Industries in Depth

We need to redefine our relationship with food: How will we feed a hotter, smarter and more crowded world?

shelves of food crops inside a vertical farm

Vertical farms and other agri-tech could vastly boost food production. Image: Infarm/Ken Schluchtmann

Sudhanshu Sarronwala
Chief Impact Officer, Infarm
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Agriculture, Food and Beverage

  • With the world's population expected to hit 10 billion in 2050, we urgently need to find better ways to produce and distribute food.
  • Agricultural technology is enabling new ways of producing food – ranging from vertical farming to alternative proteins and dairy substitutes.
  • By redefining our relationship with food, we can create one that is more sustainable for both the planet and future generations.

The world population doubled in the past 50 years and will hit 10 billion in 2050 before it starts to flatten out. But it isn’t only about the number of people we have to feed in this hotter, smarter world.

It’s the way we are producing and distributing our food while inflicting damage on our planet that is already under severe pressure. All this needs to feed into our calculus.

The world needs to produce more food than ever

First, we simply don’t have the land and resources to produce enough. We need to produce more food in the next 40 years than in the last 8,000 years, and 50% of the world’s habitable land is already converted to agricultural use.

Second, the environmental impact is untenable and unacceptable. Up to 28% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are caused by the food industry; some 70% of global freshwater withdrawals are made for agricultural use; 78% of global ocean and freshwater pollution is caused by fertilisers, biocides, herbicides and antibiotics; and 86% of the 28,000 species at threat of extinction have agriculture listed as a potentially contributing factor. All of this ultimately means our lives, health, wellbeing and livelihoods are in jeopardy.

If the conflict in Ukraine has taught us anything, it is that food security and food self-sufficiency are a serious challenge across many cities and regions. This, in addition to the food shocks linked to the COVID-19 pandemic and the increase of severe weather events driven by climate change.

Further, there is the issue of food waste - globally, about 14% of food produced is lost between harvest and retail, while an estimated 17% of total global food production is wasted – with long, rigid, vulnerable and wasteful food supply chains exacerbating the problem.

To state the obvious, we simply can’t afford to produce, distribute and eat the same way for the next 50 years.

Food production solutions on the horizon

The maths is clear. We need to produce a lot more with a lot less, and we need to give nature some breathing space to bring it back from the point of no return.

Efficiency measures – increasing crop yield and decreasing resource use per unit of output – can take us only so far. Research in crop genetics will continue to create improvements in the quality, nutritional value, yield, resource-use efficiency and resilience of the crops. However, it won’t help us solve biodiversity loss, lack of arable land, and the rigid and lengthy supply chains that distribute food.

The next ‘green revolution’ has begun slowly, but with powerful momentum. An agricultural technology (agri-tech) revolution that promises to produce more (a lot more) with less, decouple food production from environmental degradation and provide food security by ‘crashing’ supply chains and producing locally.

A spate of innovation and technologies are enabling new ways of producing food, ranging from vertical farming to alternative proteins, from dairy substitutes to insect farming. The companies are reimagining agriculture and food production.

Take vertical farming, for example. By growing crops in stacked vertical layers in controlled environments, powered by artificial lighting and nurtured through closed-loop water cycles (in the case of hydroponics systems), vertical farms can achieve significantly higher efficiencies and crop yield, much-reduced water use (by 95%), and significant reduction of land use (by 95%).

They can also dramatically simplify and shorten food supply chains by producing food closer to urban consumers, which by 2050 will comprise nearly 70% of the global population.

This tremendous potential is increasingly attracting investments into the agri-tech sector. Venture capital investors invested $51.7 billion into agrifood technologies in 2021; an 85% increase on 2020, according to AgFunder’s AgriFoodTech Investment Report.

Boosting food security through agri-tech

Here are 3 critical success factors for the agri-tech industry:

Growing at scale: The agri-tech sector is still relatively small in the context of the global food market. In order to prove its long-term viability and positive impact, agri-tech must tap into new and emerging markets where it is most urgently needed, from ‘food deserts’ to regions battling with food insecurity and where agriculture is placing nature most at risk. Rapid scaling through licensing and open source technologies could be exponential.

Producing the primary sources of calories the world consumes. To enable the production of staple crops in vertical farms and other methods like lab-grown meat, that use significantly less natural resources will necessitate getting a lot more comfortable with the use of genetics science in producing food and enabling, for example, new plant breeding techniques in the regulatory and societal space.

Increasing the generation, distribution of and competitive access to renewable and low-carbon energy sources for the sector’s current energy-intensive production. Part of this is achieved by matching market presence in areas of low food security and self-sufficiency with an abundance of renewable energy (for example, the Middle East). But an even larger part must be achieved by a more science-driven approach and embracing clean sources of low-carbon energy such as nuclear energy.

It’s essential to keep in mind that right alongside the agri-tech revolution, we need to lead a step change cultural awakening across business, consumers and governments.

Discover

What is the World Economic Forum doing to help ensure global food security?

Other than producing our food differently, can we become a generation that actively chooses and values things that don’t ruin the planet? Can we provide better nutrition in the same deal? Develop a real taste – a preference, really – for edible insects, seaweed, extinct cereals and tubers, vertically farmed plants and lab-grown meat?

This is why we need to redefine, and create, a new relationship with our food, one that is good for the planet and for future generations to come.

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Industries in DepthFood and Water
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