For nearly a thousand years – from the days of Neanderthals to the Monsanto of today – the world has operated on these 6 principles, guiding the journey of vegetables and meat from the plowing hoe and feeding trough to the porcelain plates and silver cutlery in our homes.
Singapore, where I live, faces many constraints. Singapore has a population density of 7252.43 people per square kilometre in 2010 as it squeezed her population into public housing flats due to limited land. Slivers of land that remained were insufficient to grow food for everyone. How should Singapore feed her people?
Supply shocks, food waste, and soil farming will be the problems my solution will confront. Urban Food Ecosystems (UFEs), which are productive, self-sustained ecosystems, in a highly urbanized landscape, that are more productive than conventional farms and have reduced carbon emissions.
Like many cities, Singapore does not grow her own food, importing 90% of all her needs. Singapore is the future of the world’s cities, and cities are the future: the world population is tipped to go past the 9-billion-person mark by the year 2050, and the vast majority, at least 6 billion people, will live in cities by then. Most cities around the world, like London, Paris, and New York City, are bastions of multiracial and multi-economic prisms that may hold discontent and resentment between various ethnicities due to racism or discrimination – a sudden supply shock will send prices of basic necessities soaring, foment panics, and a mad dash for food that will pit people of all stripes against each other – a nightmare of violent Hobbesian proportions we must avoid.
To exacerbate, an impersonal global food production process simply conjures up salads and steaks for the population, which does not see the hard work required to sow seeds and make hay. Had consumers produced it themselves, the food would have been appreciated to a much higher degree. Growing your own food is like printing your own money – you will never throw it away! Helping communities to grow their own food reduces wastage by bolstering individual responsibility in sustaining life, and decentralizes the power to produce food into the hands of all, thus boosting food production everywhere.
More alarmingly, humanity’s need for soil as the medium to grow food has led to the unintended consequences of soil runoff and groundwater adulteration. Only limited amounts of fertilizers are absorbed and the remainder would leach into groundwater sources, depriving many of potable water. As an example, in the 1960s, the herbicide ‘Glyphosate’ was sprayed, and the effect was gradual but no less harmful: in 1970, no wild plant species were known to be resistant, but in 2010, 350 species of wild species became so: due to evolution, weeds could now withstand increasing amounts of the chemical, requiring ever-higher Glyphosate doses. Consequently, more herbicides would end up in river estuaries all over the world, in Asia, Europe, and Africa, poisoning local waters and fish, which may be a huge source of protein and income. Such problems are only possible with the use of soil as an agriculture medium.
So, what is the solution that Singapore, and other densely-populated cities, may pioneer? For more than forty years, this miniature ecosystem in the picture above has only been watered just once in that time. Till now, it has been thriving. The single spiderwort plant has grown and multiplied, spawning seedlings. The presence of light has allowed it to photosynthesize; water vapour rains back down on the plant, like a bottled version of the water cycle. Dead leaves fertilize the soil, producing the carbon dioxide and nutrients required for more plants to grow. This self-sustaining bottle is our future, just like an Urban Food Ecosystem.
Imagine a vibrant but land-scarce city like Singapore, with Urban Food Ecosystems (UFEs) growing vegetables and breeding fish adjacent to public housing flats and terrace homes. How does an UFE operate? Fish is bred for consumption; they produce ammonia-based waste containing nitrates. Nitrates will be fed in a solution to vegetables grown in a hydroponic system. Why hydroponics? Hydroponic farming reduces water use by 90% versus soil farming, and compresses three months of growth into one month. The vegetables absorb and cleanse the water of nitrates, returning it to the fish. In this system, protein and vegetables are generated for consumption. The community-operated UFE may be housed in abandoned gigantic factories to eliminate the need for new construction, and the size may even allow family-owned startups to cook fresh food on-site, empowering the local populace with healthy diets and creating jobs. In addition, breweries may even be integrated with the UFE – much waste material in the form of leftover malt and fruits is generated brewing beer. The waste material may serve a higher purpose in the generation of electricity – all waste from the food startups and breweries will be fed into an anaerobic digester that creates biogas to power a turbine, synthesizing electricity to power the facility. Excess heat from electricity generation will keep the building warm during winter. As you may infer, “Zero-carbon, Zero waste” will be the guiding principle of the UFE. Across the world, UFEs would encourage free trade and competition, as food diversity is strengthened due to the growth of different crops, and communities may trade foods for profit and services, thus maximizing job creation and bolstering the diverse food supply. A closed-loop ecosystem that sustains itself and reduces the need for intervention, the UFE will push humanity towards a future of bread for all, hungry stomachs for none!
There are many advantages with allowing the private sector to lead the way in UFEs; efficiency, competition, and lower prices may be some reasons why the private sector should be encouraged to invest in UFEs. However, it costs the same to grow rocket lettuce, an up-market vegetable, and potatoes, a lower-margin vegetable. Therefore, the private sector may only produce more high-return rocket lettuce for the rich, and the poor will be deprived of food. Governments, therefore, must try to rectify this conundrum by combining public interest and the free market by issuing ‘Social Impact Bonds’ (SIBs). SIBs arrange for the payment of private contractors to fulfill public needs, but only when social goals are met, which in this case, is the feeding of the poor. This propels accountability in government and gives all a stake in building the infrastructure for food distribution to the poor, acting as a guarantee that food will be available to all. The market mechanism, in this manner, will ration food and reduce waste. And UFEs will blossom across the world as it will show themselves to be efficient, productive, and diverse in produce.