The horse was no match for technology. Gone are the days when up to 200,000 horses transported people and goods in New York City. These have all been replaced by remarkable new inventions like cars, planes, and electricity.
But this raises a question. If we could replace horsepower with nuclear power, why haven’t we been able to replace the cow?
At the same time that horses have largely disappeared from our lives, the number of cows and other livestock has exploded. About 40 million km2 of our planet is now used to raise livestock for food. That’s half of the global land for agriculture.
This growing dependence on farmland and livestock has been costly.
“Agriculture is the largest consumer of resources globally,” said Irving Fain, founder of foodtech startup Bowery Farming, in an interview. It requires 70% of the world’s water and about 6 billion pounds of pesticides every year.
Along with this massive drain on natural resources and more recent problems like disrupted supply chains and soaring food prices, there are also less obvious costs. Almost 80% of antibiotics go to livestock, resulting in antibiotic resistance that kills more than 35,000 Americans every year.
Without a dramatic shift in the way we produce food, these costs will multiply. The United Nations predicts that the world’s growing population will need food production to double by 2050.
It’s a sobering look at our planet and future. But thanks to an explosion of new technologies, everything may be about to change.
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The food revolution
Food production is being transformed. New technology – together with a flurry of new startups and forward-thinking countries – is beginning to have a profound impact on how we grow, deliver, and consume food.
Foodtech encompasses a wide range of innovations. From robotics and the Internet of Things to drones, AI, data analytics and 3D printing, it’s a sector that’s expected to be worth almost US$30 billion within five years.
At the epicentre of this movement are startups like Bowery Farming, which is deploying technology to move farming away from the land and into urban buildings – like a warehouse in New Jersey that now supplies food to New York City.
“We’re growing strawberries, tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. We’re going root vegetables and tubers,” Bowery founder Fain said. “People often think, well, the only thing you can grow in indoor farming is leafy greens and herbs. But here we are, thanks to technology.”
Bowery is particularly interested in strawberries because they are one of the least sustainable foods, requiring long supply chains that can stretch thousands of kilometres. It’s an interest they share with land-scarce countries like Singapore, which imports 90% of its food supply from as far away as the United States and Europe.
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No more livestock?
While Bowery Farming has focused on fruit and vegetables, Singapore has been at the forefront of efforts to transform how we produce foods like meat and milk. With plans to produce 30% of its food locally by 2030, the small city-state is investing heavily in technology that uses sophisticated bioreactors to create meat from banks of cells.
Like the vats that microbreweries use for making beer, these bioreactors could be installed throughout the world’s cities, supplying local consumers and ending the need for costly and increasingly unreliable supply chains.
It’s an industry that has caught the attention of land-scarce countries beyond Singapore. In Israel, for example, investment in alternative sources of protein reached US$623 million last year, up 450% from 2020.
The efforts of these countries and others could transform industries well beyond livestock and agriculture. Consider the supply chains required to move food around the world. More than two billion animals are currently transported by truck and ship every year, adding up to an annual cost of US$21 billion.
Using technology to disrupt this link between food production and the land would not only resolve concerns about food security in places like Singapore and Israel, but it would also have a significant impact on CO2 emissions, water, pesticides, antibiotics, pollution and a long list of threats to human well-being today.
Then there’s the impact on the land itself. With half of the planet’s habitable surface area now converted to agriculture, the use of technology to shift food production away from farms and into warehouses and bioreactors would be a game-changer.
In Europe alone, the steady decline of livestock over just the last two decades has allowed the continent’s forests to reclaim an area of land the size of Portugal.
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Automation is the answer to global food supply woes
Is this the time for technology to transform food in the same way it has transformed transportation, energy, and many other industries? Bowery Farming CEO Fain believes it is.
“We are building smart indoor farms close to the cities that we serve. We grow under lights that mimic the spectrum of the sun. We can grow 365 days of the year, independent of the weather. No herbicides, fungicides or insecticides.”
Gesturing to the indoor farm behind him, where crops are being tended by robotics and other cutting-edge technology, Fain says, “we’re over 100 times more productive than farmland and use a small fraction of the water. We’ve automated the entire process from seed to store.”
Given how productive and sustainable Bowery’s method has proven to be, we should strive towards a future that effectively leverages the power of automation to empower our food supplies.