How Countries are Leveraging Hardware and Software Technology to Help Address Food Security

Global Food Security

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed just how vulnerable global food security has become. Food supply chains that were already heavily impacted by the climate crisis are now being strained beyond their limits by the Coronavirus. With nationwide lockdowns in many countries, harvests are going to waste as laborers are prohibited from working, can no longer find safe transportation, or are afraid to work for fear of contracting the virus.

Global Food Supply Disruptions

As COVID-19’s impact continues to ripple throughout industries across the globe, it has become clear that its effects on food security is primarily a logistical and supply disruption issue rather than a food shortage issue. In the United States, a number of meat processing plants have been shut down in the wake of several lethal outbreaks. Dairy farmers across both the US and UK have been forced to dump massive quantities of milk as demand from restaurants and coffee shops plummeted. Urban slums in Kenya have seen large scale brawls over remaining food supplies. Transportation restrictions make it exceedingly difficult for farmers to send and receive shipments of seeds and fertilizers. Local markets have all but shut down. Making things worse, some countries such as Vietnam and Russia have introduced bans or restrictions on food exports -blocking important revenue streams for farmers and disrupting much-needed food shipments for hungry nations. 

Even before taking the Coronavirus into consideration, the World Food Programme estimated over 135 million people across 55 nations faced acute hunger and famine. When factoring in the pandemic, those numbers nearly double to 255 million. These figures also skew disproportionately towards low-income people who are already only hanging on by a thread. As supply chains are disrupted, prices on certain food items increase. This makes it significantly more difficult for someone to stretch an already limited budget and feed their families.

Singapore’s Struggle for Food

Some countries are particularly vulnerable when it comes to food shortages and disruptions in the supply chain. Singapore, a small nation-state, could fit inside Rhode Island (USA’s smallest state) more than four times over. Despite being roughly half the size of Los Angeles at only 280 square miles, Singapore boasts a population of nearly 6 million people. This puts Singapore at the third most densely populated nation in the world with more than 21,600 people per square mile. With so many people packed into such a small area, there is little room to grow food. Farms make up less than 1% of Singapore’s land mass compared to 40% here in the United States, and their agriculture amounts to less than 1% of their GDP compared to over 5% in the US. This leads to the nation importing more than 90% of all its food at an annual cost of roughly $10 billion.

When a country like Singapore is so reliant upon importing food, it finds itself in a precarious situation. A single bad harvest in Indonesia or an uncharacteristically rough winter in China could mean shortages and price increases as high as 55%, as seen during the global financial crisis of 2008. This causes massive economic strain as the government is forced to either absorb the price hikes for food necessities or let the people starve.

Incidents such as the pandemic and global recession have prompted Singapore’s government to re-examine how they plan to feed their citizens. In response, Singapore has committed to producing 30% of its own food supply in the next 10 years, effectively tripling its agricultural output. Considering the small size of the country and how much land has already been dedicated to construction, this is a gargantuan task with many unique challenges to overcome. That is why the Singaporean government has begun to invest massive money into advanced agricultural technology. In fact, Singapore has already committed over $40 million USD this year alone to fund urban agritech projects.

Creating Spaces for Urban Farming

Starting in 2017, the government began setting aside plots of land for urban farming. Companies could purchase these plots for pennies on the dollar using government grants. One such company, VertiVegies, purchased a plot in 2018 for roughly $220,000 USD and set about building a large scale, eco-friendly urban farming project. When the farm is completed and running at full capacity, the 215,000 square foot warehouse is set to produce six metric tons of organic greens and vegetables every day for local restaurants, hotels, and retailers.

The Future of Farming?

Using a mixture of hydroponic technology, variable spectrum lights, bio-sensors, and artificial intelligence, VertiVegies is turning Singapore’s largest farm into one of the most advanced on Earth. The warehouse could fit nearly four football fields inside itself and is stacked floor to ceiling with a variety of leafy greens, herbs, spices, and vegetables. Their grow systems actively regulate nutrition levels and automatically adjust accordingly. Data gathered from sensors is collected and analyzed to build nutrition profiles for maximum growing speed and nutrient-packed veggies. Harnessing the data from various growth phases, VertiVegies uses a proprietary AI to simulate optimum conditions for a continuously refined and efficacious production cycle. 

The highly advanced warehouse farm is not only capable of growing plants 25% faster than its traditional counterpart, it requires no soil and takes up only one-fifth the footprint of conventional crops. It’s also less wasteful, using 90% less water than field agriculture and relies almost entirely upon on-site solar power. No soil means no soil degradation or depletion and crop rotations become a thing of the past. If all goes well, when the farm reaches full capacity in early-mid 2021 it will single-handedly boost Singapore’s national vegetable production by over 10%.

Ensuring Food Stability and Security

An added benefit of VertiVegies’ indoor farm is the stability and insulation from disruptive events such as inclimate weather, climate change, and pandemics. A highly connected Internet of Things (IoT) network runs throughout the facility, allowing each piece of the production to communicate and cooperate with minimal human interaction. An automated indoor farm is virtually immune to labor shortages and can continue to produce a variety of crops 24/7 regardless of the weather outside. A closed, soil-free system and minimal human interference also means drastically lower chances of contamination and zero need for pesticides of any kind. The farm’s urban location means there is significantly less crop loss during production, packaging, and distribution for local consumers. All of this ensures that locals are getting fresh, organic, and highly nutritious produce at a cheaper cost than importing, while simultaneously supporting local businesses and the economy.

Much of the farm’s value comes from its stability. A handful of indoor automated farms could be the difference between crisis and subsistence for Singapore and other nations in similar predicaments. It’s not hard to imagine how many lives could be saved by building them in drought-prone regions where bad harvests can upend food supply. Only time will tell, but I think it’s safe to say urban and indoor farming projects will play a massive role in ensuring global food security for the future.

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At Lithios we value outside opinions. This blog was written by one of our guest bloggers.

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