Our Food Supply: The New Frontier

by francine Hardaway on August 30, 2010

Nothing highlights the need for a change in our food production processes more than the massive egg recall of the past month, and the fear that the entire food safety system in America is broken. A spate of books and films, such as Food Inc. and the entire corpus of Michael Pollan’s work, has tried to deliver the same message before, but until it hit your own household, you probably haven’t heard it.

At Singularity University in Silicon Valley, however, food production is receiving a good deal of scrutiny.

Singularity U is an amazing experiment, a graduate program where accomplished entrepreneurs, willing students, and social venture advocates come together to study how technology can be used to address the world’s biggest problems.

The program is led by serial entrepreneur and angel investor Salim Ismail, a friend who always invites me to NASA’s Moffitt Field, where the university is housed, to watch the team presentations at the end of a session. This session I caught the team presentation on Food.

At Singularity U, no project is addressed that doesn’t have the possibility of impacting people on a scale of billions Besides food, this session’s participants are working on issues around Water, Energy, Upcycle, and Space.

Everyone at Singularity U–students and mentors–is already a thought leader. Together, they aim for disruptive change, and they consider several problems simultaneously because Ismail believes that [pullquote]disruptive change often comes from outside a given field, not from within.[/pullquote]

Thus, the food team was talking about how those other big issues are impacted by current food production processes, and how advances in fields of water use, energy, recycling and even space exploration can be used to change food production.

Serious issues around food supply and food purity can be solved by lighting, sensor technology, and biotech. Transportation of food from the farm to the city, for example, is a huge energy drain, and the team was advocating urban farming, vertical farming, and hydroponic farming as components of a solution. [The actual form of their proposed solution can’t be disclosed, because it is the intellectual property of the team, not me].

These advances take less water and less land. and will re-connect the food producer with the food consumer, automatically creating better food safety. The South Pole, for example, gets its food supply from a green house at the site, because the cost of transporting food such distances would be prohibitive. The food down there is safe without hordes of inspectors, and the techniques used to grow food at the South Pole can be transferred almost anywhere. [See the TV series “Weeds” for examples of how modern growing techniques can be applied to agriculture.]

The gating factor for huge sustainable change in the food production system, I conclude, isn’t the availability of better food production and processing technology, but the perverse subsidies of the agriculture industry, which now encourages the wasteful use of land and energy.

Like everything else, renewable processes in agriculture will require economies of scale. How to scale when the incentives all go in the other direction is the major issue. These participants spent hours comparing current agricultural costs to the costs of new technology, and finally came up against the entrenched interests in an industry that is as old as humankind.

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