‘Indifferent’ is the new Resilient
Author: Sudhanshu Sarronwala, Chief Impact Officer at Infarm
In the last three years, the entire world has become aware of the fragility of our food systems as food insecurity spreads globally. We feel it in our pockets, on our tables and in our businesses. From severe supply chain disruptions to the global food crisis, attributable in good measure to climate shocks, the pandemic and the conflict in Ukraine. Our food systems have been repeatedly tested and are failing increasingly, miserably.
Unfortunately, the most vulnerable people and countries are affected the most. However, the increase in food prices and frequent shortages are felt by everyone.
With alarming frequency and intensity, we learn about the devastating effect of climate change on our food systems. Europe, for example, experienced its worst drought in the last 5 centuries, causing expected yields of maise, soybean and sunflowers to go 16%, 15%, and 12% respectively below their previous five years' average.
Meantime, elsewhere in the world, rice production in California is half that of a typical year, causing farmers to leave their fields fallow and sell their water to defray losses. And according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, compared with the 1960s, heat waves are now occurring three times more often in the US.
Yet, in other parts of the world, like in Pakistan recently, the highest rainfall in at least three decades resulted in catastrophic floods, impacting human lives and food production and further driving food insecurity.
No one knows how the Ukraine conflict will evolve or if another pandemic will set us all back. One thing is certain: conventional agriculture faces a highly challenging climate reality as extreme weather events have become more frequent and intense over time.
To make our food systems future-proof, we must make them climate resilient. And for that, a fundamental change needs to take place. But how do we increase our food systems' resiliency? Since conventional agriculture is vulnerable to climate change, farmers already modify practices to cope with this new reality. That means adjusting planting times, supplementing irrigation etc. Some believe that the answer lies in climate-resilient crops, such as quinoa, sorghum or pearl millet, which maintain yields under stressful conditions.
Our argument is that to make our food systems more resilient, we need to make them “climate indifferent”.
In other words, in addition to dealing with climate change by adjusting our current methods or investing in more resilient crops, we simply have to invest in entirely new practices unaffected by climate.
One of the most promising "climate indifferent" growing methods is controlled environment agriculture, and more specifically, vertical farming. By growing vertically, in closed environments, and providing crops with the optimal conditions to thrive, we can grow crops wherever we like, increasing food security wherever we grow, even in the middle of the desert - where there is no arable land, but there is plenty of sunlight, which we could harness to power our farms.
Being climate indifferent holds many more advantages besides being unaffected by climatic shocks. In Vertical Farming systems, yields for crops can be up to a hundred times higher than yields in the fields. That is because of the vertically stacked layers that enable harvesting several times a year. It also means we could enjoy seasonal fruits year-round, with no fluctuations in pricing or quality.
Another advantage vertical farming brings to the table is the shortening of the supply chain. Growing closer to the end consumer saves drastically on food miles, making the system less susceptible to supply chain disruptions. Not to mention the reduction of GHG emissions or food waste and the increase in product quality.
The exciting thing here is that apart from climate resilience, the shortening of the supply chain and the fact that vertical farming provides countries with the opportunity to become self-sufficient would additionally address the threats to food security attached both to conflicts and pandemics. As the technology develops and moves into the mainstream, we are beginning to see the uptake of this technology in various parts of the world - it is inevitable that vertical farming systems will be adapted, adopted and become more accessible as the need for the solution is recognised.
Progress is being made at an accelerated pace in the vertical farming industry. Interestingly, this progress is occurring through private finance and entrepreneurial innovation, with little to no government support.
Instead of investing in innovative food production methods, governmental agricultural support favours policies that are simply not conducive to good human health and the environment.
To quote the UN report discussing agriculture subsidies, "Public support mechanisms for agriculture in many cases hinder the transformation towards healthier, more sustainable, equitable and efficient food systems".
What makes all of this dire is that governments are not only subsidising inefficient, environmentally harmful, and climate-sensitive conventional agriculture but also impacting future generations. Our children and grandchildren will have to live with the consequences of our actions. Or, more accurately, our lack of action.
This year's World Food Day theme is ‘Leave NO ONE Behind’. If we don't wake up soon, not one but ALL OF US will be left behind.
Join us at The Food Systems Pavilion at COP27 (https://foodsystemspavilion.com/). Along with over 20 diverse partners, we will be discussing the role of food and agriculture in tackling the climate crisis.
The Food Systems Pavilion at COP27
For the first time ever, there will be a Food Systems Pavilion at the UN Climate Change Conference at COP27, putting food centre stage during these crucial negotiations.
The Food Systems Pavilion will focus on actions, strategies, innovations and solutions across the entire food value chain that have the potential to drive the transformation towards healthier, more resilient, and more equitable food systems.
Transforming the world’s food systems will help create a socially just and healthier world, ensure food security in a world rocked by climate shocks and create a net-zero, nature positive world.