Ways to feed the future

The opportunities, challenges and problems in agriculture

The question we’ve been stewing on at DeepScienceVentures this month: what are the opportunities, challenges and problems intrinsic to the future of food? Here, we focus predominantly on agriculture and plants, leaving the future of meat to a later post.

This post is structured in the following way (similar to an earlier post on anti-microbial resistance) but with an added section on “vision”, indulging in a bit of science fiction, as follows:

I. The situation (key constraints for new solutions in agri and food)
II. The opportunities (different levers that inventors, scientists and entrepreneurs might use to alter the situation)
III. A vision (personal attempt to envision integration of many of these factors)

Throughout, I’ve attempted to remain technology agnostic. I’ve also attempted to focus exclusively on levers with commercial potential, given our focus on science venturing.


I. Feeding us — the situation

Increases in rural, urban and total population in Africa and Asia 1950–2050. Graphs derived from Masters et al. 2013.

The majority of population growth over the coming decades will be in Africa and to a lesser extent in Asia. Much of the challenge in improving the way we do food is therefore concentrated on the global south, though the constraints I talk about below apply more generally too.

This growth, and in in particular a burgeoning middle class, are stressing the current supply of food. This affects different foods unevenly. Bennett’s Law (1954) dictates that as incomes rise alongside economic development, consumers increasing move away from staples. In Africa and Asia this is leading to jarring growth in demand for fruit and veg, vegetable oil and processed grains, as well as animal protein (eggs, dairy, fish and meat).

A number of limiting factors accumulate to define what “good” answers to this strain must look like. One particular challenge that innovators in the space will encounter is the austerity of margins in the agricultural industry. In other words, these solutions must scale in order to be profitable. But beyond this:

  1. Constraints on “chemicals”
    Not just to serve a more discerning “organic” focused middle class, but primarily to reduce cost. Producers are desperate to reduce input of fertiliser and feed (a massive 2/3 of which never makes it to soil, but rises upwards in plumes if liquid) and pesticides (applied through spray mechanisms largely unchanged since the green revolution) as being amongst their primary costs, but furthermore to slow the exhaustion of soil and so maintain yields. Pesticides are also yielding super-pests and are increasingly curtailed by water regulations
  2. Constraints on water
    Water efficiency is a problem of growing significance, not only in areas which currently lack water, but increasingly in regions that previously had plenty of water, as weather becomes unpredictable, brand new deserts spring into existence, and as population density strains and stresses water supply. Problems include getting (enough) water (precisely) to crops, retaining water in soil until taken up by crops, getting water to penetrate to root structures, harvesting or using heavy machinery on water-logged soil in cases of excess water
  3. Constraints on physical space
    As governments worldwide crack down on deforestation, we must find ways to produce more calories per existing unit of physical space. This must include expansion into the 71% of the planet covered in ocean and the 33% of dry land covered by deserts. In Africa, finding cost efficient ways for smallholders and SMEs to make productive use of surplus arable land offers a subtly different challenge
  4. Constraints on distance
    Increasing geographical specialisation of food production via globalisation implies increasing distance between production and consumption, new layers of processing for food, and therefore falling transparency in supply chain (damaging quality of consumer and business decisions). It also makes food supply increasingly vulnerable to oil price shocks. A key aspect of this challenge is in facilitating regional production to supply growing demand within Africa or Asia: structurally, this is likely to take the form of large-scale farms linked to a network of satellite SME farms
  5. Constraints on energy
    Everything from fuel for machinery to heaters for incubating chickens, to transportation and cold chain for storage of perishable inputs/outputs — agriculture is energy intensive, adding to the price of meeting growing demand
  6. Constraints on weight
    Heavy vehicles compact soil and can negatively impact its structure, alter its absorbance of water and fertilisers, slow crop emergence, retard root penetration, and wreak havoc with the health of both microbiome and mycobiome. The net result is sub-optimal yields and/or the need to loosen soil or avoid cultivating it for long periods
  7. Constraints on human health
    Breeding for yield has (traditionally) lead to a trade-off with nutrient density and flavour, especially in new paradigms such as hydroponics and aeroponics, freezing fresh produce leads to loss of nutrients, time from harvest to consumption leads to loss of nutrients. None of these is a necessary trade-off
  8. Constraints on biodiversity
    Agriculture is, under one description, a war of man against land, in which humans attempt to sterilise and completely control the structure and content of life in particular patches of the earth. Relatedly, 100 species a day go extinct. It’s likely that with each extinct species, our natural ecological productivity declines marginally. More seriously, the chances of finding naturally occurring useful compounds and structures falls as this diversity decreases (for example, multiplying the risks of anti-microbial resistance and our corollary inability to find natural weapons to combat this). Innovation in agriculture should be constrained to counteract or slow this trend
  9. Must not contribute to climate change
    And not just because climate change is bad — but moreover because a fraction of degree of temperature change will affect yields, because shifting climates mean expensive structural shift as regions are no longer suitable for the growth of particular crops etc. This means low carbon, low emission
  10. Constraints of farm size  average farms sizes will continue to fall in Africa over the coming decades although Asia may soon reach an inflection point. We need new technologies tailored to smallholder scale of operation for production and processing
Data sourced from FAO 2014, compiled by Jonathan Crouch

II. Feeding us — the opportunities

The levers you can operate to bring about these improvements. These are brief jumping off points for further investigation. This is divided into two halves, the plants themselves and the process.

Jonathan Crouch, Venture Partner at DSV highlights three important dimensions to this challenge:

1. Increase supply— increased productivity per unit of land, per unit of input and per unit of environmental cost are all areas where innovation can have a substantial impact

2. Decrease demand — now there are more obese people than those going hungry there are increasing opportunities to provide the global middle class with better balanced diets

3. Reduce waste — the proportion of food wasted in value chains in the global south is substantially higher than in the north, perhaps as high as 30%. Reducing food wastage globally could make a significant contribution towards balancing supply and demand

Plants themselves —

Swap: different species (beyond continuous mono-crops of staple grains, especially industrial farming techniques for agroforestry, as well as mixed cropping of annuals and more environmentally sustainable cropping rotations, both of which can make greater use of legumes to reduce applications of synthetic fertilizers)

Combine: permaculture (farm an ecosystem), silvopastoral (plants + animals), insects and other industries (i.e. with carbon dioxide sources, sugar rich waste, human byproducts)

Alter: directed evolution, gene knockout, gene alteration leading to good alleles, physical augmentation, chemical — to improve survival in arid, saline and flooded conditions, pest-proofing, to survive in areas with different seasonal variation and climate, to be robust to indoor growing (aeroponics and hydroponics), to alter non-staples plants to be plausible staples in normal conditions

Replace: alternatives to plants as food source (artificial, exploded — leaves separate from fruit, roots, stem etc., or in vitro plants — in bioreactors or on chips)


Process —

An incomplete birds-eye view of the process. One question asked at draft stage of this article: which of these can be combined, better integrated or removed entirely?

Predict:

  • yield vs demand (better data, more data, more integrated data, better learning, more tailored treatments to micro-environments within and between fields, better decisions/suggestions, better alignment of supply and demand, production quality parameters and environmental costs),

Plant:

  • timing (better data: quality, volume, integration across and inside of organisations, better learning, better decisions/suggestions),
  • location (on land, at sea, in the sky, in space, underground, in buildings, on buildings, stacked/layered, in transit),
  • medium (e.g. optimising soil/rockwool/current substrates/polyurethane slabs, scaling existing alternatives such as moss/coconut fibre/rice hulls, producing new substrates),
  • physical act of planting (with robots, drones with seed-cannons, dispensed by livestock, without tilling)

Pollinate:

  • which insect (can we use other insects beyond bees as pollinators?), *
  • without insects (to be self-pollinated, apomictic or vegetatively parthenocarpic or introduce machines to improve efficiency of pollination),
  • save the bees (prevent, cure/breed to be resistant or slow the spread of common bee viruses and parasites, expel invasive species, deter predators, counteract effect of pesticides),
  • improve the efficiency of bees (speed them up, use them in a more targeted way, transport them with less loss)

Fertilise:

  • which fertiliser (produce it more efficiently or from non-petroleum sources, match fertiliser to crop, alternatives such as silviculture, better use of legumes, hijacking mycorrhizae or micro-organisms),
  • timing (with respect to both weather and growth cycle),
  • precision (using what equipment, to which part of plant),
  • quantity,
  • off-flow (filtration or timing)

Water:

  • storage (to allow provision at optimum times)
  • timing (with respect to both weather and growth cycle, preventing evaporation),
  • precision (directly to correct part of plant),
  • amount (optimised to plant and conditions)

Prune:

  • physical (replacing/augmenting humans in the physical act of pruning with new tools e.g. for identifying the correct part to prune, with mechanisation, with other lifeforms)

Manage pests:

  • kill (lasers, tiny missiles, MEMs, other insects, natural predators),
  • collect (attract, catch),
  • repulse (by changing their physical appearance, their smell or by playing with surface proteins),
  • re-purpose (use them to eat weeds, use them as pollinators)

Manage disease:

  • slow spread (detect faster, predict outbreaks, quarantine),
  • kill (with other micro-organisms, by altering the microbiotic environment chemically, by temperature, by starvation etc.)
  • distract (have diseases react with dummy proteins and ‘honeypots’)
  • re-purpose (what can we use diseased crops for?)

Manage temperature / humidity / light intensity:

  • (In the field, in greenhouses, different parts of each plant, different parts of the growing process)

Harvest:

Store:

  • treat (crops such as Cassava need alternative storage techniques, perhaps waxing or similar, pasteurising damages proteins…),
  • freeze (e.g. for crops with high water content such as lettuce, cucumber, tomatoes which are otherwise damaged by the process),
  • package (ultra-cheap biodegradable packaging which can maintain humidity to stop crops wilting)
From this paper, which systematically goes through causes of post-harvest losses of food

Sell/Eat:

  • colour (especially for the americans: price/brightness/stability in light/shelf-life/of natural colours and in particular blues, greens and caramel)
  • anti-nutrients / digestibility (especially in alternative staples like the cowpea)
  • texture / flavour (especially ‘clever’ approaches like crossmodal stimulation)

III — Feeding us, a Vision: The farmable rainforest

This is not a prediction, but a vision.

Cover the world with dense, luscious forests, jungles and rainforests, subtly distinct from gully to ridge, from season to season, from land to sub-sea, from ground to outer atmosphere.

Farmed by hyper flexible swarms of semi-organic, self-repairing dexterous machines. Room for human inhabitants, with houses growing naturally and slowly, over time. A hyper-diverse, integrated, inhabitable and automated system for food production. A system as closely approximating nature’s most abundant designs as possible, yet including man’s most intricate engines and mechanisms. Combining chaos with automation: a sustainable direction for human food production.

Only, we can conceive of diversity greater than nature’s original: with plants producing drugs, complex but critical proteins, vitamins and new fruits approximating to meat, new sap reminiscent of milk, distributed and decentralised. The food that grows locally is tailored and sufficient, the convergence of medicine and nutrition.

Plants clean the air, soil and water and provide other ecosystem services. Microbes and fungi digest waste: breaking down nuclear waste and ubiquitous bio-plastics alike. Plants preserve other plants and fend off pests, livestock participate in the harvest, insects are converted from side effect to objective and collected alongside crops.

Credit and thanks to: Jonathan Crouch, Brendan Cawley, Francis Lister, and Manash Chatterjee for extensive comments and additions to this piece. In particular, Jonathan assisted with insights into the landscape in the global South, Manash offered expertise with respect to the possibilities to do with plants themselves and Brendan helped identify the key to making new technologies in this sector stick.