Similarly, “just enough, just in time” food supply chains are efficient but offer little redundancy. And pushing farmland into the wilds connects humans with reservoirs of viruses that — when they enter the human population — prove devastating.
To address these challenges, new technologies promise a greener approach to food production and focus on more plant-based, year-round, local and intensive production.
Done right, three technologies — vertical, cellular and precision agriculture — can remake the relationship to land and food.
Vegetables are grown using fertigation system. Vegetables can be planted in a small space and arranged vertically. Using less soil and water mixed with fertiliser supplied by drip irrigation.
Farm in a box
Vertical farming — the practice of growing food in stacked trays — isn’t new; innovators have been growing crops indoors since Roman times. What is new is the efficiency of LED lighting and advanced robotics that allow vertical farms today to produce 20 times more food on the same footprint as is possible in the field.
Currently, most vertical farms only produce greens, such as lettuce, herbs and microgreens, as they are quick and profitable, but within five years many more crops will be possible as the cost of lighting continues to fall and technology develops.
The controlled environments of vertical farms slash pesticide and herbicide use, can be carbon neutral and they recycle water.
For both cold and hot climates where field production of tender crops is difficult or impossible, vertical agriculture promises an end to expensive and environmentally intensive imports, such as berries, small fruits and avocados from regions such as California.
Cellular agriculture, or the science of producing animal products without animals, heralds even bigger change. In 2020 alone, hundreds of millions of dollars flowed into the sector, and in the past few months, the first products have come to market.
This includes Brave Robot “ice cream” that involves no cows and Eat Just’s limited release of “chicken” that never went cluck.
Precision agriculture is another big frontier. Soon self-driving tractors will use data to plant the right seed in the right place, and give each plant exactly the right amount of fertilizer, cutting down on energy, pollution and waste.
Taken together, vertical, cellular and precision farming should allow us the ability to produce more food on less land and with fewer inputs. Ideally, we will be able to produce any crop, anywhere, any time of year, eliminating the need for long, vulnerable, energy-intensive supply chains.