By 2050, 68% of the world’s population will live in urban areas. Food security is a major challenge of urbanisation and planners are under pressure to find ways to incorporate solutions into future strategies.

The COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating this need and as a result, a number of start-ups are rising to the challenge to ease the pressure on food production, supply and waste, around the world.

According to UN and OECD projections, the global population will reach 9 billion people by 2050 and most of this growth is likely to be seen in cities. Currently 55% of the world’s population lives in urban areas, yet by 2050, this figure is set to reach 68%.  

Such a boom in urbanisation is a challenge seen the world over and as a result, it has been recognised by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities, inviting governments to ensure cities accommodate their new inhabitants in a healthy and sustainable way.

And now, in the midst of the current global pandemic, it is a global challenge that has become even more pressing.

The coronavirus is likely to force city authorities to seriously consider factors such as population density, technology, food security and inadequate housing in how they future proof their cities. For example, in an interview with Thomson Reuters Foundation, Tony Matthews, a senior lecturer in urban and environmental planning at Australia’s Griffith University said; “It is likely that Covid-19 will prompt a rethink of urban design and planning”.

In some cases, governments are turning to technology to redefine planning in the face of rapid urbanisation. Spacemaker is an Oslo-based start-up that aims to design better cities using AI. Its technology helps city planners, real estate developers, and architects maximise the potential of a building site by allowing them to explore and generate a multitude of site proposals from a wide range of fields including architecture, mathematics, physics, and machine learning to provide users with creative, high-quality site proposals so that municipalities and developers can build more efficiently and densely. With offices in Oslo, Stockholm, Barcelona and Boston, Spacemaker has expanded thanks to an increasing demand for their AI software, and the company has just raised EUR 22mn to accelerate its roll out and further develop its product.

In addition to evolving planning models, cities of the world are adapting to rapid urbanisation by considering how to best utilise their space, finding innovative ways to improve resident’s lives. Food security is a prime example. “The bottom line is most cities rely on global supply lines for food and are therefore vulnerable to disruptions” continues Tony Matthews. Singapore, for instance, imports more than 90 per cent of food, an unsustainable system in the light of a pandemic that has hugely impacted global value chains. The vulnerability of food supply when relying on imports is causing governments to rethink this approach incorporating concepts such as urban agriculture.

According to a 2018 study published in the journal Earth's Future - urban agriculture could produce as much as 180 million tonnes of food a year - or about 10% of the global output of pulses and vegetables. As a result, several city authorities are considering how to boost urban agriculture in order to support their own food supply. For instance, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit's global food security index for 2019, Singapore aims to produce 30% of its nutritional needs by 2030, by increasing the local supply of fruits, vegetables and protein from meat and fish.

"More people are thinking about where their food comes from, how easily it can be disrupted, and how to reduce disruptions," said landscape architect Kotchakorn Voraakhom, who designed Asia's largest urban rooftop farm in Bangkok. "People, planners and governments should all be rethinking how land is used in cities to incorporate urban farming to improve food security and nutrition and reduce climate change impacts.”

In response to the potential of urban agriculture, a growing number of start-ups are driving innovation in urban food production. For example, InFarm was founded in Germany in 2013 to provide scalable, vertical, digital farms that reduce pressure on supply chains. Each farm is its own ecosystem and can be built anywhere across cities from supermarket aisles to restaurant kitchens and distribution warehouses.

InFarms technology includes a matrix of IoT sensors that gather and record growth data, which can be remotely controlled to ensure that plants receive the best combination of light spectrums, temperature, pH, and nutrients. Infarm’s large module can grow up to 680,000 plants each year on only 25 square meters, making it 420x more efficient than soil-based agriculture. Such is its success that in June 2019, InFarm successfully raised EUR 88mn to invest in R&D and expand into new cities. 

In addition, Grove Labs, has designed an appliance to grow green vegetables indoors. Its founders envision people’s homes having “groves,” to grow their own fresh food. The company, which recently raised $2mn in “seedling” funding, says it intends to help people grow food productively at home using sensor-controlled gardens and smart phone apps.

Although currently indoor farms contribute little to the global food system because production costs are higher than conventional growing methods, new technologies, including energy-efficient LED lighting and automated systems, could help to bring down costs and increase mass appeal. As Chad Sykes, CEO of Indoor Harvest, explains; “There are lots of interesting technologies to automate indoor farming and make it even more efficient than it is now.” Over time, he predicts robots will seed and harvest food and software systems will control every aspect of production, from growing conditions to sales.

Meanwhile, FarmedHere is tackling the problem of food waste. Globally, food waste has become an increasingly recognised environmental issue. According to the FAO, approximately 1.6 billion tons of food are lost and wasted every year with a global cost of approximately $2.6 trillion. As urbanisation increases, more food is being produced and more food is being wasted, but it also presents the opportunity to make a positive impact.

FarmedHere, uses innovative vertical farming projects to generate more food in less space. The company’s system grows greens, such as lettuce and basil using aquaponics in which the waste from farmed fish is used as fertilizer for plants in a closed system. Plumbing and filtration systems are able to recycle virtually all fresh water and avoid the use of pesticides, the company says.

Indeed, falling LED light prices have allowed energy-efficient bulbs to make small scale agriculture much more efficient. As lighting startup Illumitex’s senior horticulture scientist Paul Gray explains, LED lighting allowed one vertical farm to more than double its plants’ productivity. “We get calls every day, everyone from people who want to grow more at their house to investment firms who want to start a company by taking over an abandoned warehouse in a city and convert it to an indoor grow space. The demand is there”.

If cities do not adapt to the new reality of dealing with the influx of new residents, urbanisation could further increase the vulnerability of residents to shocks in supply chains. Indeed, the current pandemic is serving to prove this point in real time. Therefore, to mitigate or minimise future supply chain jolts, policymakers must develop strategies that address all aspects of urbanisation - including food security.

As Anne Wilkinson, from the Institute of Development Studies puts it: “Achieving longer-term changes in urban planning will depend on improving the way we see, understand and address health and living conditions in cities and informal settlements on their outskirts. For many people living on the margins, crisis is already the norm and change is overdue.”

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