Test tube steak tartar anyone?
Amongst the team at NZE, we spend most of our time discussing various economic sectors and how these can be changed/modified in response to a warmer, more unpredictable and variable global climate. The question of the future of the agricultural sector arose, specifically, food production in Africa. To be clear, it is impossible to talk about the entire food system of a continent in a single blog post. 54 countries, each with their own food system and a unique mix of factors that constitute a particular country’s agricultural sector, is far too broad. A thought piece encapsulating all of this uniqueness was never our intention. However, we scribbled down the summary of our discussions exploring food systems and entrepreneurial ways of improving how we farm in order to spark discussion around the topic.
Why food? Well, why not food?! It has been fundamentally important to the development of all human societies in the past, and will continue to dominate the discussion as to how our communities will continue to develop. Moreover, it is a hot topic in current discussions on the continent. Africa is shaping up to be the next “breadbasket” of the world in order to meet a rapidly expanding global population expected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050. This is a good thing – right? Well, as with most things, it depends. While agricultural development generally equals economic growth, it does not automatically mean prosperity and equality. For example, rampant conversion of small-scale agricultural holdings into large scale, (usually foreign owned) industrial-scale farming operations can disregard local land tenure regimes and destroy small farmers’ livelihoods. The policy choice between large-scale (typically “precise” and operationally efficient) and small-scale (typically broad based and socially resilient) agriculture is not a clear cut one. Each option has its own pros and cons with both having been shown as successful models in different parts of the world. Small scale development has worked in South East Asia and parts of South America, while large scale has dominated the US and many other developed regions.
To further complicate the decision spectrum is the impact of climate change. This is an important consideration for African agriculture given the region’s heavy reliance on rainfed agriculture. There is a significant level of uncertainty around the future of climate variability, despite numerous programmes looking to shed light on the matter. Over and above systemic climate change, shorter-lived climatic fluctuations like El Niño have pushed our global food systems to the brink in 2015 and 2016. Recently, the World Food Programme estimated that 32 million (that’s million) in the Southern African region are food insecure. Suffice to say the steaks are high (if you would excuse the food pun).
Different policy choices are abound in the agricultural sector, with these decisions ultimately shaping the nature of entrepreneurial solutions that will emerge. There are some broad, Africa-wide, policy agendas (e.g. NEPADs Comprehensive African Agriculture Development Programme – CAADP), national policies on agriculture and water (e.g. South Africa’s Agricultural Policy Action Plan – APAP 2014) and more localised policy agendas (e.g. the Western Cape’s SmartAgri Strategy or the debate between organic vs. GMO farming). One of the most important considerations to keep in mind with all of these policies is developing a holistic view of agriculture in society. This means a rethink of the entire rural economy and the sectors supporting rural development. It could be argued that agriculture is often seen as a means to simply support the development of growing, modernising and sophisticated cities. This is usually done at the expense of the acknowledgement of urban area’s dependence on an effective farming network to sustain its human capacity. Without a successful agricultural sector, no city could survive. A rethink of the role that agriculture plays in our society, and in turn, the value of rural economic systems, is in order.
Policy that is relevant to a country’s particular context aside, some individuals and corporates alike are beginning to appreciate the interdependent nature of for food security and economic productivity. As a result, technological innovations have emerged to improve the way in which food is produced. In the past successful farming relied on two key factors – good, arable land and generations of farming knowledge. Both of these factors were inherited, and almost entirely a function of circumstance. Today, new thinking and innovative technologies are beginning to challenge these dogmatic views. Furthermore, it is increasingly appreciated that what has worked in the past will not necessarily continue working into the future. Without some changes it is unlikely that our food systems we will be able to feed our growing society.
Developments in agriculture exist on a vast spectrum, with thinking varying dramatically from one case to another. On the one end of the spectrum entirely new and alternative methods of growing food are favoured, using technologies and methods like hydroponics, indoor farming and aeroponics. On the other end, there is a movement towards the older, more organic approach that is less reliant on chemical inputs and prioritises the sustainability of land and other resources. Somewhere in all of this lies the exciting areas of “agri-robots” and biotechnology, which seek to make conventional farming methods more efficient. In all areas, it has become increasingly clear that issues related to food security and agriculture do not exist in isolation. In our deeply connected existence, agriculture cannot be separated from serious environmental issues of water and energy shortages – both of which are currently being experienced in South Africa. Successful innovations in food security are those that address sustainability in the global economic, environmental, and social spheres.
Some fast-growing countries like Japan and Nigeria are field testing alternative approaches to farming. For example, a Japanese company has, with the support from large corporate GE Japan, created the world’s largest indoor farm using an abandoned Sony factory and thousands of LED lights. The “plant factory”, that produces 10 000 heads of lettuce per day, was driven in the wake of the 2011 Tohuku earthquake and hoped to prove that food could be produced anywhere. This is all done using about 1% of the water used in conventional vegetable production. Another example is the Nigerian-based Sreach Aeroponics, which has used a similarly inventive approach to farming essential vegetables indoors. Here, plants are suspended in the air with their roots misted by nutrient-infused water. The system may seem unnatural, but can reportedly reduce water usage by as much as 98%, fertiliser by 95%, and pesticides by 99%. It can also enhance yields by between 45% – 75%. Closer to home, a company called Qwik Gro takes advantage of aeroponic farming for producing livestock fodder in the form of sprouted barley.
Aeroponics and indoor farms are sometimes criticised for their extremely high set-up costs, and, significantly, their higher rates of energy consumption. CropBox offers a solution to at least the issue of setup costs, by providing a relatively affordable shipping container that has been adapted to grow as much food as could be done on one acre of land. Conventional farmers on the other hand are innovating by using data technology to farm with precision and minimise wastage of water, fertiliser and other resources. Sensors of every kind are used to monitor variables like albedo, leaf-area index and vegetation index, all of which can be used to understand a crop’s exact irrigation and fertiliser requirements. Drones or unmanned aerial vehicles are now being used to survey crops and livestock across vast areas. This is done to identify issues like plant stress, perform aerial mapping, conduct livestock censuses and detect sick animals before fatalities occur. Driverless tractors, auto-weeders and robotic fertilisers are some of the more futuristic advances in agricultural innovation. But, as in all industries, the effects of automation on employment should be considered. According to the South African Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, the agriculture accounts for approximately 7% of formal employment in 2013, of which a significant share is unskilled labour. However, a trend of increased mechanisation has emerged. This could have a significant impact on job opportunities in a sector that is supposed to create 1 million new jobs by 2030.
Finally, the move towards pre-Green Revolution methods of farming cannot be discounted as a new wave in agriculture. Organic farming is no longer a supermarket gimmick that promises health to consumers – its value in reducing farmers’ reliance on chemical inputs, and encouraging organic and biological fertilisers and pest control,, can be measured in terms of sustainability. Hydroponics and sophisticated monitoring equipment is not an economic option for smaller farmers, whose value in the food security debate should not be undermined. No and low cost principles of permaculture and conservation agriculture such as minimum soil disturbance, diverse crop rotation and organic soil cover offer smallholders an opportunity to maintain and increase their market shares while preserving environmental integrity.
The food security crisis calls for new ways of thinking. In a water-starved country, understanding the true water usage of a product from the farm to the plate, or the “embedded water concept”, is essential (e.g. a 500g portion of beef having an embedded water value of 6800 litres!). The issue of excessive meat consumption is also gradually coming under scrutiny. One study compared several dietary scenarios in terms of crop demand and livestock grazing land availability, and concluded that only vegan and vegetarian scenarios are environmentally feasible in the long term. This study may struggle to be practically implemented on a global scale but some new options are also on the horizon. The concept of alternative sources of protein has been gaining traction over the past few years. Crickets, locusts and insect larvae have become accepted as viable protein alternatives for feed and human consumption, and are being sold as flours and meal additives by companies like AgriProtein. Although mindsets may need to be changed to accept these alternatives, some Southern Africans could already have overcome this with the well-loved snack of surprisingly nutritious mopane worms.
Although it may make some uncomfortable, arguably the most radical recent development in food security is the ability to grow meat in a laboratory, a.k.a “cultured meat”. A large American corporation, Memphis Meats, has made history in this space by growing beef, pork and chicken in small quantities using stem cells. This seemingly unnatural process boasts meat free of antibiotics, fecal matter, and other dangerous contaminants found in a lot of conventional meat. It also promises highly reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Google cofounder, Sergey Brin, has thrown his support behind this and other initiatives to produce meat without an animal.
Whether individuals opt for high tech innovations like farming robots and cultured meat, or instead move in the direction of more organic and conservation oriented farming techniques, the future will probably look like a sci-fi combination of all existing and emerging agricultural technologies. While it must be recognised that current practices are placing undue pressure on our resources and certain aspects of society, a place exists for all types of farming. The ultimate decision will be based on location specific conditions such as market structure, social organisation and environmental capacity. At the end of the day it is up to each person to decide what type of food they want to eat and where they want it to come from. In turn, it is up to all entrepreneurs to decide what sort of industry they want to participate in and how they want to improve it.