Farm Urban were invited to participate in meeting about the Future of Food organised by RE-WORK in London last Tuesday. RE-WORK is “an all-female run events organising company that brings together breakthrough technology, cutting-edge science and entrepreneurship shaping the future of business and society”. They organise events tracking the developments of disruptive technology, and food production and consumption is an area where there are currently a number of really interesting and novel developments happening.

The meeting covered a breadth of topics, from artificial intelligence and robotics, to new ways of dealing with waste and connecting farmers. Jens from Farm Urban took part in a panel on Urban Farming, which was chaired by Mark Horler from the Association of Vertical Farming, and where the other panelist was Jonathan Lodge from City Farm Systems. We discussed three questions, namely:

  1. How is urban agriculture distinct from conventional agriculture?
  2. What benefits are offered by urban agriculture?
  3. How should integration of the two proceed?

We had an enjoyable and robust discussion, and the audience were really engaged too, asking lots of questions and pushing us in different directions.

The general feeling was that Urban Farming is still an undefined quantity, which is currently just in its infancy, but has the potential to become huge; and indeed must if we are to be able to feed the projected growing world population. Aquaponics is still hard (at least to get working at optimal efficiency), but technology and the sharing of ideas offers the chance to make it much simpler and more accessible.

Urban farming is never going to replace conventional agriculture (it seems to makes little sense to grow easily transportable foods like potatoes in cities) but should be complementary to it where sensible (such as with easily perishable food like salads). There is definitely a large market for the food that could be produced in cities, but, at least in the short term while fossil fuels are relatively cheap, people need to be educated as to the benefits of urban food production in order to see its value and pay the premium that it currently requires.

Cities have enormous resources that could be used in urban farms:

  • Waste and leftover food (for composting or vermiculture to produce fish food).
  • Waste heat (that could be used to heat greenhouses).
  • Labour.

In addition, urban farms can offer the following benefits to cities:

  • Food produced with few or no food miles.
  • The freshest and most nutritious plant varieties as opposed to just those that store and travel well.
  • Meaningful jobs in a high tech and ‘cool’ industry.
  • Green roofs to soak up rainwater and prevent flooding.
  • Plants to purify the air and reduce the heat-island effect that makes cities so much hotter than surrounding areas.
  • Bringing greenery and biodiversity back to cities, something that has been shown to have a marked effect on people’s health and wellbeing.

The discussion even strayed into the effects of food adverts on people’s eating habits, which shows how complicated any discussion of our current food system quickly becomes.

The rest of the meeting was full of fascinating talks including:

  • Guillermo Christen of Logameal demonstrating some amazing machine-learning technology that can recognise food in a photo, allowing users to create a food diary just by photographing their meals.
  • Peter Blezard of Azotic Technologies introducing a bacterial coating for seeds that allows them to fix nitrogen and removing (or at least reducing) the need for petrochemical fertilisers.
  • Sandra Forstner of BioZoon showing how you can 3D print blended food so that patients who can’t swallow can still get the taste and sensation of real food.
  • Abi Glencross of King’s College London and Future Farm Lab describing her amazing personal journey from growing up surrounded by farms to growing meat in a petri dish.
  • Alessandro Incisa of Makr Shakr talking about their robot that can mix cocktails you create with an app your mobile phone (mixologists beware).
  • Ian Hales of Bristol Robotics Lab showcasing new technology that allows computers to see and understand plants so that they can either do targeted spraying, or potentially only harvest those plants that are ready.

These, and many other exciting developments show that food technology is a sector that is only just starting to get going, but has huge potential. Something that is hugely important as we’ll need all the help we can get to feed the projected 10 billion people that world population is expected to rise to.

We’d like to thank RE-WORK for a great meeting and for inviting us to take part, and look forward to attending more RE-WORK events in the future.

Farm Urban at RE-WORK event: “The Future of Food”