Food is frontline news as the price of basics spiral upwards. Most obviously, this crisis results from the Ukraine war’s impact on the supply of wheat and fertilizer from Russia and Ukraine. But this is the tip of the iceberg. What the war has revealed is the underlying fragility of our global food system. Like the world needs to wean itself off carbon emitting energy, it must urgently transition to a very different way of producing the nutritious, affordable food we need.
Our food security is at risk because of our reliance on distant production traded through opaque commodity markets, all in the hands of a small number of companies and countries. We are at growing risk because climate change will make much of this production economically unviable, or simply impossible. Moreover, these super-highways of food production and trade depend on the unsustainable overuse of nature, resulting in water scarcities, dying rivers and oceans, and degraded and toxic land.
It would be foolish to trust anyone who suggests that there is a single, simple solution. For example, we need to protect nature, advance regenerative agriculture, tax or forbid the consumption of unhealthy food, rid the world of perverse subsidies that reward the wrong kind of food production, reduce the obscene amount of food waste, and be more ambitious in addressing our collective climate challenge.
In taking action, moreover, we must both protect the hundreds of millions of people across the world dependent for their livelihoods on agriculture and ensure that food is affordable for all.
It is a tall order, and right now, our scorecard looks weak set against these indicators of success. And that was before the impact of the Ukraine war on food, energy and fertilizer prices that threaten to plunge hundreds of millions of people into extreme poverty.
Making rapid progress requires us to advance a new generation of food production systems that enable us to locally produce affordable, nutritious, tasty food with minimal impact on nature and climate. And it is this self-evident truth that has led me to the world of vertical farming.
Technology is never, ever a silver bullet in advancing a more inclusive, sustainable development. Equally, however, technology is often a critical input to a broader vision and pathway to success, from the fields of health and education through to the more effective management of climate and nature, and the governance of our political and business institutions.
So too with food. Vertical farming, or more properly termed ‘closed environment agriculture’, brings both familiar and bleeding edge lighting, robotics and lab-like technologies into play. But this is not enough. It takes a powerful vision with the world’s best business and farming expertise to effectively deploy the technology in delivering affordable food produced close to home that is free from the unstable, destructive, and frankly scary features of today’s food system.
Vertical farming has to date been a niche affair, in the main delivering expensive microgreens and marijuana to the urban elite. But such limits are set to change as the technology and economics mature to become a cost-competitive basis for supplying fresh, locally produced, pesticide-free vegetables and proteins.
And the attractiveness of vertical farming increases the more one takes into account. Imagine reducing food waste from 30-40% of production to practically zero, reducing full life cycle carbon emissions by up to 75% and water by over 90% as compared to today’s dominant, land-based food production systems. And to top it all, imagine food prices being constant, 365 days a year, irrespective of the weather or the state of our geopolitical affairs.
Vertical farming is a next generation farming system that can serve the needs of all. Its produce will be increasingly price competitive as technology costs fall, farming recipes improve, and as today’s food production systems become more costly in the face of climate and other factors.
And all means all. Imagine serving the fresh food needs of refugee camps and mobile units being on call to provide the immediate food needs of vulnerable communities struck by the world’s growing number of natural and other disasters.
Amplifying the most positive features of new business models requires a realignment of the rules governing markets. Today, for example, carbon credits cannot be sold by vertical farms despite their enormous carbon saving potential. Similarly, food grown out of the soil with no pesticides and only organic fertilizers are currently forbidden to call themselves organic in many countries. And as always, standards are needed to ensure that vertical farmers say what they do and do what they say.
Vertical farming local characteristics are very suited to local ownership, much as we have seen for windfarms and solar systems owned by communities and users. A more decentralized, local ownership of food production could change the balance of power across the global food system, thereby avoiding the many disadvantages of markets dominated by a few, distant corporations. Governments could do much to encourage such developments, as Germany and then others did in advancing feed in tariffs to incentivize decentralized clean energy production.
Action is needed to address the urgent needs of poorer families and communities at immediate risk because of increased food and energy prices. Beyond that, today’s crisis could serve some good by triggering more urgency and ambitious action in transitioning today’s unsustainable food system. NextGen vertical farming exemplifies the place of de-centralized, technology-intensive production systems in that transition.
Dr. Simon Zadek is writing this in his independent capacity, and is a non-executive Board member of OneFarm, a vertical farm company, and the Chair of the non-profit initiative, Finance for Biodiversity. Energy Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.
Simon Zadek is Chair of Finance for Biodiversity, Senior Advisor to the Task Force on Nature Related Financial Disclosure, and co-lead of the Taskforce on Nature Markets. Former Secretariat, UN Secretary General’s Task Force on Digital Financing of the Sustainable Development Goals.