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Feeding the future – what we need to do next

With over 2.3 billion people are expected to be joining our planet by 2050, the question of how we’re going to be able to feed them all seems more pressing than ever.

The trends towards globalisation and global supply chains means that we still expect to buy food from all corners of the world, without thinking twice about the environmental and economic cost of their journey. This past year (and more recently, in light of The Suez Canal blockage), we’ve been given an urgent wake-up call with regards to the fragility of the systems we have been so reliant on. The shock of this event was immediate and has finally forced the food industry – from agriculture, retail and hospitality, to re-examine their model – and fast. 

Resources aren’t infinite and the scale of consumption will soon exceed available supply, so today we review a variety of unique solutions that have been created in response. 

Bandage solutions

With 38 million users, Too Good To Go is the UK’s leading anti-food waste app, allowing you to purchase food from a huge range of top eateries, to prevent it from being thrown away for minimal fees on collection.

There’s also a range of apps that focus on eliminating waste earlier up the production line. For example, OddBox which is a subscription service that buys ‘misshapen’ fresh produce from farmers that would otherwise be thrown away. The growth of these niche apps is huge, as brands such as Too Good To Go are extending the movement to cover education, businesses, public affairs, as well as households. 

There is an argument that this is just a bandage solution, as the success of these apps depends on the individual users, and their interest and active effort in making more sustainable, eco-friendly choices. To solve the disconnect between the levels of supply and demand in the food sector, perhaps what’s truly necessary is a full-circle systematic change.

Introducing vertical farming

This worldwide crisis requires a global solution and new technologies are helping to reinvent the way we are sourcing, producing, and distributing our food. Vertical farming may just be one solution. Our image of the modern farming system is entirely outdated: picture a typical farm, flooded with acres of crops, sprinkled with pesticides and managed with heavy machinery. Now, picture a ‘plant’ tower instead, which produces the same amount of product with just 1/10th of the space. With a growing population and finite land, why not look upwards? Dubai is a city that seems to always be one step ahead. They have one of the largest vertical farms yet, stretching across 130,000 square feet of vertical space. This centralised system allows food to be grown much closer to larger population points, which in turn, eliminates the environmental and economic transportation costs, whilst allowing cities to become more self-sufficient and less vulnerable to volatility. Not to mention, the environmental benefit. These farms require 90% less water than soil farms, also preventing leaching and the loss of natural biodiversity. In addition, with produce grown indoors, there’s also much less need for pesticides – allowing the whole system to be naturally ‘organic’.

With an indoor environment, harvests can become more predictable and reliable, meaning suppliers can deliver on-demand and plan accordingly. One pioneer in this space is Crop One. With patented technology and systematic planning, they’re able to precisely estimate and monitor the energy required to satisfy each gram of crop output; cutting down on wasted energy. Using solar as its main power source, CropOne serves as a remarkable example to be replicated across the globe. With 1/3rd of our global food production said to go to waste, it seems vertical gardens may be the way forward. 

According to Joe Fassler, the features editor of New Food Economy); ‘I don’t think we’re going to shop our way to a healthier, more resilient food system… agriculture is going to make this shift away from yield to a system where financial and environmental sustainability are part of the equation”.

What’s this got to do with brands? 

As innovation and tech improves, so does the availability of these new systems. With brands being held to account for their carbon commitments, and sustainability becoming a key purchase driver, brands are having to reassess the entire life-cycle of their production. One example of a retailer that is actively supporting these innovations is Ocado. Combining their world-leading logistics and automation systems, they’ve acquired a 58% stake in Jones Food Company, Europe’s largest operating vertical farm. Tim Steiner, Ocado’s CEO said “our hope ultimately is to co-locate vertical farms to offer the very freshest and most sustainable produce… delivered to a customer’s kitchen within an hour”.

On a smaller scale, Bristol start-up LettUs Grow has designed aeroponic farms that fit within a shipping container. The business model stems from the belief that careful innovation in farming can make the world a better place, and has managed to raise a total of £3.4m so far. Brands can purchase the full “business in a box”, which includes grow beds and a control system. These unique concepts are becoming more accepted, and with greater demand, comes greater supply. It’s the brands that look to the future – embrace new innovations and commit to their carbon goals – that will win over customers and race ahead. As the CEO of JFC states, “we’ve started this company to change the world, not just sit behind a desk and talk about licenses.”

The boundaries of the food industry are being stretched, with both businesses and consumers beginning to develop a more conscious and sustainable approach towards their foods. With 1.3 billion tons of food wasted each year (enough to feed 3 billion people), we all need to attach real value to the rediscovery of lost flavors through short production chains which are both worker and environment-friendly.  

Parting thoughts

As a society, we’re finally reassessing our position on food security, global biodiversity, and taking more accountability for our individual choices. Tomorrow’s food sector will have to strike a careful balance between the demand for quality and taste on the one hand, and the search for convenience and affordability on the other. To allow for this, greater transparency and understanding is required to make our decisions as consumers easier… Or better yet, take the element of choice away – and this is where brands come in. Food brands and technology need to work together to help alleviate the stresses being put on this sector and help create a driving force of change. Brands have the power, funds, and expertise to respond. It’s time to think differently, perhaps by looking upwards instead of straight ahead.