by Mark Ward7 minute read
The Covid-19 pandemic has tested the UK’s ‘food security’ – broadly, its ability to feed its people. But new technologies and techniques may offer opportunities to increase the country’s resilience.
While national food supplies have largely been maintained through the lockdown, at an individual level there has been a sharp rise in the number of adults reporting food insecurity, with a lack of food in shops accounting for 40% of all cases. Whilst media-exacerbated ‘doomsday’ stock-piling is partly to blame, the primary cause was, reportedly, the shutdown of parts of the food industry, with the stretched global supply-chains a key reason for this.
At a national level, the pandemic has highlighted the UK’s dependence on a vulnerable global food system. It is a worrying reminder of the longer term, and probably greater risk to food security: climate and ecological breakdown. Half of the food consumed in the UK comes from overseas, while one fifth of these imports come from areas at risk of imminent climate breakdown. Furthermore, the climate-threatened countries from which the UK imports need to feed their growing populations, further straining food systems.
One way to increase food security would be to produce more food in the UK. That would allow imports to act as more of a “Plan B”. It could also increase the proximity of food production to consumers, which could reduce the carbon footprint of the transport part of the food system – although any major reduction will require a shift in food consumption habits.
Within the UK, prime agricultural land is limited and substantially increasing yields will be challenging within current the agricultural system –intensifying farming is likely to have unacceptable environmental and animal welfare consequences. Fortunately, there are alternatives – although they remain controversial. Recent progress in controlled-environment agriculture (CEA) and cellular agriculture technologies provides an opportunity for a reformed food-supply, allowing food to be produced closer to the communities which consume it.
Vertical farming, in which several layers of crops are stacked on top of each other inside a building, is one CEA technology establishing itself as a viable means of food production. Hydroponic or aeroponic technologies provide the necessary nutrients and water. It can be a very productive method: yields of lettuce grown using hydroponics can be as high as 41kg per m2 / year, compared with conventionally produced yields of 3.9kg per m2 / year. Vertical farming also uses significantly less water than conventional farming and emits less CO2.
This is a fast growing sector, whose global value is predicted to rise to £9.84 billion by 2026 (from £1.72bn in 2018) and in the UK, many companies are investing. For example, Edinburgh-based Shockingly Fresh has ambitions to develop 40 vertical farming sites. It is likely that, in the near future, more of the leafy greens in side-salads eaten within towns and cities will be sourced from nearby warehouses. The construction of vertical farms in old steel mills, schools and even WWII bunkers illustrates the opportunities for proximal urban food supply. Even arid locations could support indoor agriculture. Protected inside, harsh weather will have no impact on production, which could be maintained throughout the year – the world’s largest vertical farm is located in Dubai.
However, vertical farming remains limited mainly to leafy greens. Crops with higher calorific content, like wheat and rice, will be difficult to grow in a vertical farm system because of their large biomass. This limits the potential of vertical farming to drastically improve food security in the context of climate change – and production of food in enclosed spaces could be more vulnerable to disruption in a pandemic than conventional agriculture.
Theory meats reality
Two alternative biological technologies offer potential solutions for protein rich foods.
Cultured meat production (also called ‘cellular agriculture’) extracts stem cells from livestock and multiplies them in a lab. Nutrients and proteins are used to grow a meat product – which can be steak, chicken, seafood, or practically anything else. Like vertical farming, this technology can be located in practically any industrial building.
Once prohibitively expensive, recent technological advancements. led by JUST Meat and Memphis Meats in America; Aleph Farms in Israel; and Mosa Meats in the Netherlands, among others, have substantially reduced the cost of cultured meat – with a burger now available for around £8.
That’s still relatively expensive, but the industry claims that, within the next decade, cultured meat will be both cheaper, and healthier, than conventional meat. US think tank ReThinkX predicts that cellular agriculture and plant-based ‘meat’ and ‘dairy’ options will bankrupt the traditional meat industry, perhaps as soon as 2030. With meat and dairy products accounting for 48% of total protein and 32% of total calories consumed in the UK, cellular agriculture has greater potential to increase food-security than vertical farming ever could.
Meanwhile, Finnish company Solar Foods is taking a different approach to calorie production. Instead of replicating the taste and texture of meat, it aims to create protein that can be incorporated into everyday foods. Solar Foods grows protein out of ‘thin air,’ in a CEA setting, using the electrolysis of water to produce hydrogen, which feeds and multiplies single-cell proteins in huge vats. The protein is then dried into a powder which can be added to foods to increase their calorie and protein content.
In terms of food-security, this powder could improve the calorie and protein contents of locally produced foodstuffs. Moreover, it could also act as a feedstock for growing cultured meat, making the technologies complementary.
Land of opportunity
Alongside bolstering food security, new agricultural technologies could help in the battle against climate and ecological breakdown by both reducing food sector carbon emissions and freeing-up land for re-wilding and the natural draw-down of CO2 via photosynthesis.
Cellular agriculture has perhaps the greatest potential to reduce the land take of food production. Around 85% of the UK’s agricultural land area is used to support livestock (i.e. for grazing and to grow animal feed), and this is supplemented by feed grown abroad. Cultured meat production would use far less land than conventional meat production.
The Solar Foods concept presents similar opportunities, needing only factory floorspace to operate. Indeed, Solar Foods claims it could supply the entire globe’s protein needs from an area the size of Iowa (56,000 square miles, which is about the same as England and Wales).
Sage against the machine
Whilst these techniques provide opportunities to bolster food security and decrease the land take of agriculture, they are not without issues. Guy Watson, founder of the organic food supplier Riverford, warns of the potential for global food supply to become controlled by a handful of patent-owning organisations, with implications for consumer sovereignty. The issue of ownership of intellectual property rights has already generated controversy in the past in relation to the restrictions it can place on farmers relate to saving seeds.
Technology patents are not the only barrier to entry into these alternative agriculture markets: they also require large investments, making it difficult for smaller companies to enter the market. With options to develop these technologies anywhere on the globe, the grip of major, transnational corporations on food supply could increase, making food standards harder to regulate at a national level. Furthermore, reliance on a small number of technology providers and the potential loss of farming knowledge could create a different threat to food security, with no fall-back option should the technologies fail. Finally, whilst the potential exists to free up land used for agriculture for more ecologically oriented uses, without suitable policies in place to encourage this, then the net effect could simply be to hasten the pace at which concrete covers the land.
The emergence of new agricultural techniques has the potential to revolutionise food-supply. Society could benefit from more proximal food sources, reducing the risk of global supply-chain collapse as a result of climate and ecological breakdown, or indeed future pandemics. Growth of CEA, alongside de-growth in the overall consumption of conventional meat, could also allow for the re-wilding of huge swathes of agricultural land. The ecosystem services provided by this land would again benefit society, in terms of sequestered carbon, flood prevention, biodiversity, air quality and improved mental health. However, it remains to be seen whether these technologies can be scaled up effectively, and whether their products will appeal to consumers, while the risks they bring – not least due to increased corporate power over the food supply chain – mean that a wholesale transition could produce as many problems as it solves.
Featured image: Bright Agrotech (CC BY-SA 4.0), via Wikimedia Commons