In case you haven’t noticed, the world of food production is changing….
- By 2050 we’ll have to feed 9 billion people.
- People in Africa, Asia, and South America will soon have unprecedented wealth and access to resources. The planet cannot support that many people living like Americans do now.
- The food supply chain is heavily subsidized by fossil fuels for transportation and refrigeration.
- Food deserts are popping up around the US while 45% of fresh food goes to waste. Access is a problem.
- Farmers are at the mercy of top soil erosion, water shortages, agricultural runoff, and other environmental disasters.
- There is an obvious flight to quality. People are willing to pay more for fresh, high quality, agrochemical-free food.
- Our food system still has a long way to go…
…but I’m hopeful. Here’s why:
Earlier in April I attended a global summit in Zurich called Thought For Food.
There I had the opportunity to join hundreds of bold, visionary entrepreneurs who are working hard to create businesses that will solve some of the problems listed above.
What do I mean when I say “bold?”
Workshop leaders included:
- A scientist capable of reverse engineering a virus and deploying a mass-produced vaccine within 2 weeks,
- A team working to find all of the Earth-ending asteroids and then creating an action plan to deal with them (Armageddon style minus Bruce Willis).
- A girl who’s working on global climate change mitigation strategies with the UN.
That’s just to name a few. I had conversations with dozens more about the future of gene editing, business, and solving humanity’s grand challenges.
Buckle up Dorothy, because Kansas is going bye bye.
The Thought for Food (TFF) Conference was a student lead challenge to build an innovative company that will be part of the system that feeds 9 billion people by 2050. I’ve included links to their projects, research, and the big problems they’re working on solving below. If it suits your fancy, you can dive a little deeper yourself by getting in touch with them.
Without further ado, here are a few interesting projects I had a chance to meet and speak with at the summit.
Enter The Projects:
Vitimin A deficiencies cause more than 500,000 people in the developing world to go blind every year. Permanent blindness is a lifelong disadvantage. “Golden Rice” and supplementation are often proposed as solutions to this problem, but both have challenges. The former requires a significant campaign to replace rice crops with genetically modified golden rice and the latter requires a high cost, is not sustainable, and requires local people not used to taking pills to undergo behavior change.
The solution offered by P2P Probiotics is much more elegant. Their goal is to tackle micro-nutrient deficiencies by increasing the vitamin concentration of fermented foods.
Fermented foods such as yogurt, kimchee, cheese, wine, beer, and various rice dishes are a part of the culture in many developing countries.
Unlike in the US, many people in India and SE Asia make these foods in their home by preserving the bacterial cultures used for the fermentation process.
P2P has engineered microbes that synthesize a high amount of selected vitamins. They are able use these microbes to make fermented foods rich in vitimin A, B2, B12, C, K, (and more).
Their plan is to use the profits from sales that they make in the developed world to provide these low-cost cultures to families and companies in the developing world.
I’m also excited about this on the consumer products side. Imagine a new class of health foods where we can selectively synthesize custom nutrient profiles into our fermented foods.*
*I generally follow the precautionary principle when it comes to genetic modification since no proof of harm is not the same as proof of no harm. That being said, a lot of large food fermenters already have a microbiology lab. I won’t make the mistake of thinking that everything new is good (read, neomania), the appropriate application of this technology has huge potential.
Sustainability pundits tell you to take shorter showers or turn off the lights… but the reality of the mater is that industry and agriculture takes way more water and energy than even every household combined.
I hate that corporate sustainability pundits place the burden of responsibility back on the consumer instead of big business, which has a WAY bigger impact.
Agriculture accounts for 70% of our fresh water use. Agricultural runoff and inefficient irrigation practices are both large scale environmental problems today.
Agrosmart’s technology combines sensors, the internet of things, and cloud technology to reduce irrigation costs. When I talked to the founder, she noted that her beta clients were able to save 40-60% of water used by switching over to their platform. Saving roughly half on a process that consumes 70% of our fresh water is a piece of tech that will really move the needle for water conservation.
The idea is simple – use sensors and big data to optimize the irrigation process.
Farming is also very labor intensive business. The typical farmer is tied to the land. Agrosmart will eventually link to irrigation and fertilizer systems to automate the process of growing crops.
Innovations in remote sensing, monitoring, and the IoT will eventually allow farming to become more and more optimized and automated with time, freeing up the farmer to focus on more strategic parts of their business or allow them to work less.
AgroSmart is working to reduce total water consumption, Oxmosis is working to provide affordable forward osmosis technology to help reclaim and reuse waste water.
In many parts of the developing world, there’s no robust infrastructure for reclaiming / reusing fresh water.
The absence of waste water treatment plants and closed-loop water systems means that when water gets used… it’s gone.
This ‘cradle to grave’ approach to using fresh water for homes, agriculture, and industry means that areas that are in most desperate need of fresh water are actually those that end up wasting the most.
Farming is a very capital intensive business. The farmer has to take on the burden of owning the land, the tools, and the crops before they’re ready to harvest. Sometimes this means that farmers need to carry debt on unfavorable terms in order to finance their business.
FarmAField has created an investment platform so that you can take partial ownership of a farm (and get the financial returns on that investment) while allowing a farmer to hedge their risk by using your cash to expand their operations.
It’s a way for both you and the farmer to diversify your investment portfolio at the same time.
In the future FarmAField hopes to expand to help farmers in the developing world by providing investors with more broad options and allowing the farmers to finance on equity instead of debt terms.
Note that FarmAField does this by pooling your investment funds into a cattle futures contract. I am not an accredited investment advisor so do your own due diligence. .
Labor is a major cost-adder for farmers, accounting for as much as 40% of their overhead.
Today labor contracts between workers and farmers are negotiated by large third-party agencies who charge a premium for placing workers at farms.
Food gets grown, but if there’s not enough of the right workforce, a significant fraction of food that’s grown never even gets harvested.
Ag For Hire plans to cut out the middleman with their app, offering lower costs for farmers, higher wages for workers, and a more sophisticated matchmaking system for pairing workers with special skills with farmers who need them.
Think of it like Tinder for matching farms and workers.
Ag For Hire is also working to provide worker protection by sending mobile push notifications about safety, workers rights, fair pay, etc.
Not all of the greatest points of leverage are ‘high-tech.’
Food spoilage is a problem in the developing world also. When a farmer grows food, they still have to get it to market and preserve it long enough to sell it. In many African countries that means transporting it in carts to the market.
Fruiti-Cycle is building a low cost, solar powered refrigeration box so that vendors can store their food and keep it longer. The founders are from Uganda and understand the problems with their local food supply system.
Refrigeration is only Phase 1.
Phase 2 will be to create a moped style tricycle that’s fueled by compressed biogas.
Eventually farmers and vendors will be able to collect food scraps in an anaerobic digester and use it as a sustainable fuel source to help power the bike in addition to pedaling. The team at Fruiti-Cycle will be able to help local farmers to produce high quality compost and bio gas from waste products that they aren’t utilizing now.
Palm oil is a huge source of the world’s vegetable oil and it’s an environmentally intensive crop. What do I mean by environmentally intensive? Check out this interactive article and you’ll see what I mean.
BiteBack has an idea to create a scalable impact by replacing palm oil with…
Sound strange? Consider that a lot of paleo / keto people in the US have recently embraced cricket protein as a high-quality supplement. Environmentalists also love it because it requires just a small fraction of the resources to produce when compared to other sources of protein (whey, chicken, beef, eggs).
BiteBack has found that there would be a similarly scalable impact by switching from Palm Oil to a new form of oil that’s manufactured by raising grubs.
This solution has two key advantages.
- The worm-based oil can produce 150 tonnes of oil / hectare / year vs 4 tonnes / hectare / year of palm plants. (30x + land utilization)
- The worm oil has a rich vitamin and fatty acid profile. It’s more nutritious.
If BiteBack can get the market to adopt their product they will have created a superior alternative to palm oil with a small fraction of the environmental impact.
I didn’t know this before the TFF Summit, but about 1/3 of all fresh foods we enjoy today require pollination, Bees therefore have a huge impact on the food system in both developed and developing countries. If we consider the economic impact of bees on food production, honey, and wax, bees add $265B to the world economy.
B-Box is a solar powered modular bee-box with user controlled ambient features, increasing productivity by up to 220%
The box is equipped with sensors that can be integrated with the Internet of Things. This means that farmers can receive smart notifications on when to rotate their box based on the scientific expertise that B-box brings. In exchange, B-Box will be collecting + open sourcing this data in order to further optimize crop yields based on climate, bee population, weather patterns, and elevation.
This way, B-Box is having an immediate net-positive economic impact on farmers and bee keepers in India while collecting big data for future generations to use.
Beyond the advantages to local farmers, the B-Box team has designed a better bee hive which makes for easier maintenance, transportation, and monitoring.
For a good primer on the importance of bees in the agriculture industry, check out Morgan Spurlock’s: Inside Man episode about it.
If you’ve ever eaten instant noodles like ramen, you probably know that they’re not exactly packed with vitamins and minerals.
For people living in poverty this kind of meal is a great way to get a high number of calories / dollar. The problem comes when you start to live on low-nutrient, high calorie foods alone.
Econoodle plans to solve the environmental and nutritional problems with instant noodles by selling a product that is affordable, nutritious, and sustainably cultivated.
Using cassava and other plants, EcoNoodle is able to produce a cheaper, vitamin rich instant noodle below the cost of the current alternative…. which was mind-blowing to me since instant noodles are inexpensive as is.
As I understand is, the process of cultivating cassava and converting it into instant noodle form is less environmentally intense than the current wheat-flour based method as well.
I like this solution because it takes a cultural staple (instant noodles) and just makes it better for people + less harmful for the environment without requiring significant behavior change on the part of the consumer.
This team was the winner of the 2016 TFF Challenge. Kulisha is improving the food supply chain by strengthening the aquaculture industry starting in Kenya.
Here’s an excerpt from their mission statement:
“The aquaculture industry is booming across the world. However, it is unsustainably powered by fish feed whose production harms rural fishing communities and destroys coastal marine habitat. Our mission is to provide an alternative, high-quality, low-cost sustainable fish feed made from insects. Our feed will simultaneously mitigate the negative externalities of the commercial feed industry while also promoting healthy fish growth. In addition, we’ll collaborate with communities to provide alternative revenue streams and educational opportunities.”
Today fish farmers in Kenya have to buy expensive, low quality fish feed that’s gathered from one of a few sources:
- Bodies of water are dredged for anchovies, which results in local habitat destruction and current Kenyan fish food being comprised of ~30% gravel
- Feeding livestock remains (cows, chickens, pigs, etc) to fish.
The problem with #1 is low feed quality + environmental damage, while the problem with #2 is that throwing animal parts into the pond creates nutritional problems for the fish being raised.
Kulisha will grow insects as affordable fish food on an industrial scale to help provide a cost effective, sustainable fish food.
FoPo Food Powder (Last year’s competition)
According to a recent Nat Geo feature 45% of fruits and vegetables go to waste in the US. The same is true for the most part in other developed countries. The fact that food is a perishable product and shipping routes for fresh fruits and veggies can be long means that a lot of material is lost in transit.
The question in many cases is not: can produce enough food to feed the world? Rather, can we provide access?
One of the greatest points of leverage exists in port cities. When produce is imported from abroad, it gets sorted for shipping. Food that is too ripe to make it to the grocery store or will only last a day or two in the super market gets thrown away or incinerated.
The process of incineration is expensive. During their presentation, FoPo mentioned that a leading banana importer in Europe scraps 27 tonnes of bananas per week at the port.
FoPo is working with large importers to create a nutritious fruit or vegetable powders. This way they’re diverting waste from landfills and converting it into nutritious, shelf stable food through dehydration.
Eventually their powders could be sent to companies that make drink mixes, natural food bars, and other consumer products.
I love this idea because it takes food that would be simply thrown into the burn pile and turns it in to a useful input.
It’s economically beneficial for the importer to eliminate the incineration cost, better for the environment, and better for the people getting food access.
There Are So Many More Projects To Do…
How will we do it? Innovation and giving a shit about the future of humanity.
That’s Why We Need You
It’s easy to sit back and point out the problems with everything. That way of thinking is productive only as a first step to solving a problem.
This is the part where I call you to action. We have to do something about it.
Get involved. Create real solutions. Vote with your money.
If you have the feeling that you want to make a positive impact by helping to solve some of these problems, I suggest that you get involved with the following organizations:
- Thought For Food
- FoodTank (The food think tank)
- The Association for Vertical Farming
- Or find another innovative food company / non-profit near you.
You can also help by spreading the word about these projects and contributing to innovative food start-ups around the world.
Final Thoughts – What Got Us Here Won’t Get Us There
There are a lot of problems with food and the environment. I don’t need to look far to see that — and I have the privilege of living in a nice neighborhood in a major US city. I believe that humanity’s biggest problems present our biggest opportunities if we’re willing to do things differently.
Outside the summit, there are still thousands more who are changing food for the better.
Here in Chicago alone there are organizations including Cultivian Sanbox, The Good Food Accelerator, and The Plant that are helping to incubate new companies that will impact millions (even billions).
My conclusion after spending a weekend in Switzerland with all of these bold visionaries?
There are a lot of people working hard to solve the problems with food and the environment.
The future may be brighter than you think.
Don’t Wait, Take Action! If you want to help with improving the food system or solving grand environmental challenges, there are plenty of opportunities. Leave a comment about a grand challenge you want to solve and sign up for my email list.