Are These Startups The Future of Food Tech?
Are These Startups The Future of Food Tech?
Cheap and accurate weather forecasting and indoor LED farms were just some of the offerings at the Nobel Week Dialogue in Stockholm
Wednesday 21 December 2016 11.06 GMT
he ability to forecast tomorrow’s weather is something farmers have at their fingertips in many parts of the world, but in some regions weather forecasting is much trickier.
“In the tropics, weather processes are faster and up to a thousand times smaller than up here,” says Liisa Petrykowska, managing director of Ignitia, a Stockholm-based startup. “The weather forecasting systems developed by western governments haven’t focused on the tropics.”
Existing next-day forecasts are accurate less than half the time, she says, making them next-to-useless for farmers. Ignitia has built its own atmospheric models to deliver forecasts that are right up to 85% of the time, and sends them out as simple text messages costing just 4 cents (2p) a day.
“Many farmers were sceptical at first,” says Petrykowska, “But we quickly built up trust. Now 90% of Ghanaian farmers who receive them say the forecasts have helped them to make the correct decisions about planting, sowing, spraying and transportation.”
Indoor LED farms
Ignitia was one of a number of food tech startups that gathered in Stockholm last week for the Future of Food, an event organised by the Nobel Foundation. The startups believe applying technologies such as machine learning, advanced materials and open-source practices can revolutionise food production.
“What happens in the next 50 years will determine what happens to society over the next 10,000,” Johan Rockström, professor of environmental science at Stockholm University, told the conference. “Food is the deciding factor. Food is the primary cause behind loss of diversity, the largest user of fresh water, and is responsible for 30% of all greenhouse gas emissions. If we get it right on food, we are likely to get it right for planet Earth.”
Caleb Harper, director of Open Agriculture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, thinks sensor-controlled hydroponic and aeroponic growing systems are part of the answer. “We are slaves to climate in agriculture. But what if we could give every country access to good weather?” he said.
In his lab, plants grow under LED lights and the watchful gaze of dozens of sensors – collecting more than 3m data points for every plant. Harper claims his crops grow five times faster than they would outdoors, and need 90% less water while doing so. Everything his lab discovers is then made freely available through open source hardware and software websites. “The open food movement gives access to biology, in the same way that HTML gave us access to the internet,” says Harper.
Fish farms and reuseable chill bags
Aside from weather, another big topic at the event was the shift away from raising animals for meat, which is responsible for a disproportionate share of the land, water and energy used in food production. “Americans eat four times as much beef as all seafood combined, but aquaculture is emerging as a possible solution,” says Peter Tyedmers of Dalhousie University in Canada.
He has been evaluating new, floating semi-closed fish farming tanksthat can recycle fish waste as fertiliser and avoid contaminating nearby water systems. One drawback is that they need more energy than traditional open-water farms, meaning they might increase carbon emissions even as they reduce pollution.
Tyedmers also warns that fish food should be sourced from low-impact agricultural crops rather than other marine organisms. “Aquaculture is not a panacea but it can be a key wedge in moving away from land-fed livestock to the sea,” he says.
Food technology is also giving us solutions at home. As more people use online grocery or meal services, there has been a growing demand for refrigerated lorries, together with expensive Styrofoam boxes and gel packs to keep food hot or cold on that last mile.
The Food Climate Research Network estimates around half a percent of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions come from mobile refrigeration units moving chilled food around the country. iFoodbag, another Stockholm startup, aims to replace traditional delivery methods with reusable, recyclable bags made from laminated paper.
The bag can keep chilled groceries from becoming dangerously warm for around five hours, which its makers think is long enough to use a normal van (or presumably a drone, in the future) for delivery. Adding a frozen gel pack extends the time to eight hours, and the bag can be reused up to seven times.