Sustainability and food security

There is much in the news about the increasing need for sustainability, but RIPE CEO Phillip Lee argues that without Government leadership – and legislation – the food industry cannot make the changes we need to ensure our future food security.

A great deal is talked about the need to make farming ‘smarter’: the need to take on new technologies that offer a whole plethora of opportunities. There is nothing wrong with this. There are indeed many innovations that are only now starting to show just how much promise they have.

Issues of staffing productivity are increasingly leading to the adoption of more automated systems technology to reduce the burden of what is still a very labour-intensive sector. With the advent of Brexit – no matter what form it takes – this is now a far more pressing issue than ever.

The other elephant in the room is the lack of next generation coming into the sector, with many commercial growers reaching retirement age over the next decade. Despite all the media focus on sustainability and new technology, the food growing industry is currently just not attracting the lifeblood it so desperately needs. There is a clear disconnect that needs to be bridged, much in the way that has happened in other sectors.

Foodie trends

Over recent years there have been some developments – from rare breed ‘field to fork’ farming through to artisan bakeries and cheese producers, even the explosion in microbreweries – that have begun to cater to a clear desire by some consumers to embrace more localised, exceptionally high-quality produce and provenance. It may not be appropriate for the mainstream highly cost-conscious production model but is far more than simply a fad: these trends are clearly here to stay.

On this level, despite the adoption of ‘greener’ energy such as Gas CHP and now biomass, increasing biological control Integrated Pest Management and the drive – led by UK growers (for which they haven’t had anywhere enough recognition in my opinion) – for on-the-vine, better flavour, tomato production, we still fail to translate this to being an attractive industry for bright young dynamic people.

Vertical farming gets a lot of attention, and will have its place, but we need far more than this to really transform our domestic production to a meanginful level.

Biomimicry

RIPE is involved heavily in the development of new growing systems and methodologies, that are very much based on biomimicry and long-term sustainability – especially Waste to Energy to Food/Circular Economy opportunities, where everything from nutrients to CO2 is recovered and reused.

Our key focus is on making the whole process of growing far more reliable and resilient by using all the tricks nature has developed over millennia, in order to achieve systems for new entrant growers that ‘just work’. From Natural Light glazing to micronutrient/biostimulants to help support the plant against the effects of heat and water stress through to biologically active substrates, we see that we have only just scratched the surface of our understanding of natural processes in plants.

We believe a mix of these new materials and technologies will create the opportunities to grow new types of crops and higher quality heritage niche varieties with exceptional flavour and nutrition values.

This, combined with a full integration with green energy such as AD plants and waste water treatment sites, will create true Circular Economy models of production. And that is what could start to attract the next generation: not only entrepreneurs to drive the business but also the staff who want to be part of something really meaningful, who share the same values of innovation and deep desire to achieve a really positive future that is increasingly important to the Millennial generation.

A need for change

Having said all that, when I stand back and look at the real issues facing food production and the gap between it and our resources – both as a country and globally – and the ever-increasing demand for food, I’m constantly struck that the real changes that need to happen are not at sector level, but at entire infrastructure level.

We recently worked with one of the largest water companies in the UK looking at how to effectively and efficiently integrate food production into what is essentially a massive source of heat, nutrients, energy and water.

The challenges we faced were not technical, far from it. It was rather that there is no coordinated, governmental infrastructure level conversation happening that would make such developments not only feasible but also required. We need to make them a necessity in how we as a nation operate our major services, make it part of the requirement to be achieved to operate such privileged companies. The amount of heat, CO2 and nutrients that can be recovered and resused from these typically modern AD-driven sites, all around the country, is frankly eye watering. Right now, all this precious resource – which is how it should be viewed as precious resources, not waste – are simply vented 24/7.

Waste to energy to food

It’s quite sad to say that when we look at projects internationally – such as in the Gulf States where the means of production of food are still in their infancy – the desire and interest at government level to address such issues is far greater and far more coordinated than in the UK.

Sure, there are innovation funds and calls focusing on creating more sustainable food production, but in this day and age we really should be expecting – and demanding – the Government to take a lead role. The Government needs to coordinate the development of waste to energy to food opportunities and create frameworks that legislate for its development at the most fundamental level of policy.

Growing is a conservative business, understandably so as the food industry is the most price-competitive market on earth. This means investors never want to be the first to try something new. Many will be attracted initially by new and innovative ideas but the rates of return on taking big technology steps in a sector that is ultimately about food, are not enough to encourage them to dive in. Added to this is the fact that there is so much competition for seed funding from the software and biotech sectors.

Take the water treatment site mentioned above: there is a plethora of opportunities to reuse resources, not only of gross inputs but also to extract and reuse what are becoming critical finite resources such as phosphorus and potassium.

Surely it should be a requirement – not a bonus – to fully investigate these aspects. Sustainability development should start from an informed, coordinated base. It should not be left to individual companies, often micro companies like ourselves, to keep tap tapping on the doors and hoping somebody will listen.

Sustainability vs Viability

I don’t think people – the public, the media and the powers that be – realise just how fundamental the change to our entire system of living needs to be in order to achieve anything close to what is required to make significant progress towards sustainability. The reality for commercial growers for example is dominated by the pressures from the retailers to achieve ever greater cost savings, which in turn leads to even more market pressures on them for cheaper food on their shelves.

What is most infuriating about this, standing as we do, seeing things from all sides, is that sustainability means higher profits long term, using what we have with increased efficiency. But as long as growers are required to work to the reality of one-year contracts it will be extremely hard for them to make commitments to longer term investment in their businesses: they will not be able to make anything other than incremental steps. This is because the daily pressure is to stay viable in the short-term, against a global market of imports and rationalisation to ever-larger dominant players in the marketplace.

It’s all well and good leaving development to market forces, with a bit of grants funding to assist companies and technology developers, but this really is not enough to enable the fundamental changes we absolutely must be taking in order to transform entirely how we feed a nation.

We not only have to reduce our carbon footprints but also create properly sustainable long-term plans: plans not merely for the next five years but for the next century.

 

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Please note, the opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of CHAP.