Why We Need Technology As The Key Ingredient In Our Food

02/17/2017 01:54 pm ET Updated Feb 17, 2017

When asked how food security and production can be improved in Africa, former Rwandan minister and current president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) Agnes Kaliba, had one simple answer: “Access to technologies.”

Ms. Kaliba is exactly right. We are sitting at the cusp of an explosion in exponential technologies, which can be the most critically important ingredients to improve the health and quality of life for all humanity.

The World Food Programme (WFP), the largest humanitarian organization in the world, estimates that some 795 million people do not have enough to eat to maintain their health. Additionally, we have faced an unprecedented number of large-scale emergencies -- Syria, Iraq and the El Niño weather phenomenon in Southern Africa. Just last month, WFP stepped up support for tens of thousands of displaced Syrians returning home to the ruins of eastern Aleppo City, providing hot meals, ready-to-eat canned food and staple food items such as rice, beans, vegetable oil and lentils. Like Agnes Kaliba in Nairobi, WFP has resolved that technology will help most rapidly in providing better assistance in emergencies and achieve a world without hunger.

Singularity University (SU), which I co-founded with Ray Kurzweil in 2008, is a benefit organization focused on using exponential technologies to solve our Global Grand Challenges. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Ertharin Cousin, the Executive Director of WFP, announced a new partnership with SU for a Global Impact Challenge for food.

Our Challenge is soliciting bold ideas from innovators around the world on how to create a sustainable supply of food after the onset of a crisis. In this way, we can help vulnerable families support their own households and reduce their dependence on external assistance. Entries can range from concepts to implemented innovations. Shortlisted winners will be invited to a bootcamp at the WFP Innovation Accelerator in Munich to flesh out their ideas with WFP innovators. One team will be selected to attend an all-expenses-paid, nine-week Global Solutions Program at Singularity University at NASA Research Park in Silicon Valley.

Here are some examples of moonshot thinking – and how converging exponential technologies are already reinventing food:

  • Vertical Farming: If 80% of our planet’s arable land is already in use, then let’s look up. The impact of technology in vertical farming is powerful. In addition to maximizing the use of land, we can use AI to control the exact frequency and duration of light and pH and nutrient levels of the water supply. Vertical farms using clean-room technologies avoid pesticides and herbicides, and the fossil fuels used for plowing, fertilizing, harvesting and food delivery. Vertical farms are immune to weather, with crops grown year-round. One acre of a vertical farm can produce 10x to 20x that of a traditional farm. And if roughly one-quarter of world’s food calories are lost or wasted in transportation, then let’s think local. The average American meal travels 1,500 miles before being consumed. Moreover, 70 percent of a food’s final retail price is the cost of transportation, storage and handling. These miles add up quickly. The vertical farming market was $1.1 billion in 2015, and projected to exceed $6 billion by 2022.
  • Hydroponics and Aeroponics: Traditional agriculture uses 70 percent of the water on this planet. Hydroponics is 70 percent more efficient than traditional agriculture, and aeroponics is 70 percent more efficient than hydroponics. In times of war and natural disaster, there are no readily available food sources, so let’s think creatively on how we can grow food from -- and in -- the air.
  • Bioprinting Meat: In 2016, it took 63 billion land animals to feed 7 billion humans. It’s a HUGE business. Land animals occupy one-third of the non-ice landmass, use 8% of our water supply and generate 18% of all greenhouse gases -- more than all the cars in the world. Work is progressing on bioprinting (tissue engineering and 3D printing) to grow meat (beef, chicken and pork) and leathers in a lab. By bio-printing meat, we would be able to feed the world with 99% less land, 96% less water, 96% fewer greenhouse gases and 45% less energy.
  • Shifting diets: Optimal health requires 10-20 percent of calories to come from protein. One example of innovative thinking comes from Africa, where farmers are installing fish ponds in home gardens, as the mud from the bottom of the pond also makes a great mineral-rich fertilizer. In the lab, scientists are investigating new biocrops.

This is just the beginning. If we are really serious about creating a vibrant ecosystem of sustainable food production, we need to be thinking exponentially and using technology to help create cost-efficient innovative solutions that can feed the world.

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