Innovate 2017: Food for thought

With the global population expected to hit 10 billion around 2050, we look to technological advancements to keep everyone fed. But is the world working hard enough now to avoid a catastrophic widespread famine in the future?
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FEEDING the world’s growing population requires innovation, imagination and a shift in priorities, according to entrepreneurs addressing the Innovate 2017 conference.

“It’s not just about the farm, or the way we are producing crops, it’s about distribution, about food waste and people’s diets,” Arnaud Witteveen, chief technology officer for Birmingham’s Saturn Bioponics told a panel on Feeding the World.

The scale of the challenge had been laid out by the panel’s host, Innovate UK’s health and life sciences director Dr Ian Campbell.

“We will need to increase food production by 60% by 2050 in order to feed the popular demand at that time of 10 billion people,” he said. “If we keep consuming food and wasting food and using land as we do today… we will need four planets to feed us.”

Witteveen, whose company created a hydroponic vertical growing system aimed at allowing greenhouse growers to quadruple yields, said investors must be prepared to help companies scale up.

“Feeding the world is a challenge we are facing now,” he told the government innovation agency’s showcase of cutting-edge British technology.

Generic image of a manufacturing robot
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“We get distracted by technology that’s niche and have imaginary ideas about the future but we should start [to address] this problem right now with the appropriate technology that’s available, and that can be adapted once further advanced technology becomes available.

“We can easily double or even triple food production in our situation. Simple processes can be a solution for this.”

Willem Sodderland, founder of seaweed processor Seamore, came up with a solution of his own after adding bolognese sauce to a type of seaweed he thought looked like tagliatelle.  He also markets a friable seaweed “bacon”.

“The seaweed was very tasty, incredibly healthy and the most sustainable food on the planet,” he told the audience in Birmingham.

“If you were to take an area twice the size of Portugal and use it to cultivate seaweed you would have enough protein for an entire world population. It sounds big but it’s nothing on the total area of the ocean.”

His problem: “We need capital.”

“This is about radical solutions that are much closer than we think. It requires imagination which is not hard to find but it also requires scale if we want any of this new technology to work. That’s where the financial world and funding comes into play. It ‘s very difficult to grow organically to a scale that works.”

Sitting alongside him was Rob Wylie. He set up AgriTech Investments – a syndicate of agrifood businesses figures – to address “a dearth of knowledgeable investors in early stage agrifood tech business”.

“Many innovations are blocked by large companies because they just take too long,” he complained. However, he said things were changing.

Generic image showing soybean Field Rows in summer

“In America there’s a huge amount of money going into this area, driven by Silicon Valley. Here in Europe there are very few [investments] but they are starting. We are entering into an interesting and exciting time. There’s a realisation among retailers and big food manufacturers that they can’t carry on the way the have done.

“Most food retailers have now got venture capital funds that they never had before.”

Witteveen had expressed frustration that while it was possible to increase yields of pak choi, for instance, there was little point if farmers chopped off 30% of the plant to meet consumer demands over aesthetics or to fit the plant into supermarket twin pack.

But Wylie said attitudes among both retailers and consumers weren’t set in stone. “They ll change once they know it’s possible. Present them with the solution and they will make the change,” he said.

And while the host Dr Campbell’s suggestion that we should all be eating insects didn’t go down well in the conference hall, Wylie was again more optimistic.

“[In the 1960s] we would never have thought of eating Japanese food. People can change their taste if you present it in the right way.”

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