Unconventional Collaborations for Farming Solutions to Solve Global Hunger

TEDMED 2015 - Food Fix Session

Exacerbated by poverty and climate change, food insecurity and hunger are significant threats on a global scale. Malnourishment is not limited to the developing world, though of course it’s a huge problem there since under-resourced farmers frequently fall victim to food price spikes and inequity in the food system. However (though counterintuitive), the truth is that malnourishment is also a pressing issue in the U.S. and much of the developed world, as well. There, dietary imbalances and consumption of cheaper and more widely available foods that are calorie-dense but nutrient-poor are major factors. Domestically and globally, healthy and nutritious food options are becoming a luxury that many cannot afford.

At TEDMED 2015, we’ll hear several talks from the stage that will share compelling (and wildly different) strategies to address hunger, and our Hive Innovators also offer opportunities to meet and network with people tackling the issue. Some of these, introduced below, are noteworthy for the surprising collaborations they propose, as each offers a fresh way to reshape food production technologies (aka, farming). Their goal: to create a global agriculture system that can produce enough food to meet demand while also achieving ecological balance and sustainability.

Sharing the stage at the Food Fix session are University of California plant geneticists Pamela Roland and Raoul Adamchak, who manage the organic farm on campus. When it comes to genetic engineering vs. organic farming, the tendency is to pit one against the other. Yet, the couple (yes, they’re married!) posits that both approaches can contribute to the same, sustainable solution. Combining the best practices of seed technologies and organic farming is the most effective way to achieve a healthy and ecologically balanced agriculture, they believe.

The main challenges Pamela and Raoul have set out to solve include the negative impact of fertilizers and pesticides on the environment, farming practices that contribute to soil erosion, and unequal access to technology and inputs needed to increase yield amongst the world’s poorest farmers. The current pace of progress is insufficient, Pamela tells us, given predictions that the world’s population will increase by 3 billion in the next 50 years, while climate change will wreak yet more havoc for farmers. “We need to redouble our efforts to solve existing problems, feed more people, reduce CO2, NO, and methane emissions from agriculture, and utilize new technologies to address drought, flooding, salinity, and temperature extremes,” she says.

This same urgency to minimize global food insecurity propels the MIT Media Open Agriculture (OpenAG) Initiative, one of our TEDMED Hive companies for 2015. On a mission to create healthier, more engaging and more inventive food systems, OpenAG is at work on the first open-source agricultural technology research lab, the goals of which include enabling and promoting transparency while also networking experimentation, education and local production.

OpenAg Lab is “breaking through traditional agriculture by building collaborative tools to open technology platforms for the exploration of future food systems,” says principal scientist Caleb Harper (@calebgrowsfood). The word Caleb chooses to describe his team is “anti-disciplinary”: “We don’t focus on traditional disciplinary boundaries,” he says. “We’re more interested in figuring out the problem and who can help solve that problem. We answer the question ‘how does an electrical engineer become part of a food solution?’ We’re using a lot of different kinds of brains. While some of my team might not have horticultural knowledge, they have a lot of knowledge that the horticulturalists don’t have. Putting those two together is what has made it so powerful.”

At present Caleb says the group’s most inventive work involves “creating boxes at different sizes that create climates inside.” Plants are grown there, with sensors recording every minute detail of climate. “When the plant is harvested I know what biologic or plant-based expression occurred, which includes things like flavor, color, texture. I also know the environment that created it because I’ve been sensing it,” he explains. This essentially creates what he calls “a digital recipe” for the plant, which would produce identical results anywhere that the environmental conditions are replicated. “I can then email this digital recipe from Cambridge, Massachusetts to Ghana, and Ghana would be in immediate production of the exact same thing with the exact same quality. The big disruption is no longer shipping food, but sending information about food that creates it on the other side. Agriculture becomes constant, predictable, and networked – which it has never been.”

Caleb’s professional background previously focused on architecture and engineering, designing data centers, which are “controlled environments for computers,” he says. “I was also designing hospitals and was a specialist in surgical theatre, which is a controlled environment for people. So I came up with that idea and brought it home to the lab and started creating a prototype. I come from Texas, where my family was in grocery and agriculture production, so I combined my background in that with what I’m doing professionally.”