The future of food production – reasons to be hopeful

Last week I was on a run of hopeful posts inspired by folks from the Singularity University and this is another, although today’s topic is food rather than energy. As you can tell, I’m very optimistic about the future. We have big challenges ahead sustaining the world’s growing population (on an exponential curve and forecast to grow from today’s 7bn to nearly 10bn by 2050) but technologies under development give us a strong chance of solving them. That said, I’m nervous about the social repercussions of all the change that’s going on, as growing wealth inequality and automation of great swathes of jobs are undermining our social contract. Without strong government the next 20 years we could see a lot more social disruption in the developed and developing world alike.

Back to the good news on food, courtesy of Peter Diamandis.

First consider this chart:

FoodSupplyAmazingly, food production per capital has increased by around 30% over the last fifty years despite a near doubling of the population. (Caveat: not all calories are created equal, and it would be interesting to see fast food broken out in this chart.)

Going forward here are three new technologies that should help maintain this trend:

  • Genetically engineered crops: In 1996 there were 1.7 million hectares of biotech crops in the world; by 2010, the number had jumped to 148 million hectares. This 87-fold increase in hectares makes genetically engineered seeds the fastest-adopted crop technology in the history of modern agriculture. And not a single case of a GE induced illness.
  • Bioprinting meat: firms like Modern Meadow are developing meat manufacturing techniques which require 99% less land, 96% less water, 96% fewer greenhouse gases, and 45% less energy than land animals (of which there were 60bn in 2012 to feed our 7bn population)
  • Vertical farming: companies like Aerofarms are growing crops in tall buildings where one acre of skyscraper floor yields the same as 10-20 acres of soil based acres. Moreover, they employ cleanroom technologies meaning no herbicides or pesticides and no agricultural run-off, and the fossil fuels now used for plowing, fertilizing, seeding, weeding, harvesting, and delivery are gone as well.

I don’t know what all this modern food will taste like, but if we can keep up the pace of innovation we should, at least,  have enough of it.