Farming without a farm

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  • Picture of
    ASHUTOSH NAIK FRSA
  • Behaviour change
  • Climate change
  • Environment

Food security and traceability have never been more important. Dr Ashutosh S Naik looks at an issue that goes back decades, and explains how science and business (and individuals) can come together to ensure safe and healthy food for all

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected people the world over. While the impact of the pandemic might be different across geographies, social and cultural lines the one thing that is certain is that food, food security and traceability have become huge issues. We must ensure safe and healthy nutrition is provided without damaging the environment. People have the right to eat chemical-free produce.

The question of food security has had to be revisited as lockdowns across the world made it apparent that even the middleclasses in countries and cities around the world have had to resort to food banks or handouts from NGOs. In these uncertain times, people have become keenly aware of the sources of their food. Thus the need to create awareness that it is possible to ‘farm without a farm’. This will help reduce some of the burden on the existing infrastructure.

While it is true that the pandemic has brought food security back into sharp focus, the problem has existed for many years. There are four fundamental aspects to food security: availability, access, utilisation and stability. And it is crucial to understand how the current situation relates to food security.

The system to supply food consists of production, transport, packaging, storage, retail, consumption, loss and waste. Since 1961, food supply has increased by 30 per cent, accompanied by an 800 per cent increase in fertiliser use and a 100 per cent increase in ground water for irrigation. Despite this, 821 million people are currently undernourished, 151 million under five are stunted, and 613 million girls and women are deficient in iron. This is clearly a complex multi-layered problem that requires policy interventions at the governmental and institutional level.

So what can governments do?

The UN in 2015 ratified the 2030 agenda for sustainable development, which at its core has 17 sustainable development goals (UN SDGs) that all member countries have agreed to strive toward. These goals recognise the urgent nature of the interventions required to address inequality, hunger and poverty within a framework that also protects the oceans and forests. And there are innovative approaches such as agroforestry. But there are huge shortfalls to be addressed. For instance, more than 90 per cent of Americans buy some organic food, yet organic food amounts to only six per cent of food sold. Why? It’s expensive, and of the two million farms in the US fewer than 17,000 are organic farms. Given the willingness to purchase organic produce, one creative approach would be useful to combine agroforestry with organic farming to meet the demand. Another problem is that getting the food to the consumer (including storage, packaging and transportation) is key, and the systems to do this are not yet mainstream.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that individual consumers can make real, tangible contributions alongside the policy decisions of governments, and they can do so quickly, cheaply and with relatively little outlay.

Zero-energy farming would reduce the dependence on traditional energy sources during the cultivation and harvesting process at farms. Odd as it might sound, implementing zero-energy farming is easier in an urban setting because if apartment complexes mandated an ‘eat-what you grow’ policy and had terrace gardens on each block, residents would not have to travel to pick up the produce. Those with gardens or balconies in independent apartments would also benefit. Why is this important? The average passenger vehicle emits 404 grams of CO2 per mile. So, if a large apartment complex, in India has 1000 residents and the grocery store is a mile away, just fetching the groceries pumps 808kg of CO2 into the atmosphere every week. While it might be possible to encourage people to engage in vertical farming as a group, there might still be financial constraints. This brings us to zero-budget farming.

Zero-Budget farming is done without the need for loans or expenses. However, it can be expanded further and can refer to growing produce with at least a ‘net-zero’ expense to the prosumer. There are safeguards built in. If you, or your community, can grow more than one crop in a particular season then, in the event that one of the crops fails, the other crops will underpin the investment and reduce the risk of a net loss. Additionally, it might be possible to reduce the need to travel for groceries, thus reducing expenses further.

Think Global and Act Local is a phrase often associated with the UN SDGs – but it was first mentioned by Patrick Geddes in the context of urban planning as far back as 1915. Even if you can’t grow your own produce, there are other ways to contribute. One is to encourage local farmers to buy produce from a centralised location or have local farmers deliver produce to your doorstep. Another way of implementing a UN SDG at home is crowd-source farming. Similar to the idea of crowd-source funding, this relies on inputs from other sources to help in agricultural production. It is also possible to adopt a tree, an animal or a farm and get the produce delivered

Think about it. If you engage in either zero-budget or zero-energy farming you are automatically implementing one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. It’s not just about corporations, countries and international agreements… the solution can start with you.

Dr Ashutosh S Naik is the founder-director of Terraverum, and a member of the Good Work Guild. A budding entrepreneur and experienced scientist, he has spent over 15 years in the life-sciences industry. He is committed to tackling global issues including climate change ‘one person at a time’

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