Thought For Food – How We’ll Feed the Rising Billions in the 21st Century

Categories: Permaculture

In case you haven’t noticed, the world of food production is changing…. 

  • By 2050 we’ll have to feed 9 billion people.
  • People in Africa, Asia, and South America will soon have unprecedented wealth and access to resources. The planet cannot support that many people living like Americans do now.
  • The food supply chain is heavily subsidized by fossil fuels for transportation and refrigeration.
  • Food deserts are popping up around the US while 45% of fresh food goes to waste. Access is a problem.
  • Farmers are at the mercy of top soil erosion, water shortages, agricultural runoff, and other environmental disasters.
  • There is an obvious flight to quality. People are willing to pay more for fresh, high quality, agrochemical-free food.
  • Our food system still has a long way to go…

…but I’m hopeful. Here’s why:

Earlier in April I attended a global summit in Zurich called Thought For Food.

There I had the opportunity to join hundreds of bold, visionary entrepreneurs who are working hard to create businesses that will solve some of the problems listed above.

What do I mean when I say “bold?

Workshop leaders included:

  • A scientist capable of reverse engineering a virus and deploying a mass-produced vaccine within 2 weeks,
  • A team working to find all of the Earth-ending asteroids and then creating an action plan to deal with them (Armageddon style minus Bruce Willis).
  • A girl who’s working on global climate change mitigation strategies with the UN.

That’s just to name a few. I had conversations with dozens more about the future of gene editing, business, and solving humanity’s grand challenges.

Buckle up Dorothy, because Kansas is going bye bye.

The Thought for Food (TFF) Conference was a student lead challenge to build an innovative company that will be part of the system that feeds 9 billion people by 2050. I’ve included links to their projects, research, and the big problems they’re working on solving below. If it suits your fancy, you can dive a little deeper yourself by getting in touch with them.

Without further ado, here are a few interesting projects I had a chance to meet and speak with at the summit.

Enter The Projects:

Peer to Peer Probiotics

Vitimin A deficiencies cause more than 500,000 people in the developing world to go blind every year. Permanent blindness is a lifelong disadvantage. “Golden Rice” and supplementation are often proposed as solutions to this problem, but both have challenges. The former requires a significant campaign to replace rice crops with genetically modified golden rice and the latter requires a high cost, is not sustainable, and requires local people not used to taking pills to undergo behavior change.

The solution offered by P2P Probiotics is much more elegant. Their goal is to tackle micro-nutrient deficiencies by increasing the vitamin concentration of fermented foods.

Fermented foods such as yogurt, kimchee, cheese, wine, beer, and various rice dishes are a part of the culture in many developing countries.

Unlike in the US, many people in India and SE Asia make these foods in their home by preserving the bacterial cultures used for the fermentation process.

P2P has engineered microbes that synthesize a high amount of selected vitamins. They are able use these microbes to make fermented foods rich in vitimin A, B2, B12, C, K, (and more).

Their plan is to use the profits from sales that they make in the developed world to provide these low-cost cultures to families and companies in the developing world.

I’m also excited about this on the consumer products side. Imagine a new class of health foods where we can selectively synthesize custom nutrient profiles into our fermented foods.*

*I generally follow the precautionary principle when it comes to genetic modification since no proof of harm is not the same as proof of no harm. That being said, a lot of large food fermenters already have a microbiology lab. I won’t make the mistake of thinking that everything new is good (read, neomania), the appropriate application of this technology has huge potential.


Sustainability pundits tell you to take shorter showers or turn off the lights… but the reality of the mater is that industry and agriculture takes way more water and energy than even every household combined.

I hate that corporate sustainability pundits place the burden of responsibility back on the consumer instead of big business, which has a WAY bigger impact.

Agriculture accounts for 70% of our fresh water use. Agricultural runoff and inefficient irrigation practices are both large scale environmental problems today.

Agrosmart’s technology combines sensors, the internet of things, and cloud technology to reduce irrigation costs. When I talked to the founder, she noted that her beta clients were able to save 40-60% of water used by switching over to their platform. Saving roughly half on a process that consumes 70% of our fresh water is a piece of tech that will really move the needle for water conservation.

The idea is simple – use sensors and big data to optimize the irrigation process.

Farming is also very labor intensive business. The typical farmer is tied to the land. Agrosmart will eventually link to irrigation and fertilizer systems to automate the process of growing crops.

Innovations in remote sensing, monitoring, and the IoT will eventually allow farming to become more and more optimized and automated with time, freeing up the farmer to focus on more strategic parts of their business or allow them to work less.


AgroSmart is working to reduce total water consumption, Oxmosis is working to provide affordable forward osmosis technology to help reclaim and reuse waste water.

In many parts of the developing world, there’s no robust infrastructure for reclaiming / reusing fresh water.

The absence of waste water treatment plants and closed-loop water systems means that when water gets used… it’s gone.

This ‘cradle to grave’ approach to using fresh water for homes, agriculture, and industry means that areas that are in most desperate need of fresh water are actually those that end up wasting the most.

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