Food for Thought

The planet’s food supplies are under unprecedented stress due to climate change, an increasing world population and soil degradation. Clever tech is helping, but we must all rethink our attitude to food and where it comes from.

The journey from one state of being to the next is always an adventure into the unknown. Throughout history, humanity has undergone major transformations in the way we organise societies and lead our lives. As we grapple with the impact of environmental degradation and climate change, we must face the question of what the next step in human life will entail.

Perhaps the most pressing issue is food production and consumption. The world’s food system is responsible for a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions, fertilizers and weed killers contribute to the pollution of lakes, rivers and seas, and every year extensive land areas are cleared to make way for more agricultural land, leading to deforestation and habitat loss for animals. Furthermore, despite the current capacity to produce enough food for ten billion people, one in nine people still go hungry. This figure has increased greatly over the past couple of years due to COVID, climate change and the war in Ukraine.

To move forward, creating more sustainable food production and ensuring a more just distribution will be crucial. But many are worried about what this will entail. Will we all succumb to life in caves, eating nothing but rats and beetles? What sacrifices will be made on the environmentally friendly altar? Countless researchers, companies and producers are exploring what the future of food systems might look like, considering how, where and what to grow harvest and eat.

The farming industry contributes to most of our foods but today it is facing several existential threats, including extreme weather events, rising energy costs, water shortages and soil deterioration. Furthermore, as global insect populations are declining, so are the many pollinator species that are vital in the production of many fruits, nuts and vegetables. A study from Harvard University has estimated that the loss of pollinators can be attributed to as many as half a million early deaths of people per year, as many of our healthiest foods are pollinated by insects. This decline in such species also poses a huge challenge to global biodiversity.

To help overcome this loss, scientists have for years been working on developing alternatives to natural pollinators. The science fiction show ‘Black Mirror’ even made an episode on how robot bees would replace their natural counterparts, albeit with disastrous results. Several initiatives exist, including drones that fertilise date palms, and robots that can determine whether tomato plants are ripe enough before blowing them with streams of air to initiate pollination.

But issues of sustainability and scaling exist. The minerals used in many of these contraptions are already a hot commodity, with mineral extraction having massive environmental impact worldwide. And what would happen with all the metal waste when hundreds of thousands of robot bees suddenly become inoperable?

Researchers at the FAIRY (Flying Aero-robots based on Light Responsive Materials Assembly) project at Tampere University in Finland are developing soft-bodied flying seeds that they believe might be an important step in the realisation of more sustainable artificial pollination. These little flyers are made from a soft polymer and will have the ability to follow light sources and can thus be directed towards crops in need of fertilisation. With a design inspired by dandelion seeds they can even change their shape to adjust for wind direction and force. The team is now working out the kinks, including making their robot seeds reusable and biodegradable. If these plans come to fruition, this might have a huge impact on global agriculture, according to lead researchers on the project.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) holds great potential in revolutionising farming practices. For example, AI can assist farmers in making informed decisions about crop management by predicting weather patterns and providing insight into when to sow and harvest to maximise yields. With the help of sensors and image recognition software, AI can detect pests and diseases on crops before they become too damaging. It can also help optimize irrigation and nutrient needs, which can reduce water and fertilizer usage, save money and resources, and alleviate environmental impacts. Autonomous weed killers from companies such as the Seattle-based Carbon Robotics are already being used by tech-savvy (and financially able) farmers to eradicate weeds in crop fields using thermal energy.

Another massive issue is that of food waste, which today accounts for about one third of all foods and contributes around 8 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. GreenPod Labs is an Indian-based company specialising in packaging that slows down the ripening process of plants. The packaging comes in the form of bio-based sachets that are placed in crates of harvested fruits and vegetables. The sachets then help stimulate plants’ self-defence mechanism. This has multiple advantages: it keeps produce fresh for longer, and it cuts down on refrigeration costs and energy usage. In India alone, 40 per cent of food ends up as waste every year, resulting in an economic loss of around 12 billion USD.

While technological advancements will play a crucial role, simply reconsidering the location and methods of food production can lead to greater availability and quality of food in closer proximity to us. Urban farming presents an exciting alternative to traditional farming methods as it brings food closer to the consumer, minimises the need for long transportation, and ensures fresher produce. Urban farms can be flexible in size and placed in underused spaces such as industrial areas, rooftops or basements. Yield and crop selection can be customized to the area, reducing food waste and providing more variety for consumers. An example of this is the Los Perros farm in Malmö, Sweden, which is a small-scale urban farm of 3000m2 growing organic vegetables without the use of pesticides. Los Perros now delivers to numerous Malmö restaurants and locals through an online farmers market.

The seas are also greatly effected by our search for food, with about 15 per cent of human protein intake coming directly from the ocean. This has resulted in about one third of global fishing areas being overfished and nearly 90 per cent of all large fish species gone from our seas. Aquaponics is a type of farming by which you grow fish and vegetables in a closed-water system. The plants oxygenate the water for the fish and the fish waste provides nutrients for the plants. Aquaponics has been around for centuries and there is even some evidence that the Aztecs used a primitive version of it. Today it is gaining in popularity and making its way into cities and communities all over the world. This includes LokaltOdlat, a small family-owned business in Knivsta, Sweden, which supplies local customers with home-grown fish and vegetables from their aquaponics system and greenhouse.

Producing food at home or in cities can have the added benefit of creating more food-secure communities that are less reliant on external food supply. This reliance became an issue as Covid-19 disrupted supply chains across the world, and with climate change expected to bring about further as yet unknown consequences, complementing existing food systems with local alternatives can be a great option.

Modern life has put not only physical distance between us and our food sources but a mental distance as well. Most of us have little to no connection with the soil, land or water from which our food comes, which is something that might be especially true for those living in richer countries. We have essentially been detached from the sources of our food and the processes that bring it to our plates. This has created a lack of understanding and appreciation for the true value of food, with negative consequences for our health, the environment and the well-being of animals. Changing your relationship with food might be as easy as repurposing food scraps or shopping according to season. Food is fundamental to our needs as human beings; it brings people together and is something that should be celebrated and treated with the respect it deserves. By doing so, we might be one step closer to developing a deeper understanding and appreciation of our food, and in turn, creating a more sustainable and healthier food system.

The solutions proposed in this text are not easy and quick fixes to all food problems, but simply a summary of alternatives that might complement and strengthen food security while minimising some of its planetary footprint. The fact that we are even discussing robot pollinators is quite sad, to be honest, and should serve as a stark reminder of the impact we are having on our planet. Given the consequences of climate change, environmental degradation and an increasing world population, the development of sustainable and accessible food systems is imperative for our continued existence on Earth. By prioritizing justice, sustainability and resilience in our food supplies, we can work towards a fairer – and more delicious – future.

Team Credits:

Words by Charles Westberg
AI Images by Yulia Reznikov


1) By Ant Rozetsky
2) Generated by artificial intelligence
3) By Hunter Brumels
4) By Abhishek Pawar
5&6) Generated by artificial intelligence
7) An artificial seed designed by researchers at Tampere University
8) The Laserweeder designed by carbon robotics
9) By Markus Spiske
10) Urban Farming in Malmö
11) By John Cameron
12) CSM NYC New Food City by Derek Hoberg