Ending hunger and promoting sustainable food systems is one of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Achieving this goal requires producing enough food for the world’s current population and increasing production to feed an estimated population of 10 billion by 2050. It’s projected that agricultural output will have to rise by 50 percent to meet that target.
Creating sustainable food systems promises a host of benefits. Communities that lack stable access to food not only face malnutrition, but competition for scarce resources can cause conflict and community instability.
Challenges to the Food System
Since 2008, more people live in urban areas than rural ones. And demographers predict that in 2025, there will be three city dwellers for every two people living in rural areas. This poses a challenge for existing agricultural systems because it means a larger share of land is subject to urban development, leaving less available for growing crops. At the same time, a smaller portion of the population lives and works on rural farms, and this smaller portion is tasked with producing food for rising numbers of urban residents.
Climate change also threatens existing food systems. Warmer temperatures and rising sea levels can render previously fertile environments unfit for farming. Severe weather can damage crops and climate change can upset the balance in an ecosystem, leading to the spread of pests and crop diseases and threatening pollinator species that farmers depend on.
While these challenges aren’t insurmountable, the food system must adopt new methods of production and distribution to reduce the chance that changing conditions will bring about food insecurity.
The Perils of Food Insecurity
Access to food is a basic human right, and hunger and malnutrition are major causes of suffering. In 2016, UNICEF reported that malnutrition affects one in three people worldwide. And the consequences of hunger are far-reaching: Malnutrition can make people more susceptible to common infections and stunt growth and cognitive ability in children. This can put a strain on communities long after the food crisis has passed.
Food insecurity can also spark political conflict. In 2008, soaring prices for staples like wheat and rice led to riots across the world. Food insecurity can trigger a vicious cycle in which the violence and conflict caused by food shortages further disrupt food production and transport, worsening the crisis.
Conflict itself disrupts the food system. People may flee or be forcibly removed from their farms. The transport of goods may be rendered impossible. According to IFPRI, 60% of the 815 million people afflicted by chronic hunger live in areas affected by conflict and violence. In South Sudan, disrupted trade lines and currency devaluation worsened the country’s food security over the course of two years, leading to the declaration of a famine in 2017.
Sustainable Agriculture’s Impact
Although the consequences of food insecurity are dire, building sustainable food systems is possible through technology. Vertical farming is one promising innovation. It uses hydroponic or aeroponic methods to grow crops in stacked layers indoors, meaning that farms can be established in warehouses or even shipping containers.
The method could result in massive resource savings. For example, AeroFarms in New Jersey says its vertical farms use 95 percent less water and are 390 times more productive than a field farm covering a comparable area. Vertical farms also aren’t susceptible to the same weather events that affect outdoor crops. And since vertical farms can function in urban areas, they could potentially provide fresh produce to urban residents when supply chains and transportation infrastructure aren’t up to the task.
To achieve sustainable agriculture, new technologies have to be integrated into food systems. Advocates point to the Netherlands, which despite its limited natural resources is the second-highest exporter of food by value. The country is home to a “Food Valley” of agricultural startups and family farms that use intensive technology to develop hardier crop varieties, boost yields, and reduce reliance on artificial pesticides.
In addition to exporting crops, the Netherlands is sharing its agricultural knowledge with the rest of the world: Wageningen University and Research has founded sustainable agriculture projects in more than 140 countries. The Netherlands can serve as a model for countries that want to produce abundant food locally and protect themselves from regional food crises.
Given that agriculture is facing pressure on multiple fronts, creating sustainable food systems will likely require complementary innovations that support each other and that take diverse approaches to sustainability. This presents an opportunity for entrepreneurs and investors to put their ideas into practice and contribute to the mix of solutions.