Wrist sensors and utilizing sewers: Louise Fresco on the future of food

In conversation with one of the world’s foremost food system experts

A rooftop garden in New York City near a water treatment plant. Gabrielle Lipton, GLF
11 December 2019

With agriculture being one of the highest sources of greenhouse gas emissions and population growth putting more and more people at risk of hunger and malnutrition, food supply systems as they stand have been proven time and again to be insufficiently designed to fully deliver on the “supply” they promise.

One of the most proliferous researchers and writers bringing this to global attention is Louise Fresco, whose bibliography and academic leadership as president of the Wageningen University and Research Executive Board is undeniably visionary. On the sidelines of the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Madrid (COP25), Landscape News spoke with Fresco about what she hopes to see in the future of food.

Wrist sensors and utilizing sewers: Louise Fresco on the future of food
Louise Fresco at COP 25 in Madrid. Melissa Kaye Angeel, GLF

What has recently surprised you in your work?

I think agriculture and food have been, in some ways, victims of their own success. We’ve been extremely successful in feeding a growing urban population. We’ve used a lot of science and technology, but the distance between, particularly, the urban consumer and the producer is really very great.

I’m quite aghast to hear the latest figures about what children actually know about food. Children actually do not know in parts of the world that milk comes from a cow. They think it’s a soft drink that comes from a factory. There are children who believe that eggs come from cows. There are children who do not know that tuna is a fish. And so there’s a huge lack of education that, in combination with distance, means that many, many people in this world – and this is not just in developed countries but also in developing countries – are very far removed from the realities of what food production is about.

What can we do about this? I think we can, first of all, start at schools and teach children not just about diets, but also about the whole food chain. Bring them to farms, get farmers to speak to them, and build a storyline for the society as a whole that agriculture is so much part of our history. It’s part of our civilization.

How does this link back to your advocacy around reconnecting to the history of food?

We became who we are because we started to produce agricultural crops. And because we did that, we could create cities, and we could free up people who are not necessary to produce their daily food. So the fact that you and I and all your listeners can stand here and still be sure that we have enough food to eat is a miracle of modern agriculture and food production.  I would not be able to survive if you put me in the wilderness, and probably you would not be either.

For example, having apples in spring is not a normal thing, because apples come in autumn. The fact that we have apples in spring is a very nice way to illustrate that there is this need for both having a local balance but also having food coming from the rest of the world. Wherever things come from, how we eat them, and what has been necessary to make them nutritious is very important.

Where do we stand now?

Now our issues have to do with the fact that we consume too much. Most people, and not just in developed countries, eat too much, consume too much, waste too much. It’s not only bad for our own health, it’s not only bad for the costs of the health system, but we also waste an enormous amount of greenhouse gases through waste and excess. So we really need to change our system, and we can only do that if there is popular support.

How would you like to see food systems evolve?

I think the intertwining of urban areas and food production will increase. We can do much more in terms of using leftover spaces and also leftover heat from buildings in growing crops. Obviously, you cannot grow a rice crop at any interesting scale in a city – or a wheat crop or a maize crop – but you can use rooftops. You can use ponds. You can use heat. And above all, you can use waste from food and even waste from our sewer systems. Sewer systems in most countries in the world are full of nutrients and minerals and things that we just discard. By using a circular approach to the interface of agriculture and cities, we can really do exciting things.

I can also see a future where we are far more connected the Internet. In the morning, a little sensor in your wrist will say, “Hey, you’re a bit low on calcium.” The sensor then asks your fridge, “Is there still milk with extra calcium in the fridge?” The fridge responds, “No, I’m going to order it.” And then a drone will come and deliver within the hour your calcium-rich milk. And this kind of stuff is already starting to happen in a country, for example, like China, which is really moving forward in this way. Europe and the U.S. are still slow to grasp digitalization of food production and food consumption.

How does this fit into the conversations happening at this COP around climate change?

I think the holy grail is finding solutions that combine mitigation and adaptation. Adaptation is very important because we still need to nurture a lot of people. There’s a lot of food that’s needed for the increasing the urban populations. It has to be affordable, it has to be of good quality and it has to be sustainably produced.

And also, the youth. Enticing young people to become farmers is very important. We want a young generation that is entrepreneurial, that is interested in getting the high-tech part of farming to really move ahead and feed the world. In the end, saving the climate is one thing, but if it can’t feed people, their impact on climates and on the world’s ecosystems is really going to be devastating.

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