With the global population predicted to reach nine billion by 2050 and the realities of climate change quickly unfolding, the pressure is on to find new solutions that allow us to meet growing demand while reducing environmental impacts. Food companies and government have an important role in initiating change, but startups are quickly emerging as the champions of tomorrow’s food system.
Freshwater is dwindling and instances of severe drought and desertification are on the rise, leaving agriculture in the balance. London-based Seawater Greenhouse has developed a pioneering greenhouse system that could help mitigate the challenges of both.
The idea behind the process is simple. It combines two unlimited resources — sunlight and seawater — to provide the ideal growing conditions for crops in hot, arid environments. The innovation uses the cooling and humidifying power of water vapor produced from evaporating seawater. The combined effect of reducing temperature and increasing humidity, together with providing a protected environment for crops, results in a reduction in water demand by up to 90 percent. Where additional fresh water is needed, a solar-powered desalination system is used. Other benefits include lower operating costs, increased yields and year-round production of high-value produce.
The system is currently being deployed in Australia, Abu Dhabi, Oman and Tenerife, where extreme conditions make traditional agriculture difficult. The latest region to trial the concept is Somaliland — one of the world’s most food-insecure regions. In lieu of a typical greenhouse, Seawater Greenhouse developed a shade net system for Somaliland that retains core evaporative cooling elements developed from previous projects while reducing costs.
“Water shortages are a global crisis that is worsening dramatically,” said Charlie Paton, founder and director of Seawater Greenhouse. “So is land degradation. This represents a scalable model that could be taken anywhere there is limited or no fresh water.”
Meanwhile, seed startup Row 7 is breeding new varieties of vegetables that not only taste good, but are sustainable, too.
Seed breeding has largely been shaped by agricultural giants, with a major focus on driving profits and feeding an ever-growing population, leaving taste largely on the backburner. Through Row 7, celebrity chef Dan Barber and breeder Michael Mazourek hope to change that.
Launched in February, the startup is currently offering a small selection of seeds bred for enhanced flavor, as well as disease resistance and better yield. They include Robin’s Koginut Squash, a pumpkin embodies the sweet taste and smooth texture of two prized squash varieties; and the Habanada Pepper, a pepper that boasts the sweetness and aroma of the infamous habanero without the burn.
“In breeding, you have your list of priorities and you’re never going to be able to satisfy them all,” Mazourek told Fast Company. “In recent times we’ve seen cheap uniformity, chemical agriculture, rise to the top and the idea of flavor has been pushed way down ... Let’s take a step back and say, is this the change we wanted? Can we actually now take something that has disease resistance, doesn’t need the sprays, has a great yield for the farmer, and insist it tastes great?”
Beyond being a win for flavor, the seeds have the potential to put an emphasis back on localism. Row 7 is currently working with a team of chefs to develop special regional varieties. “The food culture is shifting away from a one-size-fits-all approach,” Barber said. “The future of food is about regionalism and about highlighting different environments and ecologies and cultural connections that make ingredients really sing.”
Sustainability is also a top priority for Row 7. To reduce food waste, the startup is working on developing varieties with delicious stems and leaves that encourage consumers to make the most of the entire vegetable. Seeds are also bred for disease resistance, diminishing the need for chemical inputs. And unlike seeds from companies such as Monsanto, Row 7’s creations are unpatented to encourage their widespread usage.
Only time will tell if the idea takes off, but with backers such as Whole Foods’ former CEO Walter Robb, there’s a good chance it won’t take long for Row 7 to reach scale.