We already have the technology to solve global famine, so what is it and what’s stopping us from feeding the world?
TODAY, GOVERNMENTS, COMPANIES, and tens of thousands of experts around the world all seem to agree, in some cases grudgingly, that in the next fifty years the natural world and humanity will spend most of its time lurching from one cataclysmic event to another.
In fact, if everyone is to be believed then by the year 2050, as the world’s population surges past the 10 billion mark, there are so many cataclysmic events, from the devastating impact of climate change that includes dramatic increases in desertification, forest fires, sea levels, soaring global temperatures, and storm events, through to significant increases in energy poverty and actual poverty, famine, inequality, and war, that it’d be hard for any one of us to think of these as being more apocalyptic events than mere catastrophic ones.
Of course, using either one of these two words, apocalypse or catastrophe, in a conversation about the future should be enough to make most people shudder and want to change it, which then prompts us to ask the question: Can we change this and create a better future for ourselves and the planet, or is this version of the future inescapable? And that’s what I’m going to look into during a series of special features as part of the 311 Institute’s Future World Series, and in this special future I’m going to take a closer look at the Future of Food and how, through the combination of human ingenuity and technology, we solve global famine.
The numbers are truly jarring at every level, today more than one quarter of the planet’s 7.5 billion people suffer from some form of malnutrition and nearly 1 billion are chronically hungry.
Furthermore, if that’s not striking enough, there’s this – the world’s population is expected to reach a whopping 9.7 billion by the year 2050, so if we’re unable to feed everyone right now how can we possibly do it when there are billions more people on planet Earth?
FROM FARM TO FORK
Naturally, today some believe the solution to this grand challenge lies in simply producing more food, whether it’s by using more chemicals and pesticides or leaning more on precision agriculture, or whether it’s by using genetic engineering to create hardier livestock and higher yield crops by, for example, tinkering about with plants sunscreen and finding new ways to bring crops back from the dead, or by using it to exterminate pest species. But food production is only part of the challenge.
In a recent study in the journal Bioscience researchers suggested that overall global food production will need to increase by anywhere from 25 to 70 percent in order to help us feed a population of over 10 billion people in 2050, but what if we told you that there’s already enough food grown on the world’s farms to feed 10 billion people? Yes, that’s right, apparently, we are already producing enough food to feed those extra 2.5 billion people.
So, problem solved, can we all pack up and go home? Well, unfortunately no because there’s the problem of distributing it, as the saying goes, “from farm to fork.” To paraphrase the author William Gibson this means the future’s food is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.
So, what is happening to all this excess food? According to the United Nations an estimated one third of all food produced for human use, which is valued at more than $1 trillion, is lost or wasted each year.
John Mandyck, author of Food Foolish puts it into more relatable terms:
“Imagine purchasing three bags of groceries. While driving home toss half of one bag of food into the road. That represents the loss that occurs during harvest, processing and distribution. Arrive home and immediately toss the other half of the bag into the trash. That’s the waste experienced by retailers and consumers.”
Asides from the obvious environmental and societal issues that this wastage creates the environmental footprint of producing all this food, of which at least a third is wasted, helps accelerate environmental destruction and climate change and create a virtuous cycle of harm. Today food production, in the form of crops and livestock, accounts for over 30 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions and more than 40 percent of global water consumption. Putting that into more relatable terms that means that the amount of water wasted producing food that is never eaten is equal to the entire annual water needs of Africa, and that the greenhouse gas emissions are equal to those produced by all the world’s vehicles.
Suffice to say I find it difficult to think of any other industry that would tolerate such inefficiencies, so it’s not too much of a leap to say that today’s food industry faces a plethora of enormous systemic challenges, many of which hark back centuries.
MODERN BAND AIDS
One of the ways we can eliminate some of this food wastage is by using so called “Cold Chains.” Already commonplace in more developed countries these chains are precisely what they sound like – the transportation of food at controlled temperatures throughout the entire supply chain, from refrigerated warehouses to refrigerated trucks, that helps ensure that food gets from farm to market or store without a too much spoilage. Unfortunately though many developing countries lack even this kind of basic infrastructure the result of which is that the majority of food spoils en route.
Take the example of an open air flatbed truck transporting tomatoes in a warm climate such as Africa. By the time the truck reaches a local market or grocery store most of that crop has been damaged or destroyed due to the heat, or has even fallen off the truck – it goes without saying that a closed refrigerated truck would save most, if not all, of those tomatoes.
Cold chains, therefore, seems like a simple solution that can help us redress the balance somewhat, but in order to develop effective cold chains in countries like Africa the equipment needs to be affordable and it often isn’t, and then there’s the added complication of convenient access to finance and maintenance services.
When we then consider the other part of the food wastage problem though, namely consumers wasting food, we can obviously encourage people to only buy what they need when they need it and to plan their meals accordingly, but despite years, neigh decades of hammering this message home statistics show that we’re wasting even more food than before not less.
Whatever way you look at it so far none of these so called band aids are really helping us move the dial or conquer the spectre of world famine. But there’s still hope.
THE FOOD OF TOMORROW
Eventually solving world famine will come down to our ability to balance and resolve three main challenges – food production, food distribution, and food demand. And the good news is that the solutions to all three of these are already emerging in the form of on demand food, but I’m not taking about the kind of on demand food you’re thinking about – Domino’s pizza’s delivered by drone will only get us so far – so let’s explore more.
When it comes to increasing not only food production but increasing the volume of quality produce in an environmentally sustainable way fortunately we have a variety of different exponential technologies coming to our aid.
In the near term there’s the obvious as I mentioned previously, genetically modified crops and livestock that grow fast, produce high yields, and are resistant to disease and able to ride out a variety of different environmental stresses such as drought. And, as attractive as these options might be in the short term, as we find new ways to produce everything from super cows through to super high yield crops that, among other things were ironically were originally designed to grow in space and on Mars, over the long term these food production techniques will still rely on having huge tracts of land allocated to them, will still be subject to the same issues of food distribution and wastage, and will still carry a huge environmental footprint.
As we accelerate out of the near term though and shift our thinking from linear thinking to exponential thinking, from improving on the old to embracing the new, at first we’ll see the increasing proliferation of vertical farms that allow us to grow at least eight times the amount of produce as we do today using at least 90 percent less space and water, and 100 percent less chemicals and pesticides. Furthermore, as we continue to see the rise of fully autonomous robotic vertical farms the cost of producing this high quality organic produce will drop dramatically until it gets close to zero, and as these farms move into local warehouse complexes, and then into neighbourhoods and communities, the number of food miles that produce has to travel will be all but eliminated.
Now that we’ve, arguably, solved the issue of crop production, as well as in time fruit production, let’s now turn our attention to the pressing problem of supplying the world with enough protein, better known as meat.
Nature perfected the answer to this problem billions of years ago, namely the ability to turn one single cell into an infinite number of cells, and it’s only now that we’re unravelling natures secrets and leveraging this same, albeit biological technology, for ourselves.
The first type of technology using this ancient secret recipe goes by many names with the two most popular being Clean Meat or Lab Grown Meat. But, while these two technologies rely on taking single viable cells from animals and using Bioreactors to help them replicate and proliferate to create everything from on demand chicken nuggets to on demand fillet steaks, there are other foody exponential technologies we can lean on as well. By using a special type of 3D printer called a Bio-Printer we can also print, yes that’s print, gourmet food and beef on demand, and use genetic engineering to create milk and dairy produce without the cow – here, there, at home, or even in space.
Furthermore, the meat products we can grow using these technologies means not only can we take a single cell from an animal, whether it’s a chicken, a cow, a sheep, or even a zebra to create authentic, organic meats on demand, but we can also do the same for fish, from salmon to tuna, too. And, again, because this entire manufacturing process can be automated as the technology becomes more refined we’re already seeing prices plummet, from $1 million per pound of meat five years ago to $363 today. As a result, in just a few years time it’s conceivable that we’ll be within a whisker of being able to produce these meats, these organic anti-biotic and hormone free, and these animal free meats, at wholesale supermarket prices, and then the price plummets further from there …
So, as you can see, using these technologies alone, and before even more emerge, we can already see a path to producing an almost unlimited amount of crops, fruits, and meats, on demand both locally and even within our own homes. And as for what all this means for famine? Well, drop a closed loop, autonomous robotic vertical farm and either a Bio-Printer or a bioreactor into the middle of the desert and you can feed people steak and lettuce day in day out forever – now all we need is the cultural will to perfect these technologies, and make it happen.