How Are We Going to Feed the World if We Need Exponentially Growing Amounts of Food?

Many of my partner’s family members are farmers, so I like to think about the complexity of food production from time to time, especially when we visit the family farm. It’s good brain exercise to think of all the moving parts involved.

As such, I was reading my monthly issue of National Geographic and found this article to be intriguing, not in small part due to the potential for less-than-ideal climates to foster large agricultural operations to feed the world but also how the new methods by which they’re doing it. This blog post isn’t that deep, just sharing a cool article and a couple quick thoughts on it.

Besides the obvious discussion (and really cool photos) of the hundreds of acres of greenhouses in The Netherlands, the amount of experimentation going on in agriculture within the greenhouses is what caught my attention the most. The greenhouses are simultaneously labs and farms, getting work done on two fronts. It seems that the agricultural experiments and developments mentioned in the article are really only ones that you can only feasibly accomplish in a web-connected and electricity-inclined greenhouse (something that’s certainly hard to do in open fields). Smart sensors for really every aspect of the growing process, differences in light color and intensity, and drones to monitor plant health are all innovations that have been developed on this smallish scale. Although camped out inside the tiny border of The Netherlands, these innovations can potentially impact food production on a global scale.

There are a lot of complaints in social sciences about how the “lab” setting of work does not map well to the real world. For instance, psychological lab studies often do not take the complexity of actual living into account. Educational research is often pushed to conduct research in actual settings to account for the messy nature of learning. In this case, the artificially created environment actually seems to afford researchers new ways of seeing the world. It’s an exciting application of human-designed environments and lab spaces with imposed constraints.

At first glance, this seems to work well for agriculture because the greenhouse farmers and researchers seem to embrace complexity instead of trying to simplify things too far. Although the environments are designed (and thus simplified from their natural state), the greenhouses seem to employ a network of natural processes and experiment how they work. It’s a great way to observe simultaneous agricultural processes and collect data at every step of a plant’s growth.

I was also impressed with the number of international grad students that go to The Netherlands to work with researchers, innovators, and idea people with the goal of feeding the world. These facilities not only provide the context for some cool experiments, but also genuine learning experiences for those who want to dedicate their careers to solving food challenges in their countries.

A fun read and beautiful visuals — We’ve got to keep pushing toward this approach of both experimental and literal food hotbeds in hothouses here in the U.S.!