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Smart urban food systems: What will the future taste like?

Cities could lead the charge in the sustainable food revolution.


Some believe John Lennon’s ashes were scattered at Strawberry Fields in Central Park, New York City. After a recent goosebump-inducing sing-along of Áll You Need is Love at the supposed spot, I was much closer to being one of them.


An altogether different strawberry field has also been causing a stir in New York. The Oishii vertical strawberry farm joins a growing number of similar initiatives across the globe. These urban, data-driven farms could inter-relate with other innovations to transform our global food system.


“So much of the food in the world is produced in a linear way, depleting finite resources and damaging the health of the ecosystem and humans,” said Emma Chow, food initiative lead, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a charity focused on the circular economy.


“We need to fundamentally redesign the system using circular economy principles. And cities are best placed to lead the change."


The UN has also highlighted the importance of fixing the food system through its Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), which guide the policies of many cities.


Man vs food


A city-led rewiring would need to take place in parallel with a 50 per cent increase in global food production by 2050. By then, 10 billion increasingly middle-class people will need feeding, with 80 per cent of all food being consumed in cities.


If farming yields don’t improve, we face the prospect of seeing the majority of forests and woody savannahs cleared for agriculture – the recent fires in the Amazon are thought to have been started to clear land for crops or grazing.


The battle is on to keep within, if not reduce, our current farming footprint.


Add that to solving food miles, waste, pollution, climate impact, poverty and resilience, and the food system to-do list becomes decidedly more intimidating than an eating challenge on the Man vs Food TV show.


Pioneers such as New York and Milan are making technology-inspired inroads, but it’s not going to be easy to transform the world’s largest industry.


Local, but not low-tech


New York City is aiming to go local and buck the trend in the US: the import share of food and beverages consumed has almost doubled over the last two decades to 15 per cent in 2017. Over half of fruit in the US is now imported.


Laura Feyer, spokesperson for the Office of Food Policy, City of New York, said: “We are working to increase the consumption of local and regional food through investments in partnerships and developing priorities that intentionally purchase food from regional farms.”


“The NYC Economic Development Corporation food hub in Hunts Point will focus on providing greater ease and access for regional farmers, especially small and family farms, to bring produce to the city.”


Milan Urban Food Policy Pact


Over 200 cities, including New York, have signed the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact since 2015. The sustainability-focused commitments include moving towards more consumption of local and regional food.


Milan won the Guangzhou innovation award in 2018 for its urban food policy: “We work every day to make our food system more sustainable, equitable, resilient and healthy,” said Andrea Pellini, food policy coordinator, Municipality of Milan.


Milan’s food policy priorities are: access to healthy food for all, promoting sustainability, increasing customer awareness of the food system, fighting against waste and supporting agri-food research.


One of its innovations involves the use of public food procurement in schools to develop and test short supply chains. Initially piloted with rice, the project is now reconstructing 19 supply chains including fresh pasta, gnocchi and courgettes. This amounts to an eighth of school food requirements across the urban area.


Milan won the Guangzhou innovation award in 2018 for its urban food policy.


Using public procurement to get innovative local supply chains off the ground is an approach that we are likely to see more of in other cities. Once established, the market can then help to scale them up.


Farm skyscrapers


The local and regional food supply chain landscape in Milan and other cities includes traditional field, rooftop and vertical farms.


Vertical farms differ from traditional farms by stacking layers of produce on top of one another, indoors, drastically saving space and increasing yields. Produce grows on artificial membranes no soil is used with nutrients supplied by submerging roots in a solution or spraying them with a mist. Artificial lighting provides energy instead of natural light from the sun, as with traditional farming.


Freed from the land-area constraints of field farming, vertical farms can be more easily located closer to citizens and retailers, helping to increase freshness and resilience.


Today, the global vertical farming market is growing by 25 per cent year-on-year and is projected to reach $13 billion by 2026.


AeroFarms in New Jersey operates one of the world’s biggest vertical farms, producing leafy greens and serving local consumers in the New York area.


“We grow fresh produce indoors all-year-round without the use of sun and soil. Our methodology is designed for optimal environmental sustainability: we grow using 95 per cent less water, a fraction of the land and resources, and with yields 390 times higher per square foot annually vs. traditional field farming,” said Marc Oshima, co-founder, AeroFarms.

AeroFarms facility, New Jersey. Source: AeroFarms
AeroFarms facility, New Jersey. Source: AeroFarms

“We capture millions of data points, from seed to harvest, and use this information to optimise our plants for taste and nutrition along with colour and yield," Oshima added.


Vertical farms are now dotted about the globe, from Scunthorpe to Tokyo, and produce mainly leafy greens but also tomatoes and cucumbers. Companies are trialling other vegetables such as radishes and turnips too.


We capture millions of data points, from seed to harvest, and use this information to optimise our plants for taste and nutrition along with colour and yield.


You can bet that most produce will get the vertical treatment over the coming years. Whether all of it can be commercialised and transitioned from niche to mainstream is another question.


Smart urban farming


Emerging technology is also being applied to traditional field farming, giving birth to the ‘smart urban farm’. Urban farming is on the up and digital twins, robotics and sensors could be deployed to help increase yields, and to reduce operating and environmental costs as well as soil degradation.


“Soil is our battery for growing food and we need to take care of it. At the moment it’s being contaminated. Fertiliser run-off into waterways is also choking marine life,” said Emma Chow, Ellen MacArthur Foundation.


Regenerative practices, coupled with emerging technology, could provide a way to vastly increase yields while making farming sustainable.


Across the pond, UK start-up Small Robot Company, based in Portsmouth, is developing and trialling lightweight robots to automate and digitise farming. The robots will use less energy and reduce soil compaction, compared with conventional heavy machinery. They will also use water and fertiliser only where it is needed, on a plant-by-plant basis, conserving valuable resources – personalisation for plants.


Prototype robots. Source: Small Robot Company
Prototype robots. Source: Small Robot Company

The UK government has seen the potential in agri-tech and recently announced the first tranche of R&D projects worth £22 million. A further £68 million of projects are still to come.


Cities have the opportunity to embrace and support smart urban farming, not just to improve the sustainability of their food systems but also as a digital jobs boost that could spill over into other sectors. As many cities already champion the growth of urban farms – for example, Seoul provides 80-100 per cent of start-ups costs – it seems a logical extension.


Exploiting existing smart city infrastructure such as 5G, low-power networks and data platforms for smart urban farms adds to the potential.


Milan is leading the OpenAgri project, creating an open innovation hub for peri-urban agriculture. The initiative is regenerating 30 hectares of land on the outskirts of the city for use as a living test-bed for innovators and entrepreneurs to develop new food system solutions.


Eighteen projects featuring start-ups and SMEs are underway, researching areas such as automation, vertical farming technology and social integration in urban agriculture.


There is also a particular focus on skills development for young and disadvantaged people living locally, and on innovation-driven growth.


Swapping the chef’s hat for the lab coat


Another way of transforming food production and supply chains is through citizens’ diets, which could become equally high-tech. The UN recently made its most prominent call yet for people to eat less meat, to help confront climate change.


New York Mayor, Bill De Blasio, has already announced plans to slash beef purchases by half for public facilities such as hospitals and prisons. Other cities may follow suit.


Why such disdain for meat? Producing animal-based food is more resource-intensive per ton of protein than plant-based. It uses more land and water, and contributes two-thirds of agriculture’s anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. More than three-quarters of agricultural land is used for livestock globally but animal-based foods only provide a third of protein consumed.


Vegetarian substitutes that aim to taste like meat have been around for decades. However, we have seen a flurry of start-ups enter the fray in recent years, innovating in the lab to get closer to the real deal.


It’s been a breakthrough year for the next generation of plant-based ‘meat’. Major food chains like Burger King and McDonald’s have launched offerings. A national US roll-out of Burger King’s Impossible Whopper in August followed a successful trial period in St Louis, Missouri in April.


Start-ups have also been developing cultured meat (also known as ‘clean meat’), since 2013. It is now nearing commercialisation. To make cultured meat, cells are grown outside the animal’s body in a bioreactor.


Beckie Calder-Flynn, operations co-ordinator, Mosa Meat, a Dutch food technology company working on production methods for cultured meat, said: “The first step is to take some cells from an animal, such as a cow if we’re making beef, which is done with a biopsy under anaesthesia by a vet. The cells are fed nutrients and natural growth factors, and allowed to proliferate just as they would inside an animal.”


New York Mayor, Bill De Blasio, has already announced plans to slash beef purchases by half for public facilities such as hospitals and prisons.


“When thousands of muscle fibres are layered together we get what we started with – meat.”


“We estimate that by 2021, commercialisation will bring the price of a burger down to €9. We expect that with further efficiency improvements we will be able to bring the price down to €1, comparable to a hamburger, over the next decade,” she said.


Mosa Meat also claims it can make 80,000 quarter pounders from cells collected from one cow. The potential benefits of ‘clean meat’ include drastic reductions in land, water, energy and antibiotic use, and improvements to animal welfare – slaughter is not necessary.


Clean versions of chicken, pork and fish are also in the pipeline. Shojinmeat in Japan is taking a different approach by drawing together ‘biohackers’ and citizen scientists to accelerate home-based ‘cellular agriculture’.


Cities could look to accelerate the consumption of plant-based and cultured meat over the coming years as part of their climate and biodiversity action plans. Public food procurement policies and sustainable diet campaigns targeting citizens are two prime ways of nudging behaviours.


In addition, cities could collaborate with the budding alternative ‘meat’ industry to help construct new short sustainable supply chains from the get-go. Adopting the emergent distributed local micro-factory model, precipitated by automation, reduced lead times and customisation, could benefit food companies and foster a future skills ecosystem for the local economy.


Closing the nutrient loop


Food waste is also a priority to tackle.


Astoundingly, one third of all food produced globally is wasted – the equivalent of six garbage trucks a second.


Potential solutions to reduce food waste include the use of analytics across the supply chain to optimise processes, and improving public composting facilities.


New York has launched an innovative online platform, donateNYC, that connects businesses that have food earmarked for landfill with non-profits that distribute it.


Human waste also contains valuable nutrients that could be cycled back to farmland to enrich the soil, replacing artificial fertiliser. Only two per cent of all nutrients that end up in cities make their way back to farms.


“Currently a portion of 500,000 tons of biosolids from our wastewater facilities are further processed into compost or a lime-based soil amendment and used to return nutrients and organic matter to regional farmland, and for the reclamation of disturbed mine land,” said NYC’s Feyer.


“We are aiming for zero landfilling of biosolids by 2030.”


The toilet is getting a makeover too. Back in 2011, the Bill Gates Foundation challenged innovators to make a decentralised, solar-powered toilet that recovered resources, such as nutrients.


Eight years and numerous funding rounds later, SCG’s Zyclonic is one of the successful projects. Each unit destroys pathogens and outputs biofertiliser, which can be used on nearby urban farms, as is the case at a demonstrator site in Bangkok.


Khlong Phlabphla community urban farm. Source: All Round Plastics
Khlong Phlabphla community urban farm. Source: All Round Plastics

Transformation of our food system has begun.


Digitalisation, robotics and vertical farms could make the job easier, but smarter logistics and dissemination of low-tech farming best practices are critical too.


Citizens’ food choices could accelerate change but it’s imperative that stakeholders are cognisant of every link in the chain to achieve sustainability.


You’ve heard of farm to fork but farm to faeces could better describe the systems-thinking, resource-centric approach needed to transform the food industry, with cities at the helm.


The marketing might need some work, though.


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