Thursday, 13 October 2022 08:25

More food from less!

Written by  Helen Darling
Helen Darling believes new innovations will continue to challenge traditional farming and growing practices. Helen Darling believes new innovations will continue to challenge traditional farming and growing practices.

OPINION: It's the stuff of science fiction – vertical gardens growing enough food to support communities – and it’s coming to a neighbourhood near you.

That’s one of the take homes from this year’s Wall Street Journal’s Global Food Forum. I was in Chicago for the forum.

Horticulture is vulnerable to even subtle climate changes, and this is leading to a scramble to develop new varieties (and, in some cases rediscovering old ones) that are ‘hardy’ to changing conditions. The clear objective, of course, is the ability to continue to produce food for a hungry planet.

Imagine then, the excitement when you hear of production systems that use fewer resources, produce more, and (to an extent) are protected from environmental vagaries.

Locally we are seeing production methods that are partially adapting to climate change, such as cherries produced using technology to protect them from frost and rain. But the real benefit of innovation is reducing all inputs – including the costs of transportation to get products to market.

Vertical gardens have the ability to shift production facilities to close to where the market is, reducing the need to shift leafy greens from the West Coast of the USA to the East Coast, for example. Not only are transportation costs reduced but so too is food wastage (valuable ‘shelf life’ time is not lost during transportation), along with water use, pesticides, and land. Interestingly, these techniques are either at, or close to, price parity with conventional growing methods.

Where food can’t be produced in a vertical setting, technology is being used to develop plants that are more resilient. Ponsi Trivisvavet from Inari, a US-based seed developer, describes gene editing as a process for unlocking the potential of existing species using CRISPR technology.

CRISPR is relatively new and is described by Trivisvavet as speeding up natural processes, asserting that the work that they do happens in nature but is slow. The objective of Inari’s work is to decrease land use, water, and nitrogen fertilisers in grain production. Genetic modification (the addition of a foreign gene) takes 16 years and costs around $130 million US$ per product. In comparison, gene-editing takes about one third of the time and one tenth of the cost.

Other examples of CRISPR development were provided by Tom Adams of Pairwise, where they are developing a leafy green that tastes like a lettuce with the nutritional value of kale, seedless blackberries (85% of eaters don’t like the seeds), stone fruit without stones and cherries grown without pits and on bushes rather than trees.

In response to a question about consumer acceptability, Adams was philosophical, suggesting that about 30% of the population (generally younger consumers) are really excited about the technology and around 20% of the population will never be. His focus is on working with the remaining group to increase acceptability.

The need for fewer inputs is, in part, driven by global supply chain challenges and geopolitics. US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack expressed concern for the costs of inputs for farmers noting that this will be worse next year (because most seed and other inputs are already purchased). The US Department of Agriculture is proactively focusing on a “conservation reserve service” which includes investing in technology and innovation to reduce on-farm inputs.

Vilsack’s concern about reliance on fertiliser from overseas sources, “some of which are not friendly”, was echoed by Erik Fyrwald from global giant, Syngenta, while commenting on global food insecurity. According to Fyrwald, 40% of global potash, critical for primary production, comes from Belarus and Russia.

It was a fascinating conference, re-enforcing that innovation and technology that were in development only a few years ago are now coming to the fore through the global ‘perfect storm’ of supply chain disruptions, geopolitical stresses and climate change.

It is likely we will see a further acceleration of the adoption of innovation in response to realworld need. These innovations will continue to challenge traditional farming and growing practices and will present consumers with decisions about the production methods and sustainability of the products that they choose.

Helen Darling has a PhD in Public Health and has been working in food systems for some time. She is a founder of both Sumfood, a New Zealand start-up that is reimagining food systems for the benefit of people and planet.

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