, Syngenta continues to manufacture the herbicide at its plant in Huddersfield, UK, and exports it to countries in South America, Asia and Africa, where it causes thousands of poisonings every year. In 2018, British authorities approved the export of more than 28,000 tonnes of a mixture based on paraquat.

Do we really believe that these ghosts will not come back to haunt us? Do we not import fruit and vegetables and other food from these countries?

The use of fertilisers and pesticides has disastrous consequences, not least for bees.

This is a huge problem, as about 1/3 of what we eat relies on bee pollination. It is not only bees, 25% of insects involved in pollination are not only in decline, they are threatened with extinction.

It does not stop there. As nature works in systems, it is not only the insects are dwindling in numbers, it is the birds too: their number have gone down by 2.9 billion since 1970. And while we are at it, the extinction rate of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish has been much much higher than was anticipated and we now talk about the 6th mass extinction. But this one is not caused by a meteorite, this one is caused by us humans.

  • Ever increasing meat consumption

A third factor fundamental for the status quo is the amount of meat we eat, and that our demand for meat is constantly growing. Over the past 60 years it has more than doubled.

I have already mentioned the significant contribution to CO2 emissions caused by animal livestock but this chart combines it with land use and the environmental impact of our eating habits becomes even more obvious.

To put it into perspective, global livestock production creates more greenhouse gas than the entire transport sector.

  • Subsidies

One final point I’d like to mention here, and that is subsidies. The agricultural sector is subsidised in a number of ways, from production support which benefits the farmers to market price support which benefits us consumers.

In 2020 the US alone the annual budget was 53 billion dollars – which is almost as much as the budget for education which in the same year was $64 billion.

Alarmingly but perhaps not surprisingly given the strong desire to eat meat, these subsidies do not go to produce with little environmental impact, but towards the production of beef, the worst offender for the environment.

So what now?

One thing is clear, we need a multifaceted, systemic approach to addressing the challenge; we need to change our methods of food production, distribution, and consumption.

And perhaps we should not think about our food system in mechanical terms: food production, industrial farming, factory chicken… Language influences how we think and feel about things.  The language we use makes it easy for us to forget that we are talking about fellow creatures, and that we are part of nature, part of the system that we so systematically destroy, and upon which we rely entirely.

How can we change the way we produce?

Mitigate the impact of food production

You may or may not be aware that globally the livestock sector accounts for the equivalent of seven gigatonnes of CO2 every year. This is around 15% of anthropogenic emissions – a similar proportion to cars.

Food additives can help reduce the methane that comes out both ends of the cows…  The good news is that we do not need more chemicals. Sweden-based Volta Seafeed has developed a supplement that is entirely based on red seaweed. A daily dose of around 100 grams, can reduce up to 80% of their methane emissions.

Protect our ‘food producers’ as best as possible.

Beeteck Hive Monitor, a remote hive monitoring system, is another example, this one from Africa.

Beekeepers generally face the following challenges:

  • the need to identify plagues early – mites, viruses and fungus are the bees worst enemies;
  • preventing the theft of their bees; both – human and non-human hunters are rising not just in number, but also in their level of aggression;
  • global warming affects the seasonal bee behaviour and makes it less predictable;
  • not being able to always be on-site, particularly when remote areas are concerned, hampers the work of the beekeeper;

The systems Beeteck have develop allow for the monitoring of,

  • forager activity – foragers are a great indicator of health, the systems tracks flight days, flight time and nectar collected.
  • nectar supply – the systems shows how much food is brought into the hives from the fields, and whether flowering plants in the area providing enough nectar for honey production.
  • and it create Swarm Alerts – the system will alert the beekeeper via email and SMS when a hive swarms while the bee keeper is absent.

We should aim to move from produce-use-waste to produce-use-reuse, creating cycles like the ones we find in nature.

There is no waste in nature, what ever is the ‘waste’ of one cycle becomes the food or input into another, a concept known as ‘circular economy’. This concept was popularised by around-the-world sailor Ellen MacArthur. Ellen became the fastest solo sailor to sail around the world back in 2005. When she spent 71 days alone at sea she realised not only how much she relied on nature, but also that all of us, as well as our economy, relies entirely on nature, and how fragile nature is. This motivated her to set up a foundation in 2010 to accelerate the transition to a circular economy.

Another example of moving towards circularity is the for-profit social enterprise and agricultural technology company Re-Nuble, headquartered in New York City. They transform unrecoverable vegetative food byproducts into water-soluble organic hydroponic nutrients and grow substrates while eliminating landfill waste and greenhouse gases.

What can we learn from the past?

Remembering the past is also a good idea. In the past we would not have had mega-fields. If monoculture is on one end of the spectrum, permaculture is on the other. Permaculture can be understood as the growth of agricultural ecosystems in a self-sufficient and sustainable way. Fields without trees and hedges are a very narrow habitat for insects and other animals alike; and of course a lack of biodiversity means that pests are much less likely to be eliminated by their natural predators, resulting in the use of a lot of pesticide. Permaculture involves planting a great variety of different plants, which will invite in a great number of different insects and animals, creating a hugely biodiverse, very resilient, often self-regulating system.

A key argument for the creation of mega fields tends to be that the yield would otherwise be insufficient. However, the opposite is true. The amount of fruit and grain produce on 1.4 heater of monoculture only requires 1 hectare when permaculture (polyculture) is  used.

Perhaps another aspect of remembering the past is to think about ‘commons’ where everyone had the right to graze their animals, and pick any of the fruit that might grow there. Copenhagen, for example, plans to plant fruit trees in public spaces. In Canada fruit orchards have been part of public spaces for a while. It turns out that creating shared, public fruit and vegetables patches not only improves food security, it also promotes food literacy, helps to reach environmental goals and increase community cohesion.

Better food literacy can only be a good thing as research conducted by the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) in 2017 revealed that one in ten 14-16 year-olds in the UK say tomatoes grow underground, and a quarter of primary school children believe cheese comes from plants. The survey involved over 5,000 school children aged 5 to 16 years-old. 13% of 8-11 year-olds answered that pasta comes from an animal, and almost 18% of 5 to 7 year-olds said that fish fingers are made of chicken. The survey also shows that one in ten 11-14 year-olds do not know that carrots and potatoes grow underground.

Expanding our resources

Along a roadside near Lima, Peru, fresh lettuce can be picked in an unlikely location: at the base of a repurposed billboard. The concept, called Air Orchard, involved pulling water from the air via large dehumidifiers. The water gained is used to feed a hydroponics system. the result: more than 2800 heads of lettuce were produced in the first months of operation. A particular benefit to traditionally grown lettuce is that they are healthier. For one, the water for watering the fields is taken from local rivers, many of which are heavily contaminated with toxic elements such as arsenic, lead, and cadmium which thus enter the human food chain. In addition, hydroponically grown vegetables are five times more nutritious than those grown in soil and consume considerably less water in the growing process.

Another way to expand resources is to move the locus of production – for example, onto the water. The team at Smart Floating Farms was motivated by wanting to help reduce the food risk, make food production more transparent, using clean energy to produce fresh food closer to home. Especially noteworthy is that these farms did not require costly and lengthy development of new technologies but are based on what is already there. These farms combine:

  • Solar energy for energy production (rooftop);
  • Hydroponics to produce crops with the added benefits that using hydroponics generates high yields with reduced costs and water use (middle level);
  • Desalination (for salt water areas) for fresh water production;
  • Aquaculture for farming fish and there species (lower level)

Also readily available are of course mooring systems, pontoons and floating structures.

Another way to expand resources is to go vertical. Vertical farming has sprung up in many different places. The concept is often attributed to the visionary American biologist Dr Dickson Despommier. Through vertical farming the ground area required shrinks dramatically, in addition technology can be used to create optimum growing conditions.

The method does not require any soil. Nutrients reach the plant via water in closed circulatory system. The environment – temperature, humidity, watering, nutrient supply and light – are monitored and controlled via sensors, meaning that the system is highly automated. Compared with traditional farming, water requirements are reduced hugely: by 95%, and the need for fertiliser by 75%.

You often hear the argument that the creation of such indoor farming spaces is very expensive, yet there are also alternatives. For example, FrightFarms use disused shipping containers. These have the additional advantage that they can be installed anywhere and everywhere (they can be powered by solar energy)

These vertical farms allow for just the right amount of water and nutrition to be used. Something similar can also be achieved in nature through the use of sensors, drones and satellites. The example below is SpaceAg. Their system can,

  • Collect and analyse information and make decisions in real time;
  • Improve the accuracy of harvest projections;
  • Analyse fields using images from drones and satellites to be able to identify problems before they become real problems, including weather warnings in real time.

Just last week I was at a wonderful conference in Leiden, Netherlands: Brave New World. I really liked the concept introduced by Nadina Galle: The Internet Of Nature. While this is not food specific, I just so love the idea that I would like to share it here.

1&2) Using light detection & ranging and satellite for monitoring canopy quantity & forest structure.
3) Smart building and green-grey infrastructure integration for energy savings & building performance.
4) Development and land-use planning decisions based on ecosystem service trade-offs &information acquired from complementary data sources.
5) Plants as biosensors for ecosystem resilience.
6) Aerial seeding for urban reforestation.
7) Virtual collection of plant pathology information for pest detection & diagnostics.
8) Sensor networks for monitoring stormwater, urban heat islands & air pollution uptake.
9) Street-view imagery & AI for green cover quality & management.
10) Biodiversity enhancement through volunteered geographic information.
11) VR and AR for green space perceptions.
12) Sensor networks for monitoring the effectiveness of stormwater management strategies & soil quality.
13) Social media platforms for public values elicitation about green space design.
14) Wearable technologies for health management in response to green space exposure.
15) Blockchain & cryptocurrency for greening initiatives.
16) Robotics for green infrastructure maintenance.
17) All ecosystem intelligence stored in the ‘cloud’.
18) Real-time communication between IoN network & city.

How can we change the way we distribute?

So far we have looked at things that affect food production. Now let’s take a look at changes in the way we get food from the field to the consumer.

Buy local

Answers given to the question, “How many miles or kilometres do you thingk food travels before it ends up on your plate?” ranged between 100 and 1000km, with the majority assuming it would be somewhere under 500km.  Reality is: 1,500 miles or about 2,400 kilometres. The mind boggles. So perhaps it is not surprising that it typically takes an apple, for example, 14 days to get from the farm to the supermarket. Given that we don’t really think about where the food in the super market came from nor how or how long it took to get there, it is perhaps again not surprising that an average American meal contains food from 5 different countries. I’d like to emphasise that the milage, duration and number of countries are averages

This long-distance, large-scale transportation of food consumes large quantities of fossil fuels. It is estimated that we currently put almost 10 kcal of fossil fuel energy into our food system for every 1 kcal of energy we get as food. This means that transporting food over long distances generates great quantities of carbon dioxide emissions. Of course, some forms of transport are more polluting than others. Airfreight generates 50 times more CO2 than sea shipping. But sea shipping is slow, and in our increasing demand for fresh food, food is increasingly being shipped by faster—and more polluting—means.

Buying local, and buying what’s in season, can make a huge difference.

Create transparency & traceability

If we are aiming to improve levels of sustainability of our food chain, creating transparency and traceability are critical. Today we generally begin to monitor food and its journey from the point where it is being processed, ie the journey from where it is being produced to this point tends to be a black box.

Scandinavia-based FarmForce is addressing this issue by providing a cloud-based solutions that offers organisations the confidence of sustainable sourcing while at the same time improving farmers’ quality of life, and protecting the environment.

Keep food fresh longer

Even if we are deciding to buy local, finding natural ways to preserve fruit and vegetables for longer is important. In order for food to be transported long distances, much of it is picked far too early and unripe to then be gassed to “ripen” during or after transport. Alternatively it might be highly processed in factories where preservatives, irradiation, and other means to keep it stable for transport and sale are being used. Scientists are also experimenting with genetic modification to produce longer-lasting, less perishable produce. None of it sounds very appealing to me…

Fortunately, nature-based alternatives are being developed, here just two examples.

The first is Apeel which uses materials that exist in the peels, seeds, and pulp of all fruits and vegetables to create a protective extra peel that seals moisture in and keeps oxygen out. That means the produce stays fresh, nutritious, and delicious twice as long.

The second is Shel-Life by PolyNatural. The founders were motivated by the fact that 20-40% of post production fruit is wasted. They developed Shelf-Life, a 100% natural, plant-based emulsion manufactured with natural extracts, lipids and plant polymers with which fruit are covered. The emulsion thus prevents dehydration and the growth of microorganisms, thereby prolonging the shelf life.

According to the company’s website, 157.041 m³ of water was saved and the waste of  273,6 tons of food was prevented in 2020.

Prolonging shelf life is not only possible at the front end, it can also be done at home, for example with the Gotek Fridge Sterilizer or EraClean Fridge Sterilizer Max. Both tools uses Ozone and negative ions for the sterilisation, a process which is entirely free of chemicals.

How can we change the way we consume?

The final aspect to look at how we can improve on the future of food is about how we consume.

At the outset I have pointed out that about 1/3 of all food purchased is going to waste.  At the same time, food waste can be hard to measure, and thus hard to manage, particularly in restaurants and large kitchens. Here typically 5%-15% of the food purchased is wasted.

The restaurant sector is exactly what Winnow has set out to tackle. Their analytics platform pinpoints what food is being thrown into the bin, thus helping drive better decision making when it comes to buying food. As they explain on their website, they are using the same type of technology that is also found in autonomous vehicles, ie they are are teaching a machine to “see” the food being thrown away in kitchens.

While use of Winnow systems at home might not be appropriate, a smart fridge can be very helpful here. These high-tech, programmable, voice activated refrigerators are able to detect the type of items stored, keep track of important details such as expiry date and usage, and some of them will even suggest recipes with the food that is available. These refrigerators work on a barcode or RFID system whereby they collect the batch and manufacture detail directly from the internet.

However, the biggest positive impact for the future of food, and feeding 10 billion people is to change our diet.

Currently 50% of habitable land is used for food production.  However, if everyone wanted to eat like the Brits, food production would take up 95% of habitable land, and if everyone wanted to eat like the Americans, our planet would no longer be enough, we’d need 138% of habitable land. That’s clearly not going to happen (I don’t think Mars is going to help out with food production any time soon!). However, a vegetarian diet would require only 12% of habitable land.

And if you don’t want to miss out on meat, perhaps a shift to lab created meat might be an alternative. Compared with conventionally famed beef the production of lab grown beef requires 45% less energy, produces 96% fewer green greenhouse gases, and it only requires 1% of land.

I hope that my presentation and this article have made one thing very clear: we cannot continue on the paths we are on.  We need significant changes. Technology and digitalisation will clearly play a huge role, but perhaps more importantly and impactful would be a change in our attitudes and behaviours, and what we eat.

Or to say it in the words of former Unilever CEO Paul Polman and Co-Chair of FOLU & Founder of Imagine: “It is simply not possible to keep 1.5°C alive, halt and reverse nature loss, or deliver the Sustainable Development Goals unless we act now to radically transform food production and land use systems. A regenerative food system holds the key to all of these goals. It can reconnect us with nature, and it can reverse the environmental crisis before we hit the wall. It’s the best, fastest and cheapest solution we have to fight climate change and inequity. Scaling this to 50% by 2030 would cost around $60 billion a year. Less than 2% of the total investment required for the transition to net zero. Helping farmers doesn’t have to cost the earth. And the benefits would be huge.”

And a final, hopeful note: It seems that at POC26 an initiative  involving  farmers, businesses, investors, policymakers and food sector initiatives was set in motion regenerative food production: “Regen10.  To quote from the IUCN’s website: “Regen10 is an ambitious collective action plan to scale regenerative food production systems, worldwide, in a decade. The initiative will put farmers at the heart of a global effort to transform agricultural systems, so that by 2030, over 50% of the world’s food can be produced in a way that drives positive outcomes for people, nature and climate.”

I realise that I am somewhat annoyed when I read a post and cannot find out when it had been posted … so I will henceforth aim to add the publication date: 31st January 2022

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