In April 2020, the UN warned that the world was on the brink of a catastrophic famine.
It was estimated that about 135 million people in around 55 countries faced shortages in food, particularly nutritious food, in 2019.
Against this backdrop, the UN has set an ambitious goal to ensure food security and wipe out hunger by 2030. It estimated that around 183 million people could slide into starvation and malnutrition if stricken with a pandemic akin to Covid-19. The coronavirus crisis disrupted global food supply chains, leading to chronic shortages in many countries.
Even before this pandemic, the ecological costs of food production were rising, compounded by water scarcity in many places. Irrigation accounts for about 70% of freshwater withdrawals around the world, with the figure reaching 90% in some developing countries.
Food production, which is critical for survival, affects the ecosystem. With the Earth’s resources depleting every day and world population growing, we must discover innovative ways to cultivate food. We need ground-breaking and resourceful approaches to not only to feed the world’s population, but to do so in eco-friendly ways.
Faced with this dilemma, we need to develop alternative methods of farming, particularly using artificial intelligence.
Stockholm’s modern indoor farming methods provide some answers to how to overcome global food shortages. The city is revolutionising its food sector by showing results in eco-friendly urban farming.
Some buildings in Stockholm incorporate artificial intelligence and eco-friendly methods into indoor farming. Circular energy waste water and carbon absorbing mechanisms enable indoor-grown greens while reducing the ecological footprint.
Indoor farming in Stockholm uses LED lighting and hydroponic watering systems. Food, especially vegetables, is grown indoors all year round. Growing vegetables indoors not only cuts reliance on food imports but also makes cities self-sufficient in food.
More than 1.3 million plants are grown indoors in Stockholm every year. Indoor farming has allowed Sweden to slash food imports by 60% and cut carbon emissions incurred in transporting food. Such transport accounts for a quarter of emissions in Sweden.
In some Stockholm suburbs, bright LED lights illuminate a business space. In this building, plants follow an artificial daylight rhythm to grow as efficiently as possible. Delicate plants such as various herbs and lettuce grow in stacks of about 20 metres wide by six metres high. Local restaurants, supermarkets and airlines buy this indoor-grown indoors.
Weather conditions in Sweden allow open-air farming for only three to four months a year. But climate is not a constraint in indoor farming, which maximises the use of space using stacks. Each shelf has its own LED lighting and circulating water. Even fruits like strawberries can be grown throughout the year.
Sweden Foodtech, a government agency, acts as a catalyst in promoting and encouraging innovation in the food sector. This agency also offers support to firms that want to restructure the food ecosystem. Companies converge when business events are organised focusing on major themes revolving around the future of the Swedish food sector.
Besides Sweden Foodtech, the Stockholm Business Region, a business promotion agency, aims to create a resilient food ecosystem for innovative businesses. Its goal is to position Stockholm as a “leading food-tech hub” for 300 companies in the food-tech industry.
Public interest, environmental consciousness and an innovative society has made Stockholm a conducive place for food-tech initiatives. Consumers in this city are more ecologically vigilant, and many of them feel it is their moral obligation to support eco-friendly products. The city itself also extends support to all kinds of sustainable projects.
As a society grows more affluent, it places greater emphasis on health issues and ecological considerations. Ecological degradation and the use of harmful chemical fertilisers and pesticides will spur demand for eco-friendly and healthier food products.
Some 55% or 4.3 billion of the global population of 7.8 billion are urban dwellers. This figure could reach 70% or 6.8 billion of the world’s population of 9.7 billion by 2050.
High-tech vertical farms offer alternative ways to grow food on a large scale. In this way, we can grow our food in more energy-efficient and healthier ways. Despite developments in agricultural technology, conventional farming faces problems such as pests, climate change and natural disasters.
With the scarcity of arable farming land, ecological problems and health hazards, the trend is towards indoor food cultivation. The only challenge is to reduce the cost of indoor farming, especially for urban dwellers in less affluent countries.
But with technology rapidly advancing along with ongoing R&D and innovation, costs will fall, allowing economies of scale in indoor farming. Technological advances will lower costs, enhance quality and improve harvests, all of which will provide better returns on investments.
The trend towards indoor vertical hydroponic or aeroponic farming will gain momentum, especially in urban areas. Mass food production in the future will probably focus on indoor farming in buildings rather than horizontal farming on the ground.
What’s in it for Malaysia? Our total agricultural imports reached nearly $18.3bn in 2019, roughly 7% from the US. We must slash this high import bill.
The government should encourage more Malaysians to enter the food ecosystem and develop the sector completely along the value chain. It should give incentives to unemployed graduates, especially those in relevant disciplines, to venture into the food sector. It should encourage them to get involved in R&D, integrated farming, indoor farming, manufacturing, logistics, marketing and distribution.
If there is anything we can learn from the coronavirus pandemic, it is that we have to ensure food self-sufficiency. We saw how the pandemic severely disrupted global food supply chains, and so our national agenda should prioritise food security.