In a future where supplies may be short and we have to grow our own, could robots grow food for us at home?
A few years ago a large food producer commissioned some research on the future of food. It was a PR exercise, designed to produce some interesting, light-hearted stories. Instead what came back was a pretty stark message: we as families and individuals will all have to produce much of our own food because that will be the only way we can produce enough.
Needless to say, the research was never published. It wasn’t the sort of story they were looking for.
I couldn’t tell you who the producer was, even if I could accurately remember: I was told about it in confidence a few years ago and never saw an actual copy. This is not a piece of rigorously qualified information. But it’s believable in the current context.
Feed the world
The future of food production has become a hot topic. Today, globally, we produce more than enough food to feed everyone — enough for 12bn people according to the UN World Food Programme. But since much of it is fed to livestock (and because we let money get in the way of keeping people alive), we don’t manage to feed all 7bn. In a few years time the population is likely to peak around 9bn. Unless we produce an awful lot more food (twice as much by some estimates) or all cut the amount of meat we eat (the trend is going in the other direction as large economies like India and China develop), we are going to have even more serious problems feeding everyone.
Closer to home there are issues of food security and self-sufficiency. According to a report by the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee last month, the UK has become steadily less self-sufficient over the last twenty years. We now produce just 68% of the food that could be grown here — the rest is imported. Given the current levels of political instability, and the growing effects of climate change, it seems unwise to have so little control over feeding our own population.
In a local context, there are two questions to address: what we eat, and how we produce it. The former has all sorts of answers from the prosaic to the unpalatable (for some). The simplest answer is that we all go vegan, but the simplicity of this answer exposes why it won’t happen: human beings are creatures of desire more than logic. Even if some Californian fad for veganism spread to the entire Western world, it is likely that the developing economies would want their days of unfettered carnivorous gluttony just as they want their chance to experience the economic growth that fossil fuels provided the West. And frankly, it’s hard to argue that they should abide by different rules just because we screwed the world up.
Meat, but not as we know it
We could continue eating ‘meat’ but in different forms: artificial, insects, etc. I think this will become a proportion of the mix and may eventually displace some livestock production (particularly beef, the most resource intensive). But it’s going to take time.
In the meantime we’re back to that question of production: where does our food come from? There seems to be a growing trend for grow your own. I’m not ahead of the curve on this: just look at the column inches and airtime devoted to gardening, or the waiting lists for allotment spaces. Check out the IncredibleEdible project in Todmorden or the guerilla gardens springing up all over the place. There’s even an app to help you grow and share produce.
But mainstream as this is (up to 5% of all fruit and veg is grown at home based on 2012 figures — the most recent I could find) it’s not at a level that will account for growing international competition for crops, changeable weather, and political instability.
Robots grow food
For this to change, growing at home needs to be easier. Automated. Like an appliance.
This may not sound very ‘green fingered’ or organic. But the nature of our time-stretched lives these days (a cliché but a reality) and the fact that not everyone wants to garden, means it’s a reality if we all want regular crops of edible produce.
Imagine this: an indoor appliance the size of a washing machine that feeds, monitors and returns regular crops of salad leaves, tomatoes, herbs, brassicas and potatoes, and does so with a minimal use of water and electricity. All you do is plumb it in and feed it with seeds and nutrients every now and again. It could even monitor your fridge and change the production rate to ensure it only delivers fresh produce as and when you need to restock.
That’s the sort of thing that could become truly mainstream and account for a sensible proportion of our regular produce. And it’s entirely possible with today’s technology: hydroponics, LED grow-lights, cheap microcontrollers and cloud computing. It could be installed anywhere, even for those without a garden. Sure, it’s not as green as growing outdoors, but it is more reliable and less effort, and that’s what people want. And it’s certainly greener than shipping your vegetables half way across the world.
Could robots grow food for us? Absolutely. There’s another project to tackle then…
Note: After this post went out in my newsletter last week (sign up here to get posts like this one early), a number of people pointed out that projects like the Urban Cultivator have already tackled this challenge. I’m now wondering if a broken dishwasher can be cheaply recycled into such a device…