Space-Age Solutions for Feeding Planet Earth

Christine Gould
Feb 25 · 10 min read

by Christine Gould and Peter Bickerton

For many of us — and especially Elon Musk — space and the universe outside of our glorious, technicolour bundle of life provides a vast new frontier to discover and even inhabit one day. Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa has even paid SpaceX an undisclosed sum to be the first passenger on the Big Falcon Spacecraft headed to Mars in 2023.

But Elton John may have put it best when he sang that “Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids, in fact, it’s cold as hell.” He also said that “it’s lonely out in space.

Granted, escaping Earth might be an inevitable reality someday. We’ve been trundling down a self-destructive trajectory for the centuries since industrialisation — and, given the sixth mass extinction we are currently facing, this trajectory seems to be ceaseless in its rampancy.

But, here at Thought For Food, we believe in the future of Earth — and that with the same relentless passion that we are applying to get to Mars, we can solve our most important challenges right here on our home planet.

There are three space-age innovation areas that give us particular excitement — these are: remote sensing, synthetic biology and controlled environment agriculture. Not only are the technologies themselves exciting, but also the way in which they are developed — perfectly representing the power of next generation innovation by combining disciplines, embracing openness and collaboration, and utilizing DIY innovation approaches to unleash transformational opportunities.

  1. Remote Sensing

Satellites are now taken for granted. GPS tells us where to go, we telephone space before we speak to loved ones, we watch images beamed beyond the atmosphere and back again daily on our televisions. Nowadays, combine harvesters in fields are guided by satellites in such a precise fashion that not many a grain is lost.

Descartes Labs use satellites to give us instant access to Earth insights, providing incredibly detailed images and data that can tell us what’s going on in each and every nook and cranny of the globe. They ingest satellite and sensor data from more than 75 sources and analyze it using machine learning and computer vision modeling tools, churning out business intelligence for a range of industries, including agriculture. They have a partnership with Cargill on yield prediction, and were selected by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to receive a $1.5 million dollar 3-year SBIR contract to create crop failure warning alerts for wheat based on satellite imagery-derived indicators for the Middle East & North Africa region.

Agrosmart, a TFF startup led by Mariana Vasconcelos in Brazil, is paving the way for farmers to make better, data-driven decisions through monitoring of in-field soil and weather conditions — increasing climate resilience, improving productivity and increasing efficiency. Gamaya in Switzerland apply lightweight hyperspectral sensors to drones and UAVs to help with the detection of disease and pests in order to provide targeted crop management solutions. And, CiBO Technologies in Boston combine a deep understanding of biological sciences with data analytics to model and simulate agricultural ecosystems in computers, testing “limitless scenarios” for crops anywhere in the world at any point in time in order to help companies and farmers accelerate R&D and solve sustainability challenges.

Thanks to satellites, sensors , drones, hyperspectral imagery and powerful computer simulation capabilities, it’s possible to understand what is happening to crops day-by-day and year-on-year. And these types of advances are not just for big, industrial-scale agriculture either. Companies such as PlantVillage and former TFF Finalists Climate Edge are helping the 500 million smallholder farms around the world tap into the power that affordable remote sensing and AI (artificial intelligence) tools offer too.

While all of this progress is amazing, there is still more to do. Brittany Dahl, a long time TFFer and expert in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) at Esri Australia, points out: “we now need to go further to see better decisions being made in business, politics and policy with greater use of GIS and remote sensing tools. We have the ability to better understand our land, the flow of species, crops and ecosystems — not just with data itself, but with better analysis and sharing of this data — leading to better and faster outcomes that can benefit us all.

2. Synthetic Biology

Getting all the way to Mars is a long trip — 54.6 million kilometres, in fact — which makes it impossible to send packages of food back and forth (as happens with the International Space Station, which sits a mere 408 kilometres away).

NASA’s solution? Precision engineering of microbes that can not only withstand super-long distances, but can convert simple substrates into food, fuel and building materials, based on just a few starting molecules found on the surface of Mars.

Why limit this type of technological innovation just to space travel? John Cumbers, who once headed up NASA’s synthetic biology research department and is now CEO of SynBioBeta, states: “Water, food, waste, carbon dioxide recycling, biomaterials production, medicine — these are all areas where synthetic biology can offer solutions for problems right here on Earth.”

Synthetic biology combines biology with disciplines like engineering and design, and is being used in agriculture to do things like find replacements for pesticides based on insect pheromones. This approach to pest control is already well-known — but for many insect species, the manufacturing of the phermones is difficult and expensive. Synthetic biology is able to provide viable solutions for this manufacturing challenge, expanding the use of pheromones that will be much kinder to our environment.

Pivot Bio, where TFF’s mentor Keira Havens works as Sustainability Manager, is taking on the vitally-important challenge of fertilizer use in agriculture. At least 500 coastal sites around the world are currently experiencing fertilizer-induced “dead zones” — and with climate change, the situation is likely to worsen. Recognizing that our current fertilizer practices are unsustainable, Pivot Bio is solving the toughest problem of all: nitrogen fixation in cereal crops. Through the power of biology, machine learning and computational modeling, they “reawaken microbes’ natural ability to convert nitrogen from the air to meet crops’ daily nitrogen needs” — thereby reducing the need for synthethic inputs.

Synbio is also being used to create new, space-age-type foods— based on a vision that we can improve health and nutrition, while decreasing the use of inputs through more efficient, microbe-powered production. Take the company Spira for example, which was founded by TFF’s favorite DIY biologist Elliot Roth. They are using CRISPR techniques to make better-tasting food ingredients using spirulina (a blue-green algae). They partner with contract manufacturers in the developing world to grow these custom strains as a high-protein food source, then process the finished ingredients to sell to large food companies. Spira’s mission is to “tackle the problems associated with malnutrition by enabling companies to use ingredients that are cost-effective, good for personal health, and great for the planet.

There is still much more to come! NASA just took a real time, portable genome sequencing device to space. Just as we’re beginning to comprehend the scale and apparent infinity of the universe and the life it most definitely contains, we’re still barely scratching the surface when it comes to deciphering the amazing, intricate webs of biological diversity and ecosystems that have turned our own planet into a living Gaia.

Soon, we are going to sequence the DNA of the entire planet: of every single animal, plant, alga, protozoan and fungus on Earth — and quite a big chunk of the bacteria and archaea, too. Imagine what our own plants, ecosystems, soils and species have in store to tell us — and imagine what the tools of synthetic biology will allow us to solve by leveraging nature’s diversity as our building blocks.

3. Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA)

When we think of colonising Mars, we often think of a terraformed planet a la Matt Damon in the Martian. But, perhaps it needn’t be so complicated. As John Cumbers of SynBioBeta states, “We can have millions of people living happily in Mars-like conditions already — think about it: in Vegas in the summer, people survive in giant Casinos, or in shopping malls in the Midwest in winter. So there’s no need for us to create a habitable atmosphere up there, at least not for the first few hundred years.

Climate-controlled agriculture could indeed be one solution to providing sustenance for intrepid space explorers — especially those craving a nutritious and delicious divergence from a packet of foil-wrapped paste. To that end, Germany’s Deutschen Zentrums für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR) have been cultivating crops in “Antarctica’s eternal ice” with the EDEN ISS project. They are growing vegetables without soil using a recycled water system with optimised light and carbon dioxide — a literal space garden inside a shipping container. The experiment will go from the ice of the South Pole to the scorching desert, and eventually is envisioned to accompany manned missions to the moon and Mars.

The United Arab Emirates recently launched the Mars Science City project, a two million square feet, completely domed city that simulates conditions on the surface of Mars. There’s also the UK’s long-established Eden Project, NASA’s Mars Lunar Greenhouse project, China’s Lunar Palace 1, the University of Arizona’s space lettuce and the University of Guelph’s Space and Advanced Life Support Agriculture programme.

While looking to understand how life is possible on hostile planets, the innovations employed to do this are also hoped to help tackle self-sustainability here on Earth — contributing to water, food and energy security.

Speed breeding of wheat uses enhanced LED lighting and day-long regimes of up to 22 hours to optimise photosynthesis and promote rapid growth of crops. It literally speeds up the breeding cycle of plants: why wait for ten years for nature to take its course when we can fly through three or more generations of a crop in just a few months?

For decades, vertical farms that grow vegetables indoors without soil in stacked racks have been touted as a solution to rising food demand in the world’s expanding cities. The problem has always been how to do this at a cost that makes the it competitive with traditional agriculture. Spread, in Japan, spoke at the TFF Summit about their work to solve this challenge by using a mix of robotics, technology and scale. The company has built a facility in Keihanna Science City that will grow 30,000 heads of lettuce a day on racks under custom-designed lights using light-emitting diode. The vegetables are protected from pests, diseases and dirt, and temperature and humidity are optimized to speed growth of the greens, which are fed, tended and harvested by robots.

At the other end of the spectrum, TFF startup agrilution has brought this concept directly to your kitchen with their beautiful Plantcube, a climate-controlled device the size of a dishwasher, equipped with multispectral LED lights, automated watering and nutrient dispension, and real-time monitoring via an app to perfect the growth, taste and nutrition based on a network of Plantcubes.

Henry Gordon-Smith’s must-read Agritecture blog is teeming with plenty more examples of controlled environment companies (including the well-known Amazon-backed vertical farming company Plenty). Agritecture doesn’t just feature the latest and greatest of high-tech urban farming but it also plans, designs, and supports future farmers through its consulting services and has already assisted over 80 organizations in 20 countries.

It’s clear that the innovators around the world are taking a big bet on such technologies paving a more sustainable future terrestrially and beyond.

Creating a Space Race for Planet Earth

David Bowie’s Major Tom said: “Here I am, floating around my tin can, far above the moon, Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do.”

But from these and many other examples, it is clear that there is something we can (and must!) do. By looking up, we’ve come across many of the solutions that we need right here on home. “The stars look very different today.”

Solving Earth’s challenges isn’t just about new technologies and startups, however. It’s also about shifting our mindsets towards an orbital perspective. This allows us to take a long-term view, focus our interconnectedness and create solutions that take into account our Earth-wide systems as a whole.

Astronaut Ron Garan, TFF Keynote Speaker, tells us that his experience building the International Space Station changed everything for him. He points out: “If the world could come together to build such an impressive and complex structure in space, just imagine what we can achieve if we work together here on Earth.”

Throughout history, space has excited us and inspired us. It has shown us that nothing is impossible, that what we can imagine can become real. Now, we must call on ourselves to act on our dreams and collective imagination to solve the imminently solvable problems here.

It’s time to set our sights back to Earth, and appreciate that our own little sphere is full of infinite wonder and possibilities. We’re still yet to unravel the mysteries of our own brains, never mind the 3.65 billion letters of DNA which make up the genome of each of 37 trillion cells in just one human body.

Just imagine the possible permutations of the biological workings of ten million species, each interacting with thousands of others, in intricate webs of life that have given rise to dew soaked grasslands, marauding armies of wildebeest, temperate pine forests littered with fresh smelling needles, coral reefs alive with colour and splendour, rainforests drowned in a cacophony of raindrops playing along to the croaks, songs, howls and barks of monkeys, birds and toads.

Perhaps we don’t need to escape just yet.

This blog was prepared based on a speech Christine Gould gave at the European Space Agency phiWeek in November 2018.

Thanks to Elliot Roth

Christine Gould

Founder & CEO of Thought For Food — www.thoughtforfood.org

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