Feeding the future

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In February of 2020, there were news and photos circulating around the internet, describing the havoc desert locusts created by feeding off on the crops of east African countries and mainly Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya. The destruction was so ravaging that United Nations’ CERF fast-tracked $10 million to the FAO to help fight the ‘Humanitarian Crisis’ in the area, which included spraying insecticides in the affected areas and other measures. This is just an example of the wrath of nature on human civilization. Over the course of recent history only, billions of dollars have been allocated yearly to prepare the counter-measures for these havocs. Insects and Pests, along with pathological diseases are the most destructive factors in agriculture apart from the climate itself.

In the past few decades, the trend has been such that the population is growing rapidly (estimated to be 9.8 billion by 2050 from 7.6 billion as of today) and farmlands have been rapidly replaced by the cities, and existing ones are equally challenged by the climate change. While everything is being technologically advanced, the practice of farming has merely developed in say, a century or so. We’re producing enough food for now, but with the current trend and the situation of agriculture, it is likely that the world population will suffer from the lack of food in many regions in near future. Saying that we won’t have enough food in the future doesn’t mean that our only focus should be on producing food. We can produce food enough for decades to come with the available resources and technology but only at the expense of nature.

I recently came across the book written by Dickson Despommier, titled The Vertical Farm – Feeding the World in the 21st Century (and an inspiration to the title of this article). The author has pointed out that we have become sufficiently advanced in technologies such that we should produce our food in the cities, within the boundaries of humans and let the land to rejuvenate. He argues that we can ‘bio-mimic’ the natural food-producing environment, making the farm a closed-loop system and sustainable.

As mentioned above, in recent days, a significant number of people have come up with the ideas for the production of food within the human limits; cities to be definite. Thousands of farms operate within the cities worldwide, and within a building or on the rooftops, abandoned areas all while applying the techniques of soilless culture like hydroponics and aeroponics (like this farm in Singapore). Food produced by these techniques and within the residential areas have considerably less carbon footprint, higher yield per square area, and minimum resource use. That being said, zero pesticides, water use amount – 10% or less than conventional farming, and significantly less human resource use.

In the conventional form of agriculture, as of present, the number of resources used are huge, and with the ever-increasing demand of food, existing farmlands are using a more vigorous form of crops and animals, enhanced by many ways like hybrids and GMOs. These organisms naturally should be complemented by more agrochemicals, and synthetic supplements to achieve the expected rate of growth, which compels farmers to adapt measures unfavourable for the environment and soil health. It comes as no surprise that one of the major causes of water and soil pollution are the agrochemicals used for the production of very food we eat every day, and with that comes the ‘food miles’ too. Just to move the food from farm to our plate, a considerable amount of fossil fuel is burnt and greenhouse gases are emitted to the environment.

So, what we need is the possible solution to all the negative impacts of food production on the environment. As stated earlier, we can achieve this by the establishment of vertical farms within the cities, a closed-loop system where resources are efficiently used and wasted are managed sustainably. This brings me back to Despommier’s book, where he has stated that bio-mimicking is the best way to solve the problems related to resource use and waste management within this closed-loop system. Producing food within the Controlled Environmental Agriculture(CEA), where the factors affecting growth are controlled and the deteriorating factors like insects, pests, and diseases, as described in the beginning are excluded. Wastes produced within the building are also treated as resources, for example, incineration of organic wasted to produce electricity.

Another author Toyoki Kozai in his book Plant Factory has provided the concept of PFALs (Plant Factory with Artificial Light), where food is produced within a controlled environment and closed-loop system, where artificial lights are used which mimic the useful rays of sunlight, necessary for the growth and development of plants.

Whatever the concept and the idea is, it is most important that food should be produced sustainably. The very environment we live in should not be harmed just by getting the food to our tables. With more mouths to feed and fewer areas of farmlands, and lesser people to work on those, it should be considered that we move on from traditional agriculture and to the more modern, technological, and most importantly, the sustainable approach of producing food.

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