Unlocking Food Security in the Twenty-First Century

Friday, October 23, 2015
Kim Kyung Hoon/Reuters
Ellen Gustafson

Author, We the Eaters: If We Change Dinner, We Can Change the World; Codirector, Summit Institute; Cofounder, FEED and Food Tank

Jess Lowenberg-DeBoer

Professor of Agricultural EconomicsAssociate Dean, and Director of International Programs in Agriculture, Purdue University

Jon Friedman

Cofounder and President, Freight Farms

David Kirkpatrick

Founder, Host, and Chief Executive Officer, Techonomy 

Ellen Gustafson, cofounder of FEED and Food Tank; Jess Lowenberg-DeBoer, professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University; and Jon Friedman, cofounder and president of Freight Farms; join David Kirkpatrick, chief executive officer at Techonomy, to discuss the future of technology in the agricultural sector and how it can improve the current food environment.

The Emerging Technology series explores the science behind innovative new technologies and the effects they will have on U.S. foreign policy, international relations, and the global economy.

KIRKPATRICK: I’m David Kirkpatrick and I’m with Techonomy. And I’m really pleased to be here talking about this question that I think most of us don’t think enough about, which is where does our food come from, where will it come from, where should it come from, and even more urgently perhaps, where will it come from for the planet as it approaches 10 billion people?

And in order to do that, Kate and her team have put together a really fantastic session. They just drafted me in recent days to moderate it, but it happens that I’ve been recently reporting on food so I’m very excited about it. She didn’t even know that when she asked me that. But let me just introduce who we have here.

Ellen Gustafson, author of “We the Eaters: If We Change Dinner, We Can Change the World.” I don’t know, which of those many titles do you want to list?

GUSTAFSON: I know. Sorry. (Laughter.)

KIRKPATRICK: What is the—what is the Summit Institute?

GUSTAFSON: I’m a serial entrepreneur.

KIRKPATRICK: A serial entrepreneur and sort of a social entrepreneur.

GUSTAFSON: And I like cereal, yeah.

KIRKPATRICK: And you like cereal, good. OK. (Laughter.)

And used to be an employee here at the—

GUSTAFSON: Yes, I was.

KIRKPATRICK: And so anyway, she’s very much focused on what we eat and what we should eat, I would say.

Next to her is Jess Lowenberg-DeBoer. Did I say that right?


KIRKPATRICK: Who is a professor of agricultural economics and director of international programs in agriculture at Purdue, which as you will probably know is well-known for its agriculture program. So he’s lived in Niger and other countries as well, right?


KIRKPATRICK: Yeah. So he’s done a lot in international agriculture and is thinking a lot now about what should be happening even in the United States. And I don’t know if many of you saw this article in Foreign Affairs in the May/June issue called “The Precision Agriculture Revolution” that Jess wrote, but I highly recommend it and I’m sure much that was in it will be discussed in the next few minutes.

Finally, by video from Boston is Jon Friedman, who is the cofounder and president of Freight Farms. And—

FRIEDMAN: How are you doing, everybody?

KIRKPATRICK: Hey, Jon. And Freight Farms is a company that—tell me if I get this right, Jon—that basically builds indoor growing environments out of shipping containers and sells—

FRIEDMAN: You got it.

KIRKPATRICK: —and sells them for in the vicinity of $80,000 each, and then—he might not have said that number—but and they’re basically going out all over the country, particularly I guess on the East Coast, where people are using them. For example, in Boston there’s a farm called Corner Stalk Farms in a parking lot with five of his containers that sells their vegetables at the Boston Public Market. That kind of thing is happening more and more. So he’s basically a plug-and-play agricultural environment dealer. (Laughter.) And that is a very important thing and very related to what I recently wrote my article about.

So I thought what—I would just start out by giving you a few statistics which I think are relevant to understanding how big of a deal this topic is that I happen to have thrown into my article that isn’t out yet, but it’s in my own Techonomy magazine and we’ll publish it in a few weeks online. But I’m just going to read you one paragraph from my article because it’s got so many dense data in it, much dense data you’ll be finding relevant.

As the global middle class burgeons, the world must produce 70 percent more calories and at least 100 percent more total agricultural crops by 2050, calculates McKinsey. Meanwhile, the newly announced Sustainable Development Goals endorsed by the U.N. dauntingly call for a complete end to global food insecurity by 2030. Jeff Sachs, the Goals’ biggest apostle, recently said—apostle—recently said that agriculture is still the number one driver of climate change and global pollution. So there’s a real problem the way we’re doing it now. Meanwhile, McKinsey calculates that agriculture globally is today a $5 trillion industry, by far the world’s largest, and represents 10 percent of global consumer spending, 40 percent of global employment—which will be interesting to keep in mind as we go through this discussion, particularly some of the things Jess is going to talk about—and 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, although quite a bit of that comes from methane from livestock.

But the point is, this is a gigantic set of challenges. It’s a gigantic industry, and I think an industry and an arena fraught with opportunity.

So I think maybe, Jess, we’ll start with you, if you don’t mind. What do you see—if we’re talking about the future of food, and the opportunities and the challenges faced by the United States and the planet, what should we most be thinking about?

LOWENBERG-DEBOER: So there’s a tremendous set of opportunities. And David, you pointed out the opportunities here in the U.S. and in mechanized agriculture for precision agriculture—that we can do a lot more in terms of collecting data, understanding what works and what doesn’t work, and what we can do better in terms of both producing yield and environmental management. Part of that, and the next stage in that, will really be robotics in agriculture, which if you think it through will be a revolution in farm structure. Because once you take people off of farm equipment, you completely change the motivation for scale. So a lot of the agriculture in the U.S. and in Argentina and Brazil and Australia and places like that have been driven by you can use that equipment on large, relatively flat, square pieces of land. That means that good soils in places like New York, with good rainfall, don’t get farmed because you can’t use that kind of mechanization on it. Well, with robotics and much smaller equipment, you can—you can suddenly do that. So that changes the structure and the economics of agriculture and where it happens.

But on the other end of the spectrum I’ve been doing a lot of work in sub-Saharan Africa, and really the challenge there is commercialization of smallholder agriculture in Africa. How do we make this profitable for those smallholders? And I’m convinced that African smallholders can do a wonderful job—with a little bit of support, can do a wonderful job in production. Where the need is, is how do we create that input—supply chain of inputs—of seed and other kinds of things they need—and the marketing and processing that they need on the other end?

And finally, to conclude, one of the big opportunities is in that post-harvest space. So there’s been—you know, literally if you look at agricultural research, both private and public sector, most of the money goes into production. Relatively little of it goes into preserving that food once it’s harvested. And everywhere in the world, depending on where it is and what product, you’re talking 20 to 40 percent of food that’s produced doesn’t get to people. And in Africa, it’s mostly because it spoils in storage, because of insects, and so on. In developed countries, it’s mostly food waste that doesn’t get eaten.

But in Africa, we’ve shown at Purdue that there are solutions there that can be commercial. So we have a technology right now, Purdue Improved Crop Storage bags, that have been marketed across 30 countries. We have factories in 12 countries in Africa producing these bags, so they’re generating urban employment at the same time that they’re helping farmers. But dealing with those post-harvest issues.

The challenge—and I thought about this after we talked about it yesterday—I think one of the key challenges everywhere in the world is that people are forgetting about where their food comes from. They no longer have those close ties to the land. And that means that they no longer support agricultural and biological research that helps us move those frontiers ahead. They become resistant to farming practices. Their food comes from the store. They’re not thinking of it coming from actual farms. And so I think that one of the big things that comes out of things like what John is going to talk about, the indoor farming, is growing awareness of where food actually comes from and how it grows.

So just briefly.

KIRKPATRICK: Yeah, really interesting. I just want to throw one statistic you told me when we were sitting here right now, that in Niger the output of cowpeas—is that—

LOWENBERG-DEBOER: Yes. Black-eyed peas.

KIRKPATRICK: —which is basically the primary agricultural sustenance food in that country, or one of them.

LOWENBERG-DEBOER: It’s their primary cash crop.

KIRKPATRICK: OK. But it’s up like 4½X since they—you said it was from—what was—350,000—

LOWENBERG-DEBOER: So when I lived in Niger the production of cowpeas annually—and it varied by rainfall—but it was around 350,000 metric tons a year, and last year it was up around a million and a half tons. And when you look at the chart of how that’s changed over time, 2007, when we introduced the bags, it started going up. And when you asked farmers about—Nigerien farmers about why they’re producing more cowpea, they say, oh yeah, we’re using these new seeds and we’re doing a better job at managing the soils and so on, but we’re producing more because now we can make money on it. We can store the cowpeas until three or four months later when we can sell at a reasonable price, instead of selling them at that incredibly low price at harvest. So—

KIRKPATRICK: In other words, they used to have to sell it all when they—when they harvested.

LOWENBERG-DEBOER: Exactly. They used to sell—

KIRKPATRICK: I think that’s a really good stat, so I just wanted you to get that out.

LOWENBERG-DEBOER: Well, because the choice was, you know, you either sell or the insects eat it.

KIRKPATRICK: Well, that was a great—that was a great set.

So, Ellen, when you think of the challenge and the opportunity, what is the focus for you?

GUSTAFSON: I think what’s most fascinating in—I’ve been involved in working on food issues for 10 years, starting initially at the U.N. World Food Programme as a U.S. spokesperson. And at the time, 10 years ago, you know, I was sort of awakened to the problem of hunger, especially looking at the framework of where people are hungry and how that’s connected to violence. And I thought the big challenge of the time was, how will we feed the world?

Within a few years, by 2010, as I was continuing to look at global food issues both from the perspective of caring about and wanting to feed the hungry, but also being a consumer myself in America, the data really changed. And in 2010, there were 1 billion people hungry, which was a pretty dramatic result of the food crisis, and the economic crisis I would argue. But there were also 1 billion people overweight. And the thing that you do not hear when you go to large meetings—even, I would argue, the World Food Prize, one of the most important gatherings talking about the future of food and agriculture—you just don’t hear that much about the problem of obesity.

And unfortunately—today—five years later from 2010—we have done some great work because of improving incomes, but also because of incredible productivity in our agricultural systems of feeding more people. So now the numbers of the hungry are 850 million or—you know, so again, reduced, thank goodness, in the last five years. But the problem of obesity has doubled, and there are now around 2.1 to 2.2 billion people—a third of the planet—that is overweight or obese. And I think we don’t do a good enough job of looking fundamentally at the question of instead—not just how will we feed the world, because I think there is incredible science, there is incredible research, there is, you know, incredible solutions for producing more food and hopefully getting a lot of the solutions we have here to people in the developing world that do need the, you know, vast improvement in both preserving their food, but also growing more. But we have to focus on the question of how will we feed the world well.

And I don’t think we yet in America have that answer. And I certainly don’t think as the American diet is continuing to spread around the world, we’re in a strong enough position to be able to say to people, no matter where they are, we know how to feed the world well, we know how to include nutrition at every stage of agricultural development, we know how to look at people’s diets and make sure they’re both healthy enough but also potentially sustainable. And I think that’s the challenge that technology really needs to answer in the coming five to 10 years.

KIRKPATRICK: So one—as much as one-third of the planet is obese?

GUSTAFSON: Is overweight or obese.

KIRKPATRICK: And that’s simply because they’re eating the wrong things?

GUSTAFSON: Well, yeah. I mean, there’s a lot of—there’s a lot of people who like to say it’s—I mean, you know, especially in America we talk about personal responsibility and obesity. And I just don’t think in the last 30 years, when the obesity crisis has essentially been created, that people are just, you know, not as bright anymore or don’t understand what healthy food is. Obviously there are inherent problems in, you know, we have reduced exercise and some of those things. But really the issue is our food system has changed, and the food that are most available, the foods that are cheapest—the Consumer Price Index has radically changed, that fruits and vegetables are more expensive. And we need technological solutions and we need focused investment in the technologies to produce foods that feed people well, not just that feed people calories.

KIRKPATRICK: Fascinating, OK.

Jon, so just talk a little bit about how what you do fits into this question of the big challenges we have and the opportunities that we might address those challenges.

FRIEDMAN: Yeah, I’ll just get there from where you left off.

I mean, I think changing consumers’ understanding of what healthy food is is hugely important and actually relates back to how we use that land. You know, the majority of land we’re using is used for raising livestock. We got a lot of corn, a lot of soy going on. If we can change the understanding around what healthy food is and merge towards using our land a little bit differently, I think both the arguments we heard already, they start to correlate a little bit.

What we’re looking at is how technology can be used to use more land, but not farmland; use land that is not typically meant for agriculture. So that’s either—it can be rural. It can be urban land. But making something that’s a little bit more connected, that you can put in a back alley or in a field and it’s the same environment wherever you’re going.

Starting to make that correlation around the world, where you start having a network of farms that can talk to each other, it starts building a more distributed food system. And even with the technology with land-based agriculture, bringing more data and connected experiences into that I think will grow a stronger infrastructure for food.

KIRKPATRICK: But, Jon, let me just ask you, when—since you’re really in the thick of the indoor agriculture revolution, which really is I think quickly becoming a revolution there, I mean, you build sort of what are considered the medium-sized farms. There are a lot—there’s an entire range of companies and growers now selling equipment and doing farming from—all the way from, like, a refrigerator-sized thing in your house. And there are companies selling those today, that actually allow you to grow your own vegetables in your kitchen in a self-contained environment, arguably not that economic yet. What he’s doing is the mid-sized, but there are at least 10 gigantic indoor farms in the United States now that have—and one going up in Newark that will probably be the world’s largest, called AeroFarms, that’s under construction now, where they use as many as 11 or 12 layers of beds that are irrigated with nutrient-rich water, and there’s no soil, and there are LED lights, and the output is tremendous. The cost is fairly tremendous to produce them also, now, so those are being used for high-margin, sort of high-price vegetables for rich people like us, but that is a very rapidly growing thing.

And interestingly—let me to just throw something out that—I want you to talk about this whole thing a little further, but the biggest farm today is something called Green Sense Farms in Portage, Indiana, which is not far from Chicago. And not only are they the largest indoor growers and supplying fresh vegetables in Chicago from indoor, this facility, they have begun licensing their technology, and their biggest development project is in Shenzhen. And they are helping the Chinese begin to build extensive indoor farm facilities, and it is a huge, huge priority in the Chinese government right now because of the food crisis of a reliable, high-quality food that the Chinese citizens simply don’t believe is possible with food grown in China at the moment. So the idea that indoor controlled agriculture could really change the equation for China is something the Chinese government is big in.

So anyway, I said some of the things you probably should have said. But elaborate further, Jon, on what you think is going on.

FRIEDMAN: Well, yeah, I mean, if you’re looking at indoor growing, the whole value here is that you’re controlling every aspect of it. So you’re not worried about the environmental fluctuations when it comes to what your crop output’s going to be. You’re defining what your yield can be. And just having that stability in an industry that’s never had it—I mean, if you look at commodity traders, it’s up one day, down the next. By being able to flatline that you’re getting out of a crop, that’s huge. And really where indoor agriculture has so much potential is around the economics. It’s creating more volume in less space. So you’ll see these large vertical installations. And somewhere like China—you know, actually all around the world you’re seeing it.

It’s because, you know, you’re tied to a square food when you’re talking about land use. It’s flat. It’s horizontal. When you’re talking vertical, it’s really sky’s the limit. So you have a little bit more stability to grow a business around. And I think when you look at traditional farming, until we do get that level of automation and robotics in large-scale agriculture, it’s going to be easier to get something small and expand.

We’re in a mid-size range you could say, but we’re modular. So we have East Coast, Canada, and West Coast, down in Texas. We have farms everywhere that are starting with one and stacking them and building their operation, not just in a centrally located place but diversifying where they’re going to have presence with their farms.

KIRKPATRICK: And, Jon, one of the big things, isn’t it, that people will then grow their food right near where they live, so that food will be much fresher than they get it? And is that largely accounting for what the demand is for your systems right now?

FRIEDMAN: You know, I think consumers are seeing more and more value in local, you know. Organic is big, but local—knowing where you food comes from is tops. So you see that all around the world. I don’t think it’s just East Coast. I don’t think it’s just, you know, in urban areas. I think even in rural areas people love to connect with their farmer. Having it—having it close—I would say regionally close to where it’s going to be sold I think is the direction we need to be going. All that transportation, all that large monocropping, and then shoveling it in trucks and bringing it into the city, it’s just adding a large carbon footprint, basically, to our food. Agriculture’s about 30 percent of the carbon emissions we’re placing on the planet, so I think any way we can try to decrease that by bringing our food a little bit more controlled and a little bit closer is going to be a win.

KIRKPATRICK: Jess, talk about—are you confident we can feed the planet as we go toward 10 billion?

LOWENBERG-DEBOER: I think that we have the technology to do that, and the potential to create and fill the gaps in science and technology. The question is more about organization and the kinds of systems that we put in place.

So if we look—and I’ve spent, you know, the last especially dozen years working on mostly Africa—African agriculture, it’s about two-thirds of the land available—easily farmed land available that is not yet farmed is in Africa. It could be the—

KIRKPATRICK: Two-thirds of the easily available unfarmed land in the world is in Africa?



LOWENBERG-DEBOER: But, you know, why isn’t—why isn’t it farmed? Why isn’t it producing? Why isn’t (sic) the land that is farmed not producing what it should? Well, it’s all about systems and incentives—because farmers can’t sell their crops, so why should they produce more if they can’t sell anything? And they want a little bit more income. I’ve never met an African farmer who didn’t want a better life. They all want a better life.

KIRKPATRICK: But, you know, we just—I threw out the statistic from McKinsey that 40 percent of global employment is accounted for by agriculture. I get the feeling listening to you that that number’s going to go way down.

LOWENBERG-DEBOER: And it’s in the process of going down. Everywhere in the world there’s a labor shortage in agriculture. So if you go to Bangladesh, one of the most crowded placed on Earth, it’s hard to find people to work in agriculture.

KIRKPATRICK: They just don’t want to do it.

LOWENBERG-DEBOER: Well, because they have opportunities in the garment industry. They can—they can go, they can work in a factory, they can work all year round, they don’t have to be out in the sun and the rain, they have a reliable income, and so they go into the garment industry. So that’s happening as we speak. And technology is playing a part of that, but the economics are playing a part of that as well. It’s happening in Africa, one of the reasons why one of the next big challenges in African agriculture is to figure out what’s an appropriate type of mechanization that will allow fewer people to produce more food on that continent.

KIRKPATRICK: Yeah. Well, I’ve heard it said that surveys in Africa show that the percentage of young people who think they would like to go into farming is almost zero.

LOWENBERG-DEBOER: Right, because there hasn’t been the motivation and they can’t have a good lifestyle. If they expect to have families and children, the schools in rural areas are terrible, just to be blunt about it. So they all want that better life, which for them they see that happening in the cities.

KIRKPATRICK: So the automation and robotics is going to be truly global, there’s no question in your mind.

LOWENBERG-DEBOER: And it will vary on how it’s worked out, just like precision agriculture varied a lot on which part of that toolkit of precision tools is used in a given place. But it will happen everywhere.

KIRKPATRICK: One thing—you really need to read his article from Foreign Affairs because precision agriculture involves use—heavy use of U.S. GPS government technology as a fundamental enabling thing, which is quite interesting, to really survey the land down to the basically square foot when it’s done properly.

LOWENBERG-DEBOER: Square centimeter.

KIRKPATRICK: Square centimeter. And then you put the right amount of nutrients and fertilizers for that exact piece of soil, and then you measure the plants that come out, and it’s all done with combines and all kinds of things that are driven by GPS.

What are you thinking that we haven’t touched on yet? Because we’re about to go to the audience, but I want you to elaborate any way you see fit.

GUSTAFSON: Yeah, I mean, I think—I think, again, though, one of the—a big piece, actually, that Jess has worked on—and also I think that Jon’s technology is addressing—is—and Jess mentioned earlier—there is about one-third food waste, both in the Western, developed world and in the developing world. They come in potentially different parts of the supply chain, but there’s estimates from FAO that suggest if we just made sure that that food wasn’t wasted we would have the answer to feeding the vast majority of people even in the future, 3 billion more people that we might have.

And so I think sometimes—I mean, it’s so important to make sure that we are producing enough basic calories, especially in Africa. And I completely agree with, you know, a lot of the technological research that’s going more and more to how we’re going to make sure that African countries can feed themselves. But we can’t forget that some of the answers and technology are roads and storage and cold chains and these things that have literally nothing to do with finding, you know, better ways to help African farmers grow more food, even on their land. Many of them are growing plenty of food. It’s a matter of where we put our focus on technology.

And back to the United States, it’s a very similar issue. A lot of the reason that the sort of technological answers to food waste haven’t even been looked at until recently is that food wasn’t valued. So, you know, the idea that we, by some estimates, throw away about 30 percent of all tomatoes that are ever grown, it’s because tomatoes are just cheap and no one, you know, has—so as we’re looking to the future of how are we going to feed the world well and how are we going to make sure that these amazing fruits and vegetables that people—you know, the government suggests that we fill half our plate with fruits and vegetables. Those offerings aren’t there right now in the marketplace. But farmers are probably growing them, and it’s a matter of how do we focus technology not just on making sure we’re growing more calories, but that we’re protecting these nutrients so that they get to people’s plates in a cost-efficient way so the consumer doesn’t just go and, you know, go through the drive-through again.

And you know, one additional piece of this is that I would argue consumer behavior is changing. I don’t think it’s radical yet. I don’t think it’s tipping point yet. But some estimates say that there’s a 12 percent decline in meat consumption over the last 10 years, both in the U.S. and the U.K. The soda consumption rates are back to around 1986. These are pretty big changes, especially when you’re talking about American corn production. If we didn’t have ethanol, I think that we’d be seeing very different realities in corn production and corn demand in America.

KIRKPATRICK: But don’t you think also the farmer’s market movement has changed perceptions about where food comes from and has been hugely positive in this same set of phenomena?

GUSTAFSON: Absolutely. In the same 10 years, there’s 180 percent growth in farmer’s markets across the country.

Now, again, I’m not suggesting this is the way we’re going to feed the entire world. I don’t think any—I mean, I think there are some people that maybe do believe that, but I don’t think that’s the only answer. But it is becoming a bigger and bigger portion of people’s—


GUSTAFSON: And you know, I’m frustrated constantly by the response to that being, well, that’s just, you know, the wealthy sort of elites. But first of all, it’s happening all across the country. And second of all, that’s how all food trends have developed, is that initially there was demand created by people that did have more resources and eventually it spreads. We were talking a little bit about how Target is trying to get, you know, into some indoor agriculture for more greens, that get greens in a—in a cheaper price closer to people. Those are—those are answers because the vast majority of American consumers and Western consumers are demanding better, cheaper, healthier food.

KIRKPATRICK: Just quickly contrast that with Europe because I think there is some significant contrast, given we’re at the Council on Foreign Relations.

GUSTAFSON: Yeah. I mean, I think what we’re seeing, actually, not just in Europe and America, but at sort of the upper-middle-class levels of the vast majority of the—of the world, is change in consumer demand. And you know, Europe has in some ways maybe led us in the movement towards healthy eating because they’ve preserved some more of their food cultures. But I think, you know, the numbers are pretty consistent that Europeans are drinking less soda and going to McDonald’s less, just like Americans are, just like Chinese elites are, just like—you know. So I think—I think these—although these trends do seem like they’re just elites, those are the trends that become the masses eventually.

KIRKPATRICK: OK, we want to go to you all. But Jon, any thoughts on anything before we go to the audience?

FRIEDMAN: Yeah, no, just to build off that, I mean, I think, you know, moving away from a meat-based diet, it’s not a—it’s not an exciting thing to say. I know a lot of people don’t buy into it. But you know, it’s a—it’s a huge way we could be using our land better. So it has so many great use cases to move towards a more plant-based diet, and feeding the world is one of them. So I would—I would mirror that sentiment of moving more towards a vegetarian diet. And corn as well, finding other ways to use our land is just—we have it. We have the land, we just have to use it better, to Jess’ point.

KIRKPATRICK: I see—we’ll get to you in one sec. I just want to say one thing that is another—that really struck me in my own reporting on this very recently, before we go to the audience, and tying it to climate change because there really are some fascinating connections between this topic and the other gigantic challenges we face. And there’s a guy named Dickson Despommier who’s a professor at Columbia, who wrote a book called “The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century.” It came out in 2011. And I quote him in my article. He has his own back-of-the-envelope calculations which, you know, possibly are very rough, but he’s adamant that they’re accurate. He believes that, as Jon was saying, the world has to go to more urban agriculture for all kinds of reasons. But he says if every city in the world over 200,000 people grew only 10 percent of its consumed vegetable products locally on indoor methodologies, that that would be enough to put 340,000 square miles of farmland back to forest, which would absorb enough carbon to take the climate back to where it was in 1980. So just 10 percent of urban eating going to indoor farms, he believes, could have a massive impact on climate change and our carbon, you know, destruction of the atmosphere, which I find fascinating and I think is worth really thinking about.

Now, please identify yourself and go right ahead.

Q: Thank you. Thanks for a wonderful panel. (Comes on mic.) Thank you for a wonderful panel. My name is Joel Cohen. I’m at Rockefeller and Columbia Universities in New York City.

A question for Mr. Friedman. Is it true that vertical farms have inputs, outputs, and microbes? And if so, could you tell us a little bit about the requirements for energy, water, and other inputs; the environmental impacts of the outputs; and the vulnerability to selection for microbial infectious agents that could spread to a farm rapidly and might have other adverse impacts on the product? Thank you.

FRIEDMAN: Sure. Good question. So I’ll start with inputs and outputs. So inputs—we know you’re looking at electricity and water as your main two inputs. The bonus to hydroponics in a lot of vertical farming operations and indoor is it takes about 90 percent less water than traditional agriculture. So this is—this is a great way to look at our water crisis in relationship to agriculture. The other—the other bonus to a closed environment is you can take humidity from the air and use it back into the system. So as far as the efficiency of the water use, I think there’s a really strong argument there.

I think electric is another area for technology to get a little bit better in the efficiency space. So we use LEDs. Highly efficient, but at the same time we’re using quite a bit of them. You look at any plant factory in Japan or, you know, large indoor operation here in the States, and they’re going to be using quite a bit of energy. But what that translates to is a very high yield. In one of our farms—this is a 40-by-8 shipping container—you’re looking at about a thousand heads of lettuce per week pumping out of that. And so if you take that and that equivalent to an acre of traditional farming. So if you’re looking at, you know, how much energy you’re putting in and getting out, and the stability of that crop, I think there’s a strong argument there.

As far as other inputs that you’re going to need, that’s the nutrients. So, like, you know, phosphor, you know, nitrogen, all the other nutrients that you would find in the soil, you need that in liquid form for hydroponics. And the other piece would be CO2. You’d want to supplement that environment with CO2. And there’s plenty in the air. There’s a lot of environmental benefits to going to the urban areas for CO2 emission, and using that for plant growth. Other places, you’d have to generate that yourself.

As far as outbreak and infestation of pests, so we don’t use any pesticides or herbicides in our farm. And the value to our modular set up is, say you have 10 Freight Farms in a lot. And one is—you start seeing aphids. And you can use an organic pesticide, or you could just shut it down. And the rest of your crops wouldn’t be contaminated. So you’re seeing a lot more indoor farming operations go to a more modular, segmented infrastructure so that if an outbreak does happen, bacteria does happen, you can block that off, quarantine, and keep on going. You don’t lose your whole fields. I hope that gives you some answers.

KIRKPATRICK: OK, over here. Please identify—oh, does somebody else have the mic? Yeah, give this person the mic, and then did somebody else have the mic all ready to go next. OK, you’re next and then anybody—who else wanted? OK, go ahead. Please identify yourself.

Q: Hi. I’m Pascaline Servan Schreiber. I’m producer of a new documentary called “The C-Word” on the impact of lifestyle and what we eat on cancer.

My question sort of follows what you just said, Jon, which is, what is the impact of this kind of new farming on the quality of the food we eat in terms of pesticides and possible toxic contamination? And as you said, Ellen, as people are asking for better food, how does that all tie together?

KIRKPATRICK: Thank you. Yeah, I think Jon and anybody—either—any of the panelists can address that.

GUSTAFSON: I read a book, “Anticancer,” and I feel like it’s the same last name as yours, that was outstanding and I highly recommend it. But it’s very interesting. I’ll talk about the second part of your question just quickly. I think, you know, there are so many trends that are working in tandem with just general, you know, realities of our food supply. And I think what’s interesting is that the food prices being consistent in time, or maybe a little before, the economic crisis, what I think a lot of people thought was going to happen is that people were going to stop buying healthier foods, people were going to stop being as concerned about, you know, plant-based diets or organic foods, or all of these things that people considered trends in the early-2000s. But they really haven’t changed.

And I think that’s just an interesting perspective to bring to looking at the future of food systems and how we focus on, you know, technology innovation is that, you know, these are—these are trends I don’t think are going away, towards people caring more about their health and how food has an impact on that. And I don’t think there’s one answer. I don’t think there’s one diet that’s the answer. But I do certainly think that moving away from the current American—standard American diet, with the beautiful acronym SAD, is probably something that will happen, and that technology will just, you know, meet it, as we’re seeing with things like Freight Farms.

KIRKPATRICK: Jon, did you have a comment on that, the freshness and the quality issues?

FRIEDMAN: You know, I think—I think when we look at eliminating pesticides, herbicides—all for that, yes. And I think GMOs are a part of that. But there’s not enough research done yet on GMOs. If you’re eating bananas, you’re eating something that’s been genetically modified. If you’re eating, you know, any of the foods out there, that’s history of breeding and grafting new plants. And that’s great. But not all of them have a lot of background. You know, we don’t know a lot about what has been done to the plants we’re eating. So I think GMOs have a huge gap to fill as far as consumer understanding and transparency if we’re going to keep on going down that route. But that does add a pro to eliminating pesticides and herbicides in the field. So I think it’s something that more people should be researching. Rather than just saying, no, we don’t want that, I think we need to get a little bit more investigation into where it’s good and where it’s bad.

KIRKPATRICK: I’m glad you mentioned the term GMO. Another interesting word that hasn’t been mentioned here is organic. And one interesting thing about both those terms is that people throw them around very freely, and almost nobody actually knows what they mean. I mean, one of the interesting controversies about indoor agriculture is whether it is organic. I’m sure Jon would argue it should be considered organic. But in most places, the organic certifiers will not consider it organic because it’s not in dirt. In reality, going back to your issues of microbes, you know, things that are in dirt are covered in feces of all kinds of animals. So you know, we don’t know what the hell we’re talking about. And it’s really—it’s a major transitional moment in food because of, I think, this intersections of all these issues.

But, Jess, any thoughts on any of this?

LOWENBERG-DEBOER: Well, one of the concerns that I have is thinking about how technology affects agriculture and where people think the best solution is. So politicians around the world always think—seem to think that irrigation, which is an early form that’s control in agriculture, gives you a more reliable yield, is the solution for food security. In fact, there are many ways of better managing rainfall that occurs—increasing organic matter in soils, doing more water harvesting and so on—which can in many cases be much more economic and have equally stable results. But they’re not the magic bullet. They require more science, more management than irrigation does. So I think we need to look at a range of options, that we need sort of the all-of-the-above approach in order to achieve those both food quality and food quantity objectives.


Q: Hi. Stewart Lindsay from Bunge Limited. Thanks very much for your comments today.

So you’ve touched upon so many interesting things—technology, demography, price, trade—how do you see—all of those are influenced by public policy. How do you see the public policy environment advancing alongside these trends? Do you think it’ll keep pace with the trend of technology development, or do you think it will stymie it? And I mean, each of these policies are put in place for a very specific reason, often for national reasons. So could you elaborate a little on that?

LOWENBERG-DEBOER: And I’ll speak first. And I’ll give you a great example. And my bet will be that public policy will lag the technology by quite a bit. And one of the great examples is what’s happening right now in the United States with use of drones.

KIRKPATRICK: Oh, I’m glad you mentioned that.

LOWENBERG-DEBOER: Because drones have a lot of potential for providing farmers with much more detailed, low-cost information about what their crops are doing. And the FAA is way behind the technology in terms of how farmers and agribusiness can use that technology.

KIRKPATRICK: The FAA bans the use of drones in agriculture, more or less.


KIRKPATRICK: With very few exceptions.

LOWENBERG-DEBOER: There have been some –

KIRKPATRICK: But you cannot routinely use it at all.

LOWENBERG-DEBOER: Yeah, exactly. Exactly, and then you have all these farmers and you have all these agribusinesses out there essentially breaking the law, because they see the potential.

On the other side, and maybe more positively, in Africa, particularly in West Africa, we see a great movement ward greater acceptance of technology, more commercialization. So Akinwumi Adesina, who just stepped down as minister of agriculture of Nigeria, is now director-general of the African Development Bank, is really encouraging and, in his role in the African Development Bank, can actually provide some financing and policy support for bringing that technology into African agriculture and help them achieve their potential.

KIRKPATRICK: And just one of the things, in France drones are routinely used in agriculture, as I understand it, already. So there are a number of our supposed, you know, economic competitors where this is not an issue at all, this issue of drones in agriculture. And it has been pretty much blockaded by the FAA, out of security concerns and other concerns.

GUSTAFSON: Well, just to take the policy question a different direction, and as it relates to the technology that we have today and the focus of technology, in companies like yours, you know, a lot of where we are today, both with current agricultural practices abut also, very honestly, with the problem of obesity, comes from Nixonian agricultural policy under Earl Butz, who suggested that farmers should, instead of fallowing fields and using sort of supply as a way to protect prices, to grow fencerow to fencerow, the sort of famous line, and grow as much as you can, and the government will help normalize grain prices.

And, I mean, I would argue that looking at that historically, we can see that today now having an overabundance of a few crops, which farmers and companies did an incredible job of doing—I mean, we have the most productive farmers in the history of the world that are growing, you know, arguably a few crops. But unfortunately, how we see that most of those few crops is going into things like, well, since 2000 ethanol, but really meat and, very honestly, a lot of junk food. And so I would argue now rethinking how agricultural policy fits with nutrition and food systems policies is going to be, I think, a next generation consideration.

In a lot of ways when you look at the global picture, American international food policy is based on American farmers donating food in the form of, usually, a corn-soy blend to feel hungry people around the world. But in the last five to 10 years, there’s been more interest in agricultural aid, which by the way was what we used to do before the early 1980s. And so I think, you know, when you look at some of those big—you know, long-term policy outcomes from the last 30 to 35, 40 to 50 years, I think in the future there’s going to be a lot more consideration about global nutrition, domestic nutrition, and how agricultural policy actually plays a very important role in what foods are available on the marketplace, and what they cost.

KIRKPATRICK: Jess, if I recall on the phone yesterday, you said something about American food being too cheap. And it seems quite tied to what she was just saying. Could you just elaborate?

LOWENBERG-DEBOER: Yeah. I don’t know if I used those words—

KIRKPATRICK: You did more or less say that—

GUSTAFSON: I think Jon said it too.

KIRKPATRICK: Was Jon the one?

GUSTAFSON: Yeah, it’s Jon.

KIRKPATRICK: I think you might agree with that, though.

LOWENBERG-DEBOER: Well, OK, American food is—and this is policy driven because this is one of the ways that politicians get votes, is providing cheap food.

GUSTAFSON: The Iowa Caucus—

LOWENBERG-DEBOER: This is not just America. This is Brazil. This is all kinds of places around the world. We’re driven by keeping prices of food down. How do you do that, what quality of food do you provide, and so on becomes an issue. But the economics are key. So I’m corn and soybean farmer in—

KIRKPATRICK: You actually did—

LOWENBERG-DEBOER: Yeah, yeah. Well, I do it now.

KIRKPATRICK: Oh, you do it now?


KIRKPATRICK: Well, in your agronomic research?

LOWENBERG-DEBOER: No, I’m a partner—

KIRKPATRICK: Oh, you actually are a commercial farmer too.

LOWENBERG-DEBOER: I’m a commercial farmer.


LOWENBERG-DEBOER: And we grow corn and soybeans because that’s what you make money on that particular land. You know, this is northwest Iowa. It’s a long ways from any urban market. Growing vegetables and fruits is out of the question. There may be some other products we could grow, but that requires marketing expertise. And so growing corn and soybeans is what makes money. And that’s policy driven.


LOWENBERG-DEBOER: And I would argue, and I knew Earl. He was in my department at Purdue University. And I knew him when he was an older gentleman. But it really dates back to FDR and the ’30s and the kind of agricultural policies that were put in place at that time, which then evolved to create this very limited cropping system that we have. So it is driven by policy, which means that we can also change it.


KIRKPATRICK: OK, so, Jon, if you are the one that said that, I should give you a chance to repeat it. Didn’t you say that?

FRIEDMAN: Yeah, I did. And it plays off what they’re both saying. And it’s that, you know, if you can get a—if you’re using all your resources to grow meal for cows and water for cows, and then that livestock’s hosted and you can go get a cheeseburger for a dollar, then somebody’s paying and subsidizing that cheeseburger. And that is not really the way we should be thinking about our food. So yeah, I think the wrong food is cheap and the right food is expensive.

KIRKPATRICK: Great line.

FRIEDMAN: You go to a local market and your produce is—if you want fresh produce, it’s high. If you want stuff that’s shipped in from California, I’m on the East coast, it’s not going to look great and it’s going to be cheap. And you know, you wonder how it gets all the way across the country for under a dollar for me. So I think that’s something we need to look at—when are things being subsidized and why are—why are things costing more than they should? But, yeah, I think we’re paying too much for things and too little for the other stuff.

GUSTAFSON: Just one extra point, and Jess brought this up, you know, this is another area of potential technological innovation. And we see it happening, you know, sort of on the fringes of California. But marketing fresh fruits and vegetables, helping farmers bring that fresh produce in an efficient way to urban markets, those are areas of innovation that people—are not, maybe, sexy to talk about, but are really important. And there hasn’t been a lot of government investment in those areas, and there hasn’t been a lot of private-sector investor until very recently, when people like Steve Case are interested—or Coastal Partners, or the—Coastal Ventures, like, these new tech companies are very interested in finding solutions—

KIRKPATRICK: Kleiner Perkins is investing in those.

GUSTAFSON: Exactly, yeah. Sorry.

KIRKPATRICK: We have about five minutes. Is Kate—where is Kate? We do have to end on time, right, unfortunately? So that give us, like, six or seven minutes. Please. So far so good.

Q: Thank you very much, professor. I’m also a farmer, but out in Nebraska. And also a ranch for Bison, which is very healthy, by the way.


KIRKPATRICK: What do you grow? Bison, that’s what you do?


Q: Yeah. My question relates to nutrition-rich farming. And as you know, in Africa there are some ethnic groups that have backyard farms. And once we did a very interesting survey with Helen Keller International. And we found that among the Igbos there was no micronutrient or vitamin A deficiency, because women had very intensive backyard farms, 20 to 25 different crops. In Ethiopia, there’s no iron deficiency because teff, the wonderful food that we eat with injera, is made from barley, which is very high in iron. We could make hundreds and hundreds of cases. Shouldn’t we be growing, shouldn’t we be selling food on a nutritional basis, what is nutrient—what is really good for you on the nutritional side?

GUSTAFSON: Yes. (Laughter.) Well, but I think you brought up a great point that, you know, when we look at policy like subsidies, but we also look at global policy, like what we’re helping farmers to grow around the world, and then obviously a technology, I think that is a gap. And unfortunately, a lot of the conversations that I’ve been privy to, you know, at big global meetings, talking about agricultural production, talking about literally feeding the world, sometimes nutrition is not part of the conversation.

I know that sounds crazy, but feeding the world—and you know what I’m talking about, Jess. Like, you can be in conversations about feeding the world where it’s really about calories. And that is important, but that’s not the entire picture. And that’s something that we absolutely have to address. And I think, very honestly, the link between Western consumers caring more about their own diets is helping researchers and even companies, you know, rethink how they focus on nutritional sustainability, and not just calorie sustainability.

KIRKPATRICK: Even globally, even outside the developed countries.

GUSTAFSON: Absolutely, yeah. Yeah.

LOWENBERG-DEBOER: Right. And I really, as to your point about should we be pricing based on nutrition, a lot of—to me, this is a demand question. If consumers are demanding more nutritious food, that means the price goes up and more farmers will produce that. In Africa, one of the key challenges is in rural areas, where people have access to both cultivated crops and vegetables as well as wild foods, or semi-wild foods, that those—there’s calorie issues, but no so much the micronutrients. When they move to urban areas, they eat a lot of basic carbohydrates. And it’s that micronutrient deficiency that shows up there. And so—but especially for the semi-wild foods, the production systems haven’t been developed. There’s no varieties. There’s no chain. How do you get those products to those urban areas? And so more—

KIRKPATRICK: Jon has some ideas about that.

LOWENBERG-DEBOER: Yeah. But getting that done—how do you do it? Do you do it with indoor agriculture? Do you do it by growing stuff more effectively, and then figuring out a way to package and keep them in good quality until they get to that urban market? All those are big challenges.

KIRKPATRICK: Yeah. OK. Well, you had one before, but—does nobody else have a question? I’ll ask this guy again. OK, go ahead. What do you teach at those schools you—or what do you do at those schools you mentioned before?

Q: I study populations and public health and interactions, what we eat, which is our diet, with what eats us, which is our infectious diseases.

KIRKPATRICK: Fantastic. We’ll I’m glad you’re asking another question, then. (Laughter.) Go ahead.

Q: One of the great achievements of the Abraham Lincoln administration was the passage of the Land-Grant University Act. And that has provided the knowledge base and the educated labor force that has made America rich in food. Is that system still meeting today’s needs, nationally and globally? And so we need another vision of how to go forward in terms of investment and knowledge and education for a future food system?

KIRKPATRICK: Given that Jess is at one of the great land-grant schools, I think he’s got to address that first.

LOWENBERG-DEBOER: Yeah. And one of the things—and the answer, is it meeting the challenge? There’s a real question about that. And I think we at the land-grants ask that. One of the issues there is that the funding for land-grant universities has been going down, basically for 50 years, if you look at the real rate. And it’s made tuition more expensive. So we get a different group of students coming in. At Purdue right now, 25 percent of our students are international, mostly Chinese, because they’re willing to pay.

KIRKPATRICK: That’s true at pretty much every college in America of any quality, but—

LOWENBERG-DEBOER: Yeah, but, you know, it’s a consequence of funding.

KIRKPATRICK: Not 25 percent, but at least 10 percent.

LOWENBERG-DEBOER: There’s also changes in who are the faculty members, what’s their—the focus on their research, how applied in that research versus how much of it is oriented toward academic publications. And so, yes, I would agree that there’s rethinking that’s needed all along the lines. Some of it’s policy. How much do you support, what do you support, in what form do you support that? So a lot of—a lot of challenges out there.


KIRKPATRICK: Really quick, because we are—

GUSTAFSON: Yeah, real quick note. I know we’re running over. One thing to look at, of course, is that we have these incredibly brilliant scientists, we have these incredibly smart students. Unfortunately, because of the decline in public funding, a lot of the funding has become private. And more and more when you see nutrition programs named after big food companies and seed research programs named after big seed companies, it’s important to get those programs funded. I think it’s important to have those funding streams come from public coffers and not just private research and development.

KIRKPATRICK: They almost never—I mean, increasingly, you know, you have the Monsanto program in such-and-such at such-and-such university, more or less. That’s happening quite frequently. Jon, did you have any quick closing thoughts on this?

FRIEDMAN: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I would just agree. I mean, across the board I think people are less and less gravitated toward farming around the world. You know, it’s an older generation’s craft that they’re not passing down, and because it’s not profitable. So I think our big task is making farming economical against. I think you got to give props to USDA and NASA, are actually giving a lot of funding towards researching these. So I think we’re going to see in the short term a lot of kind of young interest and—young and old—but just new interest is going to be in the technology that gets us to an economic food future. So we’ll get there.

KIRKPATRICK: Great. You know, and I want to make one final comment as a technology journalist, because this—it’s so interesting to really look at an element we haven’t even discussed, which is the intersection of a variety of technologies—genomics, the understanding of the microbiome inside our own guts which is exploding right now—I mean, not—our guts are not exploding. (Laughter.) But this has suddenly become a massive interest for research and innovation for intervention.

And once—the question about microbial contamination is so interesting because we don’t even know what the microbes we eat today do to us. But we’re gaining that knowledge with extreme rapidity. And because we have genomic capabilities, if we got over some of this GMO bullshit—(laughter)—we could possibly really make some real progress on human nutrition by combining all of this stuff and really soaring toward a much healthier world. And I think that’s widely agreed to by many different parts of the research and technology community.

But there isn’t that much discussion of the type that we’ve had today, which—I really want to congratulate Kate on putting this panel together. And thank you all for being here, and particularly the panelists. (Applause.) Jon, thank you for dialing in.

FRIEDMAN: Oh, it’s great being here. Thanks, guys.


This is an uncorrected transcript.

Top Stories on CFR

United States

Now that Congress voted to pass a bill based on the Biden-McCarthy compromise, an immediate debt ceiling crisis appears to have been averted. Still, a much larger debt problem awaits.  

Supply Chains

Feeding the world's eight billion people has never been easy. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine shocked the market for fertilizer, that task has gotten even harder. The fertilizer crisis threatens to exacerbate food insecurity worldwide, especially in low-income countries already reeling from record-high inflation and rapidly depreciating currencies. What is fertilizer’s role in the food supply chain?

Middle East and North Africa

Turkey’s geography and membership in NATO have long given the country an influential voice in foreign policy, but the assertive policies of President Erdogan have complicated its role.