Technology is shaping the future of food, but traditional practices can play a role
Orchards and vegetable gardens on the outskirts of Henley-on-Thames, England.
David Goddard | Getty Images News | Getty Images
From oranges and lemons grown in Spain to fish from the wilds of the Atlantic, many are spoiled for choice when it comes to choosing the ingredients to put on our plates.
However, with increasing environmental and sustainability concerns, discussions about how – and where – we grow our food are becoming more and more urgent.
The UK debate hit the headlines last month when the second part of the National Food Strategy, an independent review commissioned by the UK government, was published.
The extensive report was led by restaurateur and entrepreneur Henry Dimbleby and focused primarily on England’s food system. Some sobering conclusions were drawn.
The summary says that the foods we consume – and the way we produce them – “are doing terrible damage to our planet and our health.”
The publication said the global food system is “the single largest factor in biodiversity loss, deforestation, drought, freshwater pollution and the collapse of aquatic wildlife”. According to the report, it is also “the second largest cause of climate change after the energy industry”.
Dimbleby’s report is an example of the alarm raised when it comes to food systems, a term that, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, encompasses everything from production and processing to distribution, consumption and disposal.
Food systems consume 30% of the planet’s available energy, according to the FAO. He adds that “modern food systems are heavily dependent on fossil fuels”.
All of this certainly provides food for thought. Below, CNBC’s Sustainable Future takes a look at some of the ideas and concepts that could change the way we think about agriculture.
Growing in cities
Across the world, a number of interesting ideas and techniques related to urban food production are beginning to gain momentum and interest, albeit to a far lesser extent than more established methods.
Take hydroponics, which the Royal Horticultural Society describes as “the science of growing plants without using soil by feeding them nutrient mineral salts dissolved in water”.
In London, companies like Growing Underground are using LED technology and hydroponic systems to produce greens 33 meters below the surface. The company says its crops are grown year-round in a pesticide-free, controlled environment using renewable energy.
With a focus on the “hyper-local”, Growing Underground claims its leaves can be “in your kitchen within 4 hours of picking and packing”.
Another company trying to make a name for itself in the industry is Crate to Plate, whose activities focus on growing lettuce, herbs and leafy vegetables vertically. The process takes place in containers that are 40 feet long, 8 feet wide, and 8.5 feet high.
Like Growing Underground, Crate to Plate facilities are in London and use hydroponics. A core idea of the company is that vertical growth can maximize space and minimize resource consumption.
On the tech front, everything from humidity and temperature to water supply and airflow is monitored and regulated. Speed is also critical to the company’s business model.
“We aim to have everything we harvest delivered in less than 24 hours,” said Sebastien Sainsbury, the company’s CEO, recently told CNBC.
“Restaurants typically get it within 12 hours, retailers within 18 hours, and home delivery is guaranteed within 24 hours,” he said, explaining that electric vehicle deliveries were made. “All of the energy that the farms use is renewable.”
Breed your own
While there is excitement about the potential of technology-driven, bottomless operations like the ones above, there is also an argument for getting back to basics.
In the UK, where a large part of the population is working from home due to the coronavirus pandemic, the popularity of allotment gardens – land that is leased and used for growing crops, fruits and vegetables – appears to have increased in popularity.
In September 2020, the Association for Public Service Excellence conducted an online survey of local authorities in Great Britain and asked, among other things, whether they had experienced “a noticeable increase in demand” for allotment garden plots as a result of Covid-19. Almost 90% said they did.
“This alone shows the public value and the desire to reconnect with nature by owning an allotment garden,” said the APSE. “It could also reflect the public’s renewed interest in being more self-sufficient and using allotments to grow their own fruits and vegetables.”
In comments emailed to CNBC, a spokesman for the National Allotment Society said renting an allotment garden gives property owners “an opportunity to exercise healthily, relax, and be in contact with nature and theirs to grow your own seasonal food ”.
The NAS believed that UK allotment gardens “could support public health, strengthen social cohesion and make a significant contribution to food security,” the spokesman said.
A broad church
Nicole Kennard is a PhD student at the Grantham Center for Sustainable Futures at the University of Sheffield.
In a phone interview with CNBC, she found that the term “urban farming” could refer to anything from allotment gardens and home gardens to community gardens and urban farms.
“Of course, not all food is produced by urban agriculture, but it can play a huge role in feeding local communities,” she said.
There were other positive aspects too, including flood and heat protection. “It’s … all of these benefits that come with green spaces in general, but then there’s the added bonus that [which] is that you produce food for local consumption. “
Regarding urban agriculture in particular, Kennard said it offered “the opportunity to develop a localized food system” that could be supported by consumers.
“You can support farms that you know, farmers you know who also do things that add to your community,” she said, acknowledging that these types of relationships could be made with other types of farms as well.
Discussions about how and where we produce food will continue for a long time as businesses, governments and citizens look for ways to create a sustainable system that meets the needs of all.
It is, therefore, perhaps not surprising that some of the topics discussed above are generating interest in the investment community.
In an interview with CNBC’s Squawk Box Europe in June, Jessica Alsford, global director of sustainability research at Morgan Stanley, highlighted this change.
“There is certainly an argument for looking beyond the most obvious … ways of playing the green theme, as you say, further down the value chain and supply chain,” she said.
“However, I would also say that you need to remember that sustainability encompasses a number of different issues,” said Alsford. “And we get a lot of questions from investors who go beyond the pure green and want to deal with related topics such as the future of nutrition or biodiversity.”
For Crate to Plate’s Sainsbury, knowledge sharing and collaboration will most likely play a major role in the future. In his interview with CNBC, he stressed the importance of “coexisting with existing agricultural traditions”.
“Oddly enough, we visited farmers who visited the site because the farmers are very interested in getting this type of technology … installed on their farms … because it can add to their income.”
“We’re not here to compete with farmers, to take away farmers’ business. We want to complement what farmers grow.”