Technology shapes the future of food, but traditional practices can play a role

Attribution of fruits and vegetables on the outskirts of Henley-on-Thames, England.

David Goddard | Getty Images News | Getty Images

From oranges and lemons grown in Spain to fish caught in the wild nature of the Atlantic, many are spoiled for choice when it comes to picking the ingredients that go on our plate.

Yet, as far as concerns for the environment and sustainability are concerned, discussions about how – and where – we grow our food have become increasingly urgent.

Last month, the debate made headlines in the UK when the second part of The National Food Strategy, an independent magazine commissioned by the UK government, was released.

The extensive report was led by restaurateur and entrepreneur Henry Dimbleby and focused mainly on the food system of England. He came to some playful conclusions.

His executive summary said the food we consume – and the way we produce it – was doing “terrible damage to our planet and our health.”

The publication said the global food system was “the biggest contributor to biodiversity loss, deforestation, drought, freshwater pollution and the collapse of aquatic wildlife.” It was also, according to the report, “the second largest contributor to climate change, after the energy industry.”

Dimbleby’s report is an example of how alarm bells sound when it comes to food systems, a term the UN Food and Agriculture Organization says covers everything from production and processing. to distribution, consumption and elimination.

According to the FAO, food systems consume 30% of the planet’s available energy. He adds that “modern food systems are highly dependent on fossil fuels.”

All of the above certainly provides something to think about. Below, CNBC’s Sustainable Future takes a look at some ideas and concepts that could change the way we think about agriculture.

It grows in the city

Around the world, a number of interesting ideas and techniques related to urban food production are beginning to gain traction and generate interest, albeit on a much smaller scale compared to more established methods.

Take hydroponics, which the Royal Horticultural Society describes as “the science of cultivating plants without using the soil, feeding them with salts of mineral nutrients dissolved in water.”

In London, companies such as Growing Underground use LED technology and hydroponic systems to produce greens 33 meters below the surface. The company says its crops are grown year-round in a pesticide-free environment, controlled with renewable energy.

Focusing on the “hyperlocal,” Growing Underground claims that its leaves “can be in your kitchen within 4 hours of being picked and packaged”.

Another business trying to make its mark in the industry is Crate to Plate, whose operations are centered around the growth of lettuce, herbs and green leaves vertically. The process takes place in containers that are 40 feet long, 8 meters wide and 8.5 meters high.

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Like Growing Underground, Crate to Plate’s facilities are based in London and use hydroponics. A key idea behind the venture is that by growing vertically, space can be maximized and resource use minimized.

On the technological front, everything from humidity and temperature to water distribution and air flow is monitored and regulated. Speed ​​is also crucial to the company’s business model.

“We aim to provide everything we collect in less than 24 hours,” Sebastien Sainsbury, the company’s CEO, told CNBC recently.

“Restaurants tend to get it in 12, retailers have it in 18 and home delivery is guaranteed in 24 hours,” he said, explaining that deliveries were made with electric vehicles. “All the energy that the farm consumes is renewable.”

Grow your own

While there is a sense of excitement regarding the potential of technical operations, with no grounds like the ones above, there is also an argument to be had for getting back to basics.

In the UK, where a large part of the population has worked from home due to the coronavirus pandemic, the popularity of lots – bags of land that are rented and used to grow plants, fruit and vegetables – seems to have increased.

In September 2020 the Association for Excellence in Public Service conducted an online survey of local authorities in the UK. Among other things, he asked respondents if, as a result of Covid-19, they had “experienced a noticeable increase in demand” for battlegrounds. Almost 90% say they have.

“This only shows public value and the desire to connect with nature through ownership of a battleground,” the APSE said. “It may also reflect renewed interest in the public to be more self-sustaining by using lotions to grow their fruits and vegetables.”

In comments sent to CNBC by e-mail, a spokesman for the National Allotment Society said the lease of a lot offers plot owners “the opportunity to do a full exercise, relax, get in touch with the nature and cultivate their own seasonal foods ”.

The NAS was of the belief that British lots would support “public health, improve social cohesion and could make a significant contribution to food security,” the spokesman said.

A large church

Nicole Kennard is a doctoral researcher at the University of Grantham Center for the Sustainable Future of Sheffield.

In a telephone interview with CNBC, he remarked how the term “urban agriculture” could refer to everything from lots and home gardens to community gardens and urban farms.

“Obviously, not all food will be produced by urban agriculture, but it can play a major role in feeding local communities,” he said.

There were other positives as well, including flooding and heat mitigation. “It’s … all those benefits that come with having green spaces in general but then there’s the added bonus, [which] is that it produces food for local consumption ”.

Particularly on urban agriculture, Kennard said it gave him “the opportunity to make a localized food system” that could be supported by consumers.

“You can support farms you know, farmers you know, who also do things that contribute to your community,” he said, acknowledging that these types of relationships could be falsified even with other types of farms.

Looking ahead

Discussions about how and where we produce food are destined to continue for a long time as businesses, governments and citizens seek to find ways to create a sustainable system that meets the needs of all.

It is perhaps not a surprise then that some of the topics discussed above are beginning to generate interest among the investment community.

Speaking to CNBC’s “Squawk Box Europe” in June, Jessica Alsford, Morgan Stanley’s world head of sustainability research, highlighted this change.

“There’s certainly an argument for looking beyond the most obvious … ways to play the green theme, as you say, further down the value and supply chain,” he said.

“I’ll also say it well, you need to remember that sustainability covers a number of different topics,” Alsford said. “And we’ve had a lot of questions from investors who want to branch out beyond the pure green theme and look at related issues like the future of food, for example, or biodiversity.”

For Crate to Plate’s Sainsbury’s, knowledge sharing and collaboration will likely have a big role to play in the future. In his interview with CNBC, he stressed the importance of “coexisting with existing agricultural traditions.”

“Interestingly, we’ve had farmers come to visit the site because farmers are quite interested in installing this kind of technology … in their farm yards … because it can supplement their income.”

“We are not here to compete with farmers, drive business to farmers. We want to integrate what farmers grow.”

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