Today’s Crisis Can Accelerate NextGen Solutions to Food Security

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Source: Canva

Guest blog by Dr Simon Zadek

Food is frontline news as the price of basics spiral upwards. Most obviously, this crisis results from the Ukraine war’s impact on the supply of wheat and fertilizer from Russia and Ukraine. But this is the proverbial tip of the iceberg. What the war has revealed is the underlying fragility of our global food system.

The bottom line is that our food security is at risk because of our reliance on distant production traded through opaque commodity markets, all in the hands of a small number of companies and countries. Moreover, we are at growing risk because climate change will make much of this production economically unviable, or simply impossible. And we are at risk because these super-highways of food production and trade depend on the unsustainable overuse of nature, resulting in water scarcities, dying rivers and oceans, and degraded and toxic land.

Just like the world needs to wean itself off carbon emitting energy, it must urgently transition to a very different way of producing the nutritious, affordable food we need.

Produce grown indoors — source: IGS

Like most complex challenges, it would be foolhardy to trust anyone who suggests that there is a single, simple solution. As the recent, high-profile UN Food Production Summit pointed out, we need to protect nature, advance regenerative agriculture, tax or forbid the consumption of unhealthy food, rid the world of perverse subsidies that reward the wrong kind of food production, reduce the obscene amount of food waste, and be more ambitious in addressing our collective climate challenge.

There is an awful lot to do, and along the way we must protect the one in ten adults across the world dependent for their livelihoods on agriculture and ensure that food is affordable for all.

Right now, our scorecard looks pretty bad set against these indicators of success. And that was before the impact of the Ukraine war on food, energy and fertilizer prices that threaten to plunge hundreds of millions of people into extreme poverty.

It is self-evidently true that we need to advance a new generation of food production systems that enable us to locally produce affordable, nutritious, tasty food with minimal impact on nature and climate.

And it is this simply stated, compelling and urgent need that has led me to the world of vertical farming, and OneFarm in particular.

Three decades of work at the intersection of business and economy, labor and human rights, and action on climate and nature has taught me that technology is never, ever a silver bullet in advancing a more inclusive, sustainable development. Equally, however, technology is often a critical input to a broader vision and pathway to success, from the fields of health and education through to the more effective management of climate and nature, and the governance of our political and business institutions.

So too with food. Vertical farming, or more properly termed ‘closed environment agriculture’, brings both familiar and bleeding edge technologies into play. But this is not enough. As OneFarm exemplifies, it takes a powerful vision with the world’s best business and farming expertise to effectively deploy the technology in delivering affordable food produced close to home that is free from the unstable, destructive, and frankly scary features of today’s food system.

Vertical farming towers — source: IGS

Vertical farming has to date been a niche affair, in the main delivering expensive microgreens and marijuana to the urban elite. But this limited and limiting picture is set to change as the technology and economics mature to become a cost-competitive basis for supplying fresh, locally produced, pesticide-free vegetables and proteins.

And the attractiveness of vertical farming increases the more one takes into account. Imagine reducing food waste from 30–40% of production to practically zero, reducing full life cycle carbon emissions by up to 75% and water by over 90% as compared to today’s dominant, land-based food production systems. And to top it all, imagine food prices being constant, 365 days a year, irrespective of the weather or the state of our geopolitical affairs.

OneFarm is a next generation farming company that sees the potential to serve the needs of all. It’s produce will be increasingly price competitive as technology costs fall, farming recipes improve, and as today’s food production systems become more costly in the face of climate and other factors. And all means all. Imagine serving the fresh food needs of refugee camps and mobile units being on call to provide the immediate food needs of vulnerable communities struck by the world’s growing number of natural and other disasters.

As an economist, I am all too aware that the way markets work shape their impact. OneFarm is committed to working with policy makers and standard setters to ensure that vertical farmers say what they do and do what they say. Moreover, OneFarm’s vision embraces the potential for local ownership of vertical farms, much as we have seen for windfarms and solar systems owned by communities and users. A more decentralized, local ownership of food production could change the balance of power across the global food system, thereby avoiding the many disadvantages of markets dominated by a few, distant corporations.

OneFarm is just one company setting off to impact a global food system valued at US$8 trillion per annum. It seeks to exemplify what can be done, and hopefully will grow with success. But its real impact will be in showing what can and should be done by many others, including its competitors, and also governments, the financial community, and of course, most importantly, citizens as consumers, investors, and voters.

About the author

Dr. Simon Zadek

Dr. Simon Zadek is writing this in his independent capacity, and is a non-executive Board member of OneFarm, and the Chair of the non-profit initiative, Finance for Biodiversity.

Simon has focused throughout his working life on initiatives that advance the cause of social justice and the environment. There are some consistent themes that have run through his career covering climate change, the environment and labour rights and he has more recently found himself regularly at the heart of work on finance and the role it can have in driving change. Most recently, he was Senior Advisor on Sustainable Finance in the Executive Office of the UN Secretary General, and led the Secretariat of the UN Secretary General’s Task Force on Digital Financing of the SDGs. Prior to that, he led the Secretariat of the G20’s Green Finance work stream. In his current role he chairs F4B, the Finance for Biodiversity Initiative, which works at government and supranational role to better align global finance with nature conservation and restoration.

Vertical farming reflects a natural extension of his focus and efforts to back a venture providing affordable, healthy food that is consistent with global climate and nature goals and imperatives, and in particular OneFarm’s approach that also aims to create good jobs and opportunities for local ownership and development.

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