We can certainly do more to reduce food wastage in our supply chains. It is not just Bangladesh where a lot of the produce goes to waste due to inefficient marketing and distribution channels; it is estimated that about half of all perishables in countries like Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand go to waste before they reach retail markets. According to the World Bank, as much as 25 percent to 33 percent of all food produced in the world is wasted, which is equivalent to 1 billion metric tons. So, while all the focus and hype around food security seems to revolve around greater productivity, why aren't policymakers concentrating more on preserving the food already produced, which is then allowed to go to waste? This issue has been on the cards for many years and unfortunately, we have not seen much in terms of concrete policy interventions to bring about qualitative change in policy that would help farmers get their produce to markets faster.
While the world debates on and on about food security, technology is lending a hand to turn things around. Urban, concrete structures are being transformed into farms. For instance, in Newark (New Jersey, USA), a 69,000ft former steel factory has been converted into the world's largest urban farm. Once completed, it will grow anywhere up to 2 million pounds of kale, arugula and romaine lettuce annually. Technology is driving this new nascent sector but the implications are obvious. Climate-induced changes threatening to alter the topography of Asian farmlands in the decades to come and weather becoming more and more erratic with more droughts, floods, typhoons, etc. it is time to think outside the box. If we are to end 'global hunger' (one of the UN's 17 Sustainable Development Goals) over the next 15 years, urban farming will have to take centre-stage along with food wastage to meet the hungry mouths of the future.
Japan, a tech-driven nation, has introduced the world's first indoor farm. The setting is a 25,000ft abandoned semiconductor factory in Miyagi province. The technology comes from an American company that uses tall towers of LED-light trays, which it is claimed, consumes 95 percent less water to grow green produce than it would ordinarily take (i.e. if they were grown traditionally in fields) because the company claims to use mist instead of water to grow plants. If the technology is as good as claimed, it can yield 75 times more crops without the use of pesticides. Media reports have stated that the indoor farm produces 10,000 heads of lettuce daily which makes this farm 100 times more efficient than a comparable traditional farm.
The question of vertical and/or indoor farming is no longer confined to the realm of science fiction but science fact. The benefits of vertical farming are already being reaped by Bangladesh farmers in certain areas. According to a report published by the Voice of America in February, 2015, “In Chandpur village in southwest Bangladesh, lush vines sprouting pumpkins and gourds cover the tin roofs of small homes. This bounty sprouts from an unlikely source: large plastic sacks on the ground and other containers. In the southwest of the country, most of the coastal belt suffers from salinity that renders the land useless. And it is in this setting that vertical gardening is taking root among hundreds of villagers with the use of plastic sacks, giant containers made of plastic sheets and bamboo, etc.” WorldFish Centre, a non-government organisation working with villagers believes that vertical gardens work in Bangladesh because we suffer from heavy monsoon that dilutes salt in soil. And from July to October, the soil is inundated with 1.5 metres of rain due to the heavy rains. The flushed soil is collected by villagers in the post-rainy season which is then put into containers to grow vegetables. While the above scenario illustrates what is possible in rural areas, can we ignore the urbanisation trends globally? In 2008, we were confronted with the news that more than half the world population was living in urban areas. Indeed, projections point to the fact that two out of every three people will be living in an urban setting by 2050, and 40 percent of the projected urban growth between now and then will take place in countries like China, India and Nigeria. Bangladesh too is experiencing rapid urbanisation with roughly a tenth of the population living in the capital city Dhaka.
Vertical farming, as we are seeing in more advanced economies, is making inroads into agriculture. The higher start-up costs because infrastructure has to be bought or leased and costs associated with training up of personnel and maintenance of infrastructure begs the question whether this can be successfully replicated in economies such as ours. But one should remember that as the technology matures, costs should come down. At the end of the day, it is all about boosting food production and with more and more people moving to the cities, every initiative to enhance urban food security becomes imperative to policymakers. New technology initiatives being undertaken elsewhere should be looked into by our policymakers and city planners to make the best use of available urban space for productive uses.
The writer is Assistant Editor, The Daily Star.