How Indoor Farming Could Beat GMOs as the Cure for World Hunger

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You don’t have to look very far to see that there is a war going on over the future of food. The antagonist, of course, is hunger. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, more than 840 million people suffer from chronic hunger worldwide. That’s about 12 percent of the global population, or one in eight people, and while this number has declined over the past two decades, hunger has claimed and continues to claim more casualties than any other conflict in history. More than 7.6 million people are expected to die of hunger this year.

Although the vast majority — as much as 98 percent — of hunger issues are in developing regions like Sub-Saharan Africa and Western Asia, food insecurity is not strictly a foreign phenomenon. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there were 17.6 million (14.5 percent of the total) food-insecure households in America in 2012. These households fall into two categories, those with “low food security” and those with “very low food security,” both of which have grown in size over the past decade, primarily as a result of the financial crisis and Great Recession.

One of the primary catalysts of hunger has been the enormous growth of the world population over the past two years. The global population was estimated at about 1 billion in 1800 but now sits just over 7 billion, and while it looks like we’re approaching the top of an S-curve, the global population is still growing more than 1 percent per year; the U.N. expects 8 billion people by 2024. Moreover, much of this growth will occur in the developing regions where hunger (and its progenitor, poverty) is already most rampant. Left unchecked, hunger will only get worse as the world population — aggregate demand for food — continues to grow.

This means that achieving ubiquitous long-term food security will likely involve some sort of population control, but the problem doesn’t end there. Especially in the near term, changes to the way we supply food — and specifically the way we produce and transport food — will be necessary to end world hunger. This is where the protagonists in the war step in: the motley crew of farmers, scientists, and corporations that are the food and agriculture industries.

If you were an economist or an enterprising businessperson, you could probably get away with boiling down world hunger as a supply problem. If we had more food, we could feed more people. But if you didn’t want to attract the ire of critics, you’d have to offer something more robust. It’s not just an issue of how much food can feasibly be produced: It’s how much food can be produced where, and how much of it is actually getting to those who need it.

This is because we already produce enough food — at least, enough calories — to feed the world. According to the World Food Programme, which is part of the U.N., the problem isn’t a lack of supply, it’s a lack of access. We could feed the world if only we could find economical ways to get food from where it’s being produced — like the U.S., China, India, and Brazil — to where the hungry are.

The challenges here are obvious but enormous. Transportation, especially to underdeveloped regions, is costly and energy intensive because there is little to no infrastructure. In places like Sub-Saharan Africa, food distributors also have to contend with violent regional political regimes intent on controlling food distribution in order to retain power. Food also spoils, putting time constraints on distribution and increasing transportation costs. There also has to be sufficient political willpower to orchestrate large-scale aid programs.

Because of these challenges, one of the ways that people have tried to address world hunger and increase yield while decreasing costs, even in food-secure markets, is through the development of genetically modified crops. The theory is that if we can design hardier plants that can resist disease and drought while yielding more calories per acre, then we could effectively increase the amount of arable land. If people in Sub-Saharan Africa or Western Asia could grow their own food, we wouldn’t have to address distribution problems. Food-insecure regions would become more independent and economically healthy, paving the way for more robust growth while ending hunger.

But problems abound when playing god. While food scientists in the employ of companies like Monsanto have made great leaps toward increasing yield while making crops more resilient to disease and pests, the viability of GMOs as a sustainable way to conduct food production, particularly in the long run, has been called into question. The rise of the monoculture, growing dependencies on herbicides and pesticides (some of which are now bred into the crops themselves), and the enormous energy requirements of industrial farming have all been highlighted as major problems with a GMO-based approach to food production. This is to say nothing of the legal complexities of genetic patents.

Still, development and use of GMOs is, in the eyes of many, a viable if not the only viable way to address world hunger in the near term. One popular example of the power of GMO foods — or at least one example of the power of the pro-GMO narrative — is “golden rice.” Golden rice is a rice variety genetically engineered to be fortified with vitamin A, addressing a deficiency that is fatal to nearly 700,000 children each year.

But genetic modification isn’t the only innovation in food production that could address hunger in the near term and help ensure ubiquitous food security in the long term. Thanks to dramatic advances in technology and our understanding of biology and chemistry, large-scale indoor farming is looking more viable and more palatable every day.

The advantages of indoor farming mostly revolve around the ability to control the growing environment. Modern technology gives food producers total control of the growing climate, meaning that they can optimize for how much light, water, and nutrients a plant receives. This means more food for less resources, or a higher yield, than is achievable outdoors, even with GMOs. The world’s largest indoor farm is in Japan and is operated by a physiologist named Shigeharu Shimamura. Working with General Electric, Shimamura has created a 25,000-square-foot vegetable factory capable of producing an enormous amount of nutrient-dense food using relatively few resources.

For example, because he has total control over irrigation, Shimamura can operate his facility using just 1 percent of the amount needed by outdoor fields. Because he can control nutrients and lighting, he can also grow food up to 2.5 times faster than outdoor farms can, and he can grow year-round. Because he doesn’t have to worry about pests and diseases in the same way that conventional farmers do, few (if any) of his crops are lost, providing an enormous boost to productivity. Advances in LED technology by GE helped make the whole operation viable.

Although the upfront costs of building an indoor farm are enormous, once running, it can consistently produce huge amounts of nutrient-dense food with relatively cheap upkeep. Moreover, these facilities could be built almost anywhere, solving many of the transportation issues that currently plague developing regions.

But there are still challenges to building indoor farms elsewhere in the world. “In order to build a plant factory, we need certain infrastructure in place, such as electricity and water supply,” Shimamura told National Geographic in a July interview. “A dependable supply of electricity and water is essential right from the start. We consulted with GE Japan on this; we talked about the possibility of building a factory where electric generators are already in place. Another big factor is the availability of telecommunication infrastructure. In Japan, we do a lot of training as well as overseeing of the operation remotely online, so having a dependable Internet connection and other telecommunication infrastructure is also critical.”

While it’s too early to tell if indoor farming can produce food at scales necessary to serve large, underdeveloped regions, it does offer an attractive alternative to the GMO movement. Where the use of GMOs reeks of a dystopian bio-punk future, indoor farming suggests a more holistic approach to the future of food production.

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