The Internet of food? Solutions helping feed people more sustainably

Wed, 2015-10-21 06:00 -- Kevin Ebi

Rare is the city that doesn’t have concerns about food production. In communities where there isn’t enough food, cities have to be part of the solution to find more. And with prolonged droughts in more places, more communities are in this category.

But even where there is enough food there are concerns. Cities are growing rapidly, prompting tough discussions about where food will come from when agricultural land is covered with homes and businesses. For those with large populations of overweight people, providing healthier food choices is an issue. And for those working toward environmental goals, more sustainable food production can be a key part of the solution.

Regardless of your food challenges, here are a few innovative solutions that are worth a look.

The Internet of food
Do you know where your food comes from? Council Lead Partner Cisco is working to bring food into the Internet of Everything, providing valuable information designed to help consumers and retailers alike make better decisions.

If you shop at a farmer’s market, you have a fairly direct connection with the people who grew your food. But Cisco’s efforts will help you build that connection even when you’re shopping at a grocery store.

For instance, Cisco helped pasta-maker Barilla show its customers exactly where their food came from. By scanning a code on the package, they can trace the entire chain of production from the wheat field to the store shelf, learning how it was cultivated, harvested, processed and packaged.

Food production goes underground
As cities grow dramatically some of the growth is coming at the expense of land that was once used for agriculture. That’s prompting some new thinking about where food is grown.

Council Lead Partner Microsoft is working on a project that involves growing food 100 feet below London streets. And it’s fully-sustainable, carbon-neutral and pesticide-free. (You can see how it works in the video below.)

A start-up called Growing Underground is growing food in large underground tunnels that were built during World War II to shield the city’s residents from airstrikes. Microsoft software controls the lights, temperature and other factors to exact standards, delivering a level of precision in growing crops that simply isn’t available outside in the elements.

Stretching water resources
Several cities are experimenting with aquaponics, which is allowing them to grow everything from food and herbs to fish — all in an urban environment. And the best part is that it significantly reduces the amount of water needed, conserving as much as 90%.

Council Associate Partner Veolia is helping producers adopt it. Aquaponics is a combination of hydroponics and aquaculture. It's a closed system that's used to raise freshwater fish. Their excrement is transformed into nutrients, which act as fertilizer for crops. And those crops purify the water for fish.

In addition to the water conservation benefits, it’s helping to bring production of food closer to the people who consume it, further reducing the carbon footprint. Berlin, Abu Dhabi, Chicago, Vancouver and Honolulu are among the cities already using aquaponics.

Leaders in hunger relief
Despite crippling drought several African nations are dramatically cutting malnourishment -- and it’s not just due to receiving aid.

Djibouti has made the most progress in tackling hunger, reducing malnourishment by nearly 60%, according to new figures from the World Economic Forum. That’s despite the prolonged drought that resulted in the loss of 70% of the country’s livestock.

The country's climate isn't well suited to food production, so, traditionally, most food has been imported, leaving residents to cope with wild price increases. One solution has been a food-for-work program. To receive monthly food rations, residents have helped build feeder roads, water conservation systems and community gardens -- work that's helping to increase the country's food supply and reduce its reliance on outside help.

More stories …
Urban farming? Microsoft shows cities how it's done
Mobile apps help Chinese farmers feed the masses
Elk Grove's smart idea: Using social media to feed the hungry


This article is from the Council's Compassionate Cities initiative which highlights how city leaders and other stakeholders can leverage smart technologies to end suffering in their communities and give all citizens a route out of poverty. Click the Compassionate Cities box on our registration page to receive our weekly newsletter.

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