Technology is shaping the future of food, but traditional practices can play a role
Fruit and vegetable allotments on the outskirts of Henley-on-Thames, England.
David Goddard | Getty Images News | Getty Images
From oranges and lemons grown in Spain to fish caught in the wild Atlantic nature, many are spoiled for choice when it comes to choosing the ingredients that go on our plate.
Yet, as concerns about the environment and sustainability intensify, discussions about how and where we grow our food have become increasingly pressing.
Last month the debate made headlines in the UK when Part 2 of The National Food Strategy, an independent review commissioned by the UK government, was published.
The far-reaching report was led by restaurateur and entrepreneur Henry Dimbleby and focused primarily on the English food system. He came to some sobering conclusions.
His summary stated that the food we eat – and the way we produce it – “is causing terrible damage to our planet and to our health.”
The publication said the global food system was “the biggest contributor to biodiversity loss, deforestation, drought, freshwater pollution and the collapse of aquatic life.” It was also, according to the report, “the second largest contributor to climate change, after the energy industry”.
Dimbleby’s report is one example of how the alarm bells are raised when it comes to food systems, a term that the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says encompasses everything from production and from processing to distribution, consumption and disposal.
According to the FAO, food systems consume 30% of the energy available on the planet. He adds that “modern food systems are heavily dependent on fossil fuels.”
All of the above is certainly 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 up in cities
Around the world, a number of interesting ideas and techniques related to urban food production are starting to gain traction and interest, albeit on a much smaller scale compared to more established methods.
Take hydroponics, which the Royal Horticultural Society describes as “the science of growing plants without using soil, by feeding them with mineral nutrients 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 controlled, pesticide-free environment using renewable energy.
With a focus on “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 operations center on the vertical cultivation of lettuce, herbs and leafy greens. The process takes place in containers 40 feet long, 8 feet wide and 8.5 feet high.
Like Growing Underground, Crate to Plate’s facilities are based in London and use hydroponics. A key idea behind the business is that by growing vertically, space can be maximized and the use of resources minimized.
Technologically, everything from humidity and temperature to water supply and airflow is monitored and regulated. Speed is also crucial to the business model of the company.
“We aim to deliver everything we harvest in less than 24 hours,” Sebastien Sainsbury, CEO of the company, recently told CNBC.
“Restaurants tend to get it within 12 hours, retailers within 18 and home delivery is guaranteed within 24 hours,” he said, explaining that deliveries were made using electric vehicles. “All the energy that farms consume is renewable.
Develop your own
While there is a sense of excitement about the potential of tech-driven groundless operations such as the ones above, there is also an argument to be made for getting back to basics.
In the UK, where much of the population works from home due to the coronavirus pandemic, the popularity of allotments – plots of land rented and used to grow plants, fruits and vegetables – appears to have increased.
In September 2020, the Association for Public Service Excellence conducted an online survey of local authorities in the UK. In particular, she asked those questioned whether, following Covid-19, they had “observed a significant increase in demand” for subdivision plots. Almost 90% said they had done so.
“This alone shows the public value and the desire to reconnect with nature through the ownership of a housing estate,” said APSE. “It may also reflect a renewed interest in the public to be more self-sufficient, using home gardens to grow their own fruits and vegetables.”
In comments emailed to CNBC, a spokesperson for the National Allotment Society said that renting a subdivision offered landowners “the opportunity to exercise healthy, relax, to be in contact with nature and to grow their own seasonal food “.
The NAS was convinced that the British allowances “support public health, strengthen social cohesion and could make a significant contribution to food security,” the spokesperson said.
A wide church
Nicole Kennard is a doctoral candidate at the Grantham Center for Sustainable Futures at the University of Sheffield.
In a phone interview with CNBC, she noted how the term “urban agriculture” can refer to everything from allotment and allotment gardens to community gardens and urban farms.
“Obviously, not all food will be produced by urban agriculture, but it can play an important role in feeding local communities,” she said.
There were other positives as well, including mitigating flooding and heat. “It’s … all these advantages that come from having green spaces in general, but there are more and more, [which] is that you are producing food for local consumption. “
Regarding urban agriculture in particular, Kennard said it offered “the opportunity to create a localized food system” that could be supported by consumers.
“You can support farms you know, farmers you know, who are also doing things that contribute to your community,” she said, acknowledging that these types of relationships could be forged with other types as well. of farms.
Discussions about how and where we produce food are expected to continue for a long time as businesses, governments and citizens try to find ways to create a sustainable system that meets everyone’s needs.
So it is perhaps not surprising that some of the topics discussed above are starting to generate interest in the investment community.
Speaking to CNBC’s “Squawk Box Europe” in June, Jessica Alsford, global head of sustainability research at Morgan Stanley, highlighted the change.
“There is definitely an argument for going beyond the more obvious ways of playing the green theme, as you say, further down the value and supply chain,” she said.
“I would also say that you have to remember that sustainability covers a number of different topics,” Alsford said. “And we have received a lot of questions from investors who want to go beyond the purely green theme and look into related topics like the future of food, for example, or biodiversity.”
For Crate to Plate’s Sainsbury, knowledge sharing and collaboration will most likely have an important role to play in the future. In his interview with CNBC, he stressed the importance of “coexisting with existing agricultural traditions”.
“Strangely enough, we have had farmers who came to visit the site because the farmers are very interested in installing this type of technology… in their farmyards… because it can supplement their income.
“We are not here to compete with farmers, to take business away from them. We want to supplement what farmers grow.”