One thing we have learned in the past few months is that we have a broken global food system. For the past 50 years, economists, politicians and corporations have vouched for a globally interconnected food supply chain, in which each country is specialized in producing what it is best at and selling it to the world market. This is supposed to maintain a low price so that everyone gets fed. However, problems start to emerge when countries are locked down. Closed borders and trade restrictions make it difficult to mobilize food. So we see farmers wasting excess food instead of sending them to market – an estimated one- third of all food produced for human consumption is wasted globally each year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. We see some countries who rely on food imports suffering from food shortage; and after all that, we have food corporations who are looking for more profitable opportunities instead of feeding hungry people.
Is this really a sustainable global food system?
We always have to bear this question in mind. As of now, food production is accountable for one-quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. The problems we discover here are not only putting burdens on the environment but also highlight other bad consequences of our current food system. Frontline workers, who keep food moving are poorly treated with minimal wages. Farmers, who spend their lives growing food to match with the world supply are some of the world’s most food insecure. According to a 2016 World Bank analysis, about 80% of the world’s extreme poor live in rural areas. We have put so much effort into planting, growing, harvesting, and shipping the food to everyone but most of them have low quality and less taste.
On the bright side, alternative food movements are promoting local markets and sustainable production in a goal to reduce social inequities and impact on climate. There are countless advantages of shopping local: fresh and nutritious products, less food mileage, safer food supply and promoting the local economy. If you match these advantages to the problems listed above, you will realize that they seem to be the solutions for our food problems. For years, scientists have come up with new technologies to support a global food system that is broken. Do we have a better way to improve our broken food system? How can we make it sustainable? The real solution is not whether we can leverage new technologies to grow more food. It’s whether those new technologies can shift the current model to a smarter system that would leave everyone better off. Let’s look at how vertical farming can help shape a better food system.
Vertical farming is the sustainable method of growing crops in vertically stacked layers, which aim to optimize plant growth, and soilless farming techniques in a controlled environment. In this way, food is produced in a closed-loop system that minimizes water use and recycles inputs. For example, at GSGF we aim to build Aquaponic systems at our schools so that everyone can feed themselves while lowering environmental impact.
Vertical farming has been in use since the early 20th century. There are various innovative companies who seek to provide advanced farming systems. One of the commercial leaders in indoor farming, Aerofarms uses aeroponic systems to provide predictable results of harvest with superior quality of food. Their technologies make use of smart light, aeroponics, smart data, pest management, and smart scaling that helps growing greens without using any sun or soil in less space. Some companies are trying to integrate sensors into growing trays so that we can check the status of the crops with the help of smartphones. Some companies try to maximize food yield using data analysis to generate the perfect conditions for the plants without pesticides in their system.
Also, companies like Infarm are promoting their urban farming platforms where they build modular farms in grocery stores, restaurants, shopping malls and schools that enable customers to be able to pick the produce themselves. Their platform provides a system that is designed to be infinitely scalable – all farms are individual units that are monitored and controlled by Infarm’s central control centre. This means that food growing conditions can be adjusted and improved responsively, producing fresh, nutritious and flavourful produce locally.
In order to make a better food system, we need to be able to produce food locally to minimize food transportation. Hence, vertical farming is essential because it not only delivers the promise but also produces food with great quality. Besides vertical farming, we also have to consider ways to help our farmers.
Community-supported agriculture (CSAs)
CSAs can be a possible way. This is a model consisting of a community of individuals who pledge support to a farm so that both consumers and producers provide mutual support and share the risks and benefits of local food production. Here, customers pay upfront and farmers grow what they can to provide to the customers. But this model has some major drawbacks because customers bear the financial risks and have fewer food choices as some farms can’t grow a huge diversity of products. Thanks to many green supporters, current business models for CSAs are diverse and innovative.
For example, innovators such as Erin Baumgartner introduced us to her model using a subscription-based e-commerce platform, demand forecasting and route-optimization software. The e-commerce platform creates a constant demand for farmers and expands the number of markets they can sell to. Then they use data analytics to forecast food demand from customers. This way they would eliminate waste by supplying the exact demand. Finally, they use route software to create the best approach for delivering goodies to customers. There are definitely more creative ways to promote farm-to-table, but what is important is to connect local farmers to local people. By using these techniques, we can provide data to farmers and help them make better predictions so that they can compete with big companies. In this way, we may have a solution to fix our food supply problem.
So far, we have learned the importance of growing food sustainably. But what about our waste? If we want to have a healthier system we must not only understand our supply chain but also our removal chain. There is a project called Trash Track, that visualizes the waste system by installing small sensors into pieces of trash and throwing them away. These sensors will track their location and bring back data on how waste is mobilized across the world. We can use this knowledge to build more efficient infrastructure and promote behavioural change because the journey of our waste is no longer invisible. Another way to learn about waste is to study sewage. A group called Biobot Analytics has developed a project that uses robots that can dive into sewers to study opioids and understand cities’ consumption. Essentially, the study can tell us the health of our communities. The data collected can also help cities understand how people are getting rid of the waste and find ways to better allocate resources.
So we are back to the question, how can we create a sustainable food system? There is no exact answer. To achieve this, we must carefully examine each part of the system and apply our knowledge. We are in a century full of possibilities and we just have to constantly reflect and tackle the underlying problems. It is easy- if a globally interconnected food system doesn’t work, why don’t we try to create a nationwide distribution network of local farms and invest in vertical farming? Together with waste management, we can have a strong controlled food ecosystem that can make everyone happy at the end of the day.
Written by Maria Chen
Photo by laura s on Unsplash