Feeding The Global Population
Laura Del Vecchio
Thomaz Rezende @ Envisioning
Many governments, institutions, companies, collectives, and individuals are joining forces to design a more optimistic scenario by exploring alternatives to, for example, livestock feed and solutions to producing food while using fewer portions of arable land and less natural resources, such as water. Private-sector companies play an important role in this scenario as they are a driving force behind cutting-edge innovations and disruptive technologies that may shape our future of food. To examine how companies intervene in the current agri-food systems, Envisioning, together with GIZ, interviewed Andrew Wallace, co-founder & CEO at Chanzi, an East African start-up producing protein from waste, and Björn Theis, head of the Foresight department at Evonik’s innovation unit Creavis. Evonik is a specialty chemicals world-leading company focused on developing innovative, profitable, and sustainable solutions for their customers.
The present interview is part of "The Future of Food" project that intends to draw solutions with the help of emerging technologies that are projected to shape the agri-food industry of tomorrow.
Thomaz Rezende @ Envisioning
Thomaz Rezende @ Envisioning
Considering the Growing World Population and the Severe Consequences of Climate Change, How Can We Ensure Food Security While Achieving Climate Goals?
According to Björn Theis, "[...] this is a kind of a twin problem. It raises the question: how will we feed more with less? There are also different layers to address this issue: First, there are innovative technologies that might provide food with less input, such as vertical farming approaches, new irrigation solutions as well as novel protein sources like insects or alternative proteins from fermentation. In addition, there are cultural layers: we need to transform food culture too, today we generate too much food waste and consume too much meat. China, for example, is already reacting and has pushed a political agenda aiming to reduce meat consumption by 50% until 2040."
- Case StudyAutomated Home FarmingCase StudyAutomated Home Farming
Is the world ready for mini-autonomous farms run by robots, inside our own homes? Space saving, water conserving and producing nutritious crops year round, with zero waste - there is a lot to love about microculture and automated home farming. But what does it really take to bring the outside inside?
Andrew Wallace appends that "[...] circularity is key. Not only do people need to eat, but they also produce waste. What a lot of people do not understand is just how serious organic waste is in terms of emitting greenhouse gasses. The waste problem and the greenhouse gas (GHG) emission problem are intrinsically linked." Indeed, research shows that the methane GHG emissions coming from landfills is chiefly produced by food waste. He continues, "[...] to answer your question, we need to find a way of turning one problem into another solution because waste is not just a European problem. In fact, 40% of fruit and vegetables being produced in East Africa do not make it to the table. That is a simple case of logistic problems and, as the economy develops, you start getting the other problem; it is not that [food] did not reach people's table, it is just that we buy too much. Then, we throw it away. Yes, we could all strive to be less wasteful, but, at least for the foreseeable future, waste will be an inherent part of society."
Wallace explains how Chanzi proposes a change in the food production system; "[...] for us, it is about changing overall mentalities towards the disposal of waste. Our aim as a company is to do it with insect protein. I am not innovative, the innovation has come from the actual organism, it comes from the fly. It was 'invented' a long time ago. We have found an organism that takes organic waste and converts it into something valuable and sustainable. It solves the waste issue by converting waste into a sustainable source of protein. At the moment, we can feed livestock with insect protein, who would otherwise be eating fishmeal or soybean. Maybe, one day, we will be feeding it to human beings, as about 2 billion people in the world already eat insects. I know that Westerners still struggle with the concept. But, I think it is only a matter of time before we start sourcing our protein from insects."
Thomaz Rezende @ Envisioning
Thomaz Rezende @ Envisioning
On the other hand, Wallace mentions that, in his opinion, "[…] it is not entirely about technology, but simply having two bins in your house; one for organic waste and the other for recycling. It is as simple as that. Instead of technology, I would call it a mechanism. To make it work, profit and monetary incentives could help further better waste management practices. People currently pay to dispose of their waste; if we could financially incentivize them to separate their waste, they would end up paying less for waste disposal. We have started to do this already and noticed people are very price-sensitive in Africa. In Arusha, Tanzania, for example, it is $2 a month to dispose of waste, which might be your food allowance for a day, so it actually makes a difference."
Which Technologies and Innovative Approaches Can Help Reach Food Security? Which Ones will be Particularly Relevant for African Countries?
According to Wallace, "[...] food security in Africa is a complicated issue. For example, giving people food during a famine is a last resort. That is not a solution in the long run, and it is not sustainable either. Yes, you can increase production, but you also need to improve production efficiencies on farms and attitudes towards agriculture. We could tackle food production loss by improving cold chains and route [produce] to the market adequately. In addition, borders are static. Often you have a surplus in one area and then a shortage in the neighboring country. Because of some government regulations on the transport of maize, soybean, or rice, you cannot take it from A to B. As a result, you get huge fluctuations in price."
Theis agrees, "[...] especially infrastructure and mobility solutions are critical. Distribution networks and cold chains are kind of piecemeal in many African countries. Therefore, improved food logistics would be one of the biggest levers to increase food security. Today, a lot of produced food is lost on the way from the farms to the first point of distribution. Another problem in many African states is open fire cooking. A typical cooking fire produces 400 cigarettes' worth of smoke. Therefore, air pollution and thus health risks are tremendous.”
In terms of technological developments, Theis mentions water management systems: “another essential topic is water usage. Drip irrigation systems that apply water only at the root of the plants can avoid water loss and overuse of scarce water sources.”
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Theis highlights topics he and his team are working on at Evonik. Currently, they evaluate “power to protein” approaches: “proteins can also be produced by microorganisms in fermentation processes. If powered by renewable energy this could be a new way to produce food sustainably. In addition, we are also looking into floating farms as well as hydroponics. These technologies might play a pivotal role in future food systems, as they do not require arable land. In Rotterdam, for instance, there is a pilot floating farm that provides grassing ground for cows that are fed by residual products, e.g., grass from public parks and food waste. Other floating farm concepts aim to grow crops in waterlogged areas. Here, floating beds of rotting vegetation, which act as compost for crop growth, are utilized to create new areas of land suitable for agriculture within regions that suffer from regular floodings. Scientifically, such floating farms may be referred to as hydroponics, but in general the term hydroponics describes the growing of plants, mostly crops, without soil, by using mineral nutrient solutions.”
- applicationAdaptable Floating StationapplicationAdaptable Floating Station
Floating stations made of various materials and adapted to provide services such as energy and housing.
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Theis also emphasizes the agriculture tech gap: “on one hand we see highly optimized, mechanized and digitalized agricultural production systems, on the other hand we still see the dominance of manual labor in subsistence farming. To bridge that gap, cheap and easy to use technologies for small farms are needed.”
Wallace concludes, “[...] there are so many reasons why we have food insecurity, and there is no magic ticket, such as increasing fertilizer adoption. It needs to be a holistic approach.”
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How Can Your Company Contribute to a More Sustainable Food and Agricultural Future Both in Europe and Africa?
According to Wallace, "[...] food security relates to Chanzi in the sense that we are producing protein cheaper than what people can get otherwise. We reduced the protein cost in animal feed by 37%. Now, what that means is that chicken farmers, for example, can afford to grow more chickens for less; they can pass that price saving on to their consumers, which means more people can adopt meat in their diets. The birds' mortality rates are reduced with an insect protein diet. That is what our business does for food security."
He continues, "[...] we are offering farmers a better quality, cheaper, and far more sustainable alternative to soya. For example, in East Africa, fishmeal is commonly used in chicken, fish, and pig feed. 37% of all fish caught globally goes into feeding our livestock and over 80% of fish stocks globally are threatened now. It really is an issue. My background was in aquaculture, and, for example, Lake Victoria's fish stocks are down to 20% of what they were in the 1990s. Fishermen are bringing in less and less, and there is no regulation. It is the same off the coast. If it is not the local fishermen, then it is foreign trawlers that are parked a few miles offshore. You can see rivers, lakes, and oceans being dredged, and there is no end in sight. To fight this, we are producing a protein source that is cheaper and of better quality than fishmeal. We need to upscale our production by an awful lot before we even begin to scratch the surface of the fishmeal demand. But, hopefully, we will start making a dent in that unsustainable sourcing of fishmeal and soybean meal by increasing our production. So, how can we do it? Basically by doing what we are doing, but on a much bigger scale."
- Ideas for ChangeEntomophagyIdeas for ChangeEntomophagy
Also known as the ingestion of insects by humans, this trend could help meet the growing demand for food, feed, and energy. Insects could be the next source of protein for humans and animals alike while helping deal with agricultural waste and products such as biofuel and fertilizers.
On the Evonik side, Theis mentions that "[...] we started to work on a future outlook of what a sustainable food value chain might look like in the year 2040. Today, many food products are not sustainable. For instance, milk: Its carbon footprint is responsible for around 2.7% of total GHG emissions, but it is also very exclusive as only 35% of the world’s population can digest cheese. We have recently discovered a novel single-cell production system where 'casein' proteins are made from a fermentation process, which requires 95% less water and 80% less energy input. Casein is the name given to the protein content of milk that is processed into cheese and does not end up in the whey."
How Do You Imagine Food Habits in the Following Years? What Will Our Farming and Food Systems Look like in 2040?
For Theis, food habits and agri-food systems "[...] will be quite diverse depending on the country and culture. If you look at some African countries, you see that they have a very high protein, meaty diet which the available land often cannot provide. Thus, such countries rely on unsustainable imports. However, also in Europe, we need a shift in food culture if we want to produce and eat in a more sustainable way. For example: why not introduce insects into the European diet? They are excellent protein sources, and millions already consume them nowadays."
He adds, "[...] however, a lot is changing in Western countries already. Consumer demand more and more organic food. Today, you can buy plant-based meat alternatives in many places, even in discounters. However, they are still quite expensive compared to meat. The next step is to make meat alternatives cheaper than meat. Here, I am optimistic since many fast-food chains are heavily investing in meat substitutes."
Thomaz Rezende @ Envisioning
Thomaz Rezende @ Envisioning
According to Wallace, "[...] there is a wave of enthusiasm growing around vegetarian and vegan diets. And the jury seems to indicate that vegetarian diets are more environmentally friendly than meat consumption. I do think that more and more people will be vegetarian. I can see in 2030, for example, our kids looking at us and saying, 'I cannot believe you eat meat. Weird, why would you do that?' We will definitely be learning a lot from our kids in the future. However, in East Africa, I see the reverse. Meat consumption is increasing. Here, the adoption of meat into one's diet is a very important step along the way towards development. We have large swathes of the African population who are leaving the lower classes and entering the middle class. They are developing both socially, economically, and part of the process includes adopting things like eating meat. It is very Eurocentric to deny them that luxury. As they get richer, they want to start eating chicken, fish, pork, beef, goats, sheep, etc., just as the Western world did when they grew economically richer. At Chanzi, we can produce chicken using our protein in a sustainable way. With insect protein, we can produce 2500 times more protein per acre than farming soya which is what the Western world seems to be heading towards now. We are not asking people to make a compromise between the environment or a reduction in animal protein. We are saying ‘here is a solution’ for people who are approaching middle-class, and it does not have a disastrous effect on the environment."
Wallace also reinforces some key points that make us reflect on discussions we had at the beginning of the conversation; "[…] circularity needs to be central. I genuinely do not see waste as waste; there should be another word for it. There needs to be no waste; everything and everyone needs to be zero waste, whether it is plastic, cardboard tin, or food waste. We need to find a way of using what we discard efficiently, in ways we end up not losing anything to landfills. A landfill is one of the most ridiculous ideas in the world. If you think that a solution to waste is digging a hole and putting everything in it, then you need to go back to the 18th century. Waste needs to be converted into something of value. The circular economy is something that we should and probably will embrace by 2040. We have to."
Ultimately, both Wallace and Theis talk about the future of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). According to Wallace, "[...] people that are anti-GMO and anti-pesticides are also often the same people that support nature-conservation. That is an oxymoron. You are either one or the other. The whole point of GMOs is that you can reduce your pesticide and fertilizer use. Similarly, if you are anti-fertilizer and anti-chemicals, then that means you are growing less per acre. If you are growing less per acre, then you need more acres to grow the same number of crops. That means you need to start eating into ecosystems like the Serengeti or the rainforest. Pick a side, you cannot be in both. GMOs are a way of producing enough without the need for pesticides or large inefficient land tracts. I think GMOs will be adopted quite seriously in the next 20 years."
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Theis agrees, "[...] what I observe are two conflicting forces: on one side, there are people and organizations that want to modify organisms to provide a higher yield with less water input to increase food security. On the other side, there are people and groups that have high concerns about the deployment of GMOs. In total, I see preconceptions on both sides. Therefore, we need more education and open dialogues about these technologies. However, in my personal opinion, these dialogues should not address the question: GMOs – yes or no? But rather be centered around the question: GMOs – under which conditions and with which goals? Such a dialogue would be more effective in creating a framework for the mindful use of GMOs, because I agree with Mr. Wallace, in the future, GMOs could play a major role in feeding the world's growing population sustainably despite climate change."
Chanzi is being supported under GIZ’s approach of initiating SDG-focused private investment in Africa called “SDG Market Building.” Evonik is a long-term partner of the Strategic Partnership Technology in Africa, a network of over 220 companies and German development cooperation with the aim of promoting the potential of sustainable technologies across Africa.
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