Environmental awareness has grown exponentially since the 2015 Paris Climate Agreements. Each year, we become increasingly aware of a particular pressing issue. 2018 was the year of plastics, as images of beaches inundated the web, demonstrating the extent of our societies’ waste disposal inefficacy. In 2019, we watched the Amazon burn.
What we fail to acknowledge is that the catalyst for both deforestation and waste is our model of consumption, in particular, the way we eat. Food systems contribute 21–37% of global greenhouse gas emissions: the cumulative footprint of agriculture, transportation, and the retail industry. While each year we become more aware of the climate crisis, every day we participate in prolonging a destructive form of consumption. Climate targets are extended, natural disasters are on the rise, pollution peaks in major cities. In short, stagnation seems to prevail. While the EU’s ban on Single Use Plastics is an example of political momentum, it lacks the transformative approach required.
We have never been more aware of our own footprint, and yet we have never been more wasteful and sedentary in our approach to food. Rather than allowing pessimism to grow, we should focus on our individual responsibility and its potential for positive impact.
How did we get here?
Our current model of agriculture grew out of a programme undertaken almost 70 years ago in Mexico. The project aimed to eliminate hunger by increasing food production — something it achieved through heavy application of chemical fertilisers and agro-chemicals. Numerous problems have resulted from this farming method, with danger to human health from pesticides, an industry in need of large quantities of oil and gas, and an unequal concentration of yields leading to unprecedented malnutrition and food waste.
We are trapped in a system where at least one third of produced food is never eaten. Globally, 820 million people are undernourished and over 650 million people are obese. Arable land and ecosystems are disappearing and deforestation is at an all-time high. As the population grows to 10 billion by 2050 and environmental emergencies intensify, so does the risk of a food crisis.
Emerging technologies are offering tools to challenge this outdated mode of production and consumption. FoodTech companies are transforming the food system and putting sustainability at the heart of this transformation.
Agriculture Technology – Vertical Farming
New Jersey based Aerofarms is the champion of vertical farming, an agricultural method that grows crops layer by layer inside warehouses. This allows growers to use control factors such as data analysis, aeroponics, and high efficiency LED lighting, making the technique 400 times more productive per square foot than conventional agriculture.
Vertical farming has the potential to shift our approach to food production, due to its energy efficiency. Cultivation can take place all year-round and farms can operate in cities. Ultimately, this reduces emissions from transport and water use, while removing the need for pesticides. Specialising in baby greens and herbs, Aerofarms sells its products to restaurants, schools, and multinationals. However, it is just one leader in a fast-growing global market. Closer to home, Waitrose’s Ocado recently invested £17m in Jones Food, a vertical farm in Scunthorpe, in an effort to reduce the ecological footprint of its fruit and vegetables sales. Another example is Growing Underground, a 7,000 square foot farm located 100 metres beneath Clapham High Street in London, which provides salad to Marks & Spencer and Planet Organic.
One of agriculture’s key challenges is how the two most precious resources — land and water — are conserved. Vertical farming offers the key to efficiency; with more consumer awareness and reduced energy costs, it is set to become a key player in agricultural sustainability.
Food Service – Too Good to Go
Too Good to Go has transformed the idea of online food services in an attempt to fight food waste. The concept is simple – on a an app, restaurants, hotels and supermarkets offer their leftovers at a reduced price, and people can collect a meal that would otherwise be thrown out. Too Good To Go is fighting a significant problem, with 1.9 million tonnes of food wasted each year in the UK alone. It is now present in fourteen European countries and has 32,215 partners, growing by the day.
As an alternative to the now ubiquitous UberEats and Deliveroo, this app empowers consumers to tackle waste, and reminds us that food should not be seen as an unlimited commodity.
Food Science – Clean Meat
Deforestation rates in the Amazon are surging, largely due to our appetite for meat. In Brazil, the rainforest is being cleared to make way for soya to feed cattle. The ecological footprint of livestock production is enormous, representing 14.5% of total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.
While the transition to plant-based diets is on the rise worldwide, meat production and consumption increases every year. Aside from population growth, this comes from a growing middle class, in many parts of the world, where meat has remained a luxury. Global meat production is set to double by 2050.
JUST Meat is exploring the potential of cultured meat, which provides an alternative approach to production, respectful of sustainability objectives, human health, and animal welfare. The product is different to plant-based meat substitutes. Cultured meat comes from in vitro cultivated animal cells. These grow on a plant-based nutrient recipe, essentially creating meat without any meat.
Although this still awaits governmental approval to become commercially available, it has the potential to reduce ecosystem destruction and end the slaughter of millions of animals.
Retail – Blockchain in supply chains
The last of these four technologies is particularly powerful in that it could encourage ethical and sustainable production, transportation, and retail of food. The Blockchain is a series of unchangeable records of data with no central managing authority, bound together in a secure and entirely transparent system.
Provenance is a tech company based in Hackney, London, that provides a Blockchain software service to over 200 producers and retailers in the food and drinks industry. For example, its pilot project, in collaboration with Unilever and Sainsbury’s, increased the transparency of a tea supply chain, from small-scale farmers in Malawi to supermarkets in the UK. In this framework, each ‘block’ of data corresponds to an individual or organisation — the collector, processor, or salesperson for example. These blocks are then tied together by the ‘chain’ — the journey of the tea from ground to cup.
In a sector that lacks transparency, this is an effective way of ensuring that food has been
produced in line with environmental objectives and human rights. French multinational Carrefour allows customers to scan a QR code on any product, taking them to a display of the Blockchain. This places the tools needed to check the origin and quality of a product in the consumer’s hands.
Defining the Way We Approach Sustainability
Business as usual in the agriculture and food sector has ended. Unprecedented consumer
awareness of climate change and environmental degradation has led to pressure on companies to become more responsible. However, the resulting multinationals’ sustainability strategies have for the most part been limited to plastic straw bans and recycling endorsements: poor progress considering the extent of our carbon footprint. The difference with FoodTech is that it does not adapt what already exists, it rethinks it.
If a start-up decides to fight plastic pollution, it doesn’t ban their use by 2025, it finds a way to avoid using the material altogether. The aforementioned solutions show a determination to solve deep-rooted problems. Most of all, they encourage respect for nature, in an epoch where we can often forget the interdependencies between human existence and the natural environment.
“Every product has a story” is Provenance’s motto. Let’s take a more attentive approach to the way we consider food, and to the technological innovations being developed every day. An entrenched pessimism and fear of collapse will not produce the solutions needed to shape environmental sustainability.