Sustainable food for a more equitable future
There is a thorny dilemma at the heart of global food production. How do we eradicate hunger in every part of the world, without farming and distribution logistics causing even greater environmental damage to the planet?
That predicament becomes even more pertinent when you consider that the world’s population is expected to rise by 2 billion people to a total of 9.7 billion by 2050. How do we go about meeting the resultant demand for food without more intensive practices resulting in the release of vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and decimating biodiversity?
The world under pressure
These challenges are neatly encapsulated by the visual framework of Doughnut Economics, developed by the internationally acclaimed economist and academic Kate Raworth. The illustration - shaped like a doughnut - shows the interplay between planetary boundaries such as climate change, air pollution, soil degradation, and ocean acidification, and with societal demands for essentials such as food, healthcare, and housing.
We have currently failed to meet many of the key social foundations for a significant number of people across the world. Yet, we have already overshot at least four of the nine planetary boundaries. The pressure is being felt in several key areas: in agriculture, for instance, high-density food production is hitting the environment hard, with soil degradation posing a threat to 40 per cent of the Earth’s land surfaces. A European Commission report, Soil, the Hidden Part of the Climate Cycle, estimates that around 1,500 billion tonnes of carbon are found in soil worldwide - the second-largest active store of carbon after the oceans. Soil plays a crucial role in the Earth’s carbon cycle, and further disruption could accelerate climate change - irrevocably damaging viable agricultural land and hurting the very farming communities struggling to feed themselves and fuel the supply chain.
Food waste is another area of concern. Globally, food production generates between 25-30 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions, and agricultural supply chains use 70 per cent of global freshwater reserves. Yet despite this, the United Nations suggests that around 14 per cent of food produced is lost between harvest and retail, with further quantities wasted at the consumption level. In the UK alone, 10 million tonnes of food every year whilst 8.4 million people are struggling to eat.
This problem represents disjointed communication between producers, governments, and communities, causing damage to the environment whilst failing to feed the global population.
Engineering has the answers
Fortunately, there is hope. Engineers worldwide are working hard to develop new food production methods and ways to reduce food waste.
For instance, a lot is going on in ‘urban farming’ and micro agriculture, driven by the emergence of artisanal farmers and fisheries. These outfits might only have a small impact now in terms of climate change, but they demonstrate an excellent model for a local food supply chain that adequately supports and empowers producers. This trend could signal the start of reduced reliance on industrial-scale farming, which is often associated with high food miles and carbon-intensive logistics.
Most recently, some major towns and cities have woken up to the benefits of locally and ethically sourced foods as a means of reducing CO2 emissions. For example, Amsterdam's municipality - working in conjunction with Kate Raworth - has announced that it is embracing a new model of food production for the city, based around a set of more environmentally-sound criteria.
Meanwhile, from a technological perspective, there is a wealth of exciting engineering taking place to help provide access to sufficient, sustainable, and nutritious food. LettUs Grow in Bristol, for example, is helping to pioneer aeroponics – the process of growing plants in an air or a mist environment without using soil or an aggregate medium. This technology is being deployed in indoor and vertical farms, further supporting the trend towards locally sourced food.
At Engineers Without Borders UK, we recently added a food category to the Engineering for People Design Challenge for 2020/2021. This introduction encourages student engineers to look to the expertise of small-scale food producers and fisheries as a means of helping to create resilient and regenerative agricultural practices within a sustainable engineering framework.
Establishing a more sustainable future
The solutions are out there and a more holistic approach to agricultural engineering and practices is eminently possible. With like-minded peers coming together in competitions like the Engineering for People Design Challenge, Engineers Without Borders UK is convinced that engineers can develop effective and sustainable solutions to farming and fishing that will serve communities well – both now and in the future. We believe this offers the best chance of feeding the global population while meeting pressing global climate change goals.
We’re currently looking for professionals to review the design concepts submitted for the Engineering for People Design Challenge including those aimed at improving the food system. To find out more visit https://www.ewb-uk.org/reviewer/.
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