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Thought For Food: Multispectral thinking (plastic, who needs it?)

Plastic, who needs it? At Thought For Food, the next generation are turning dreams into realities - and fixing our food system.

August 07, 2018

This year saw Thought For Food host its first ever TFF Academy in Rio de Janeiro, bringing together young entrepreneurs, industry specialists and creative thinkers for an immersive week aimed at tackling the challenge of global food security through multispectral thinking.

How is Thought For Food inspiring people worldwide to ensure food security, turn dreams into startups and fix our food systems?

The world must feed over nine billion people by 2050 - and possibly more than 16 billion come 2100. This is a grand challenge that requires multifaceted solutions, which is why the theme of this year’s Thought For Food Academy and Summit was “multispectral thinking.”

We are not going to solve the swathe of problems that contribute to food insecurity by doing and thinking the same things we have before. At the same time, many of the solutions to the challenge of feeding every mouth on earth do not require us to rip apart our existing systems and industries, but instead change our approach and innovate.

I was fortunate to have attended my sixth Thought For Food summit this year, where I gave a slam poem on the power of multispectral thinking in a globally connected world - celebrating the innovation of young agribusinesses throughout the Americas, Europe, Africa and Asia.

This year’s finalist teams were oozing quality.

Scientific Communications Manager Peter Bickerton performing his slam poem "Us and Them" on the TFF Global Summit stage. Jelmer de Haas Fotographie courtesy of Thought for Food.

Poet Pete (not Illuminati)

Who needs plastic?

Food needs to be preserved, or else it rots. For all the abuse plastic gets, reasonably so considering the extent of pollution in the oceans, it has helped us to stop food from perishing and therefore becoming waste.

The point here is that plastic has been an overall force for good, it could be argued, with many aspects of life becoming more manageable because of it. A material that can mould do any shape, is waterproof and is cheap to make? Yes please.

Plastic in itself isn’t a bad thing - our disposal and abuse of it has been the problem. Almost every one of us uses plastic every day without even thinking about it (just look down at the phone you’re reading this article from).

Paper straws are a soggy needle in a plastic haystack.

However, there must be another way - and Coating+ - the winners of Thought for Food 2018 from Nigeria, have found it.

They don’t just prevent waste, they use it - making a special food coating out of discarded shells from the shrimp industry. Mixing nutrients into their spray-on coating, the team are able to prolong the shelf life of fresh fruit and vegetables by several times over, while providing a nutrition boost.

Plastic packaging, who needs it?

The recipients of the Kirchner Fellows prize at Thought for Food 2018 were Aeropowder, who have a beautiful solution to use feathers as biodegradable packaging for transporting goods. Currently using duck feathers, they can quickly and easily expand to using chicken feathers, too, which on a planet teeming with over 30 billion chickens seems a reasonably inexhaustible source.

Coating+ have a fabulous idea, one which won them the Thought for Food Challenge 2018

Potato crop

Rise rice (harvests) baby

Often, we fail to see the bigger picture when to comes to food and food security.

Chemical fertilisers, pesticides and the like are widely chastised, as are the companies producing them. Aside from the fact we’d be barely able to feed half the planet without them, they are an important tool to increase yields, and therefore profitability, for smallholder farmers.

However, one size does not necessarily fit all, which is where wonderful startups such as Kenya’s Safi Organics come in. This innovative team have developed a carbon neutral organic biochar fertiliser production system that can increase yields by up to 30% and profits by up to 50%, all while correcting soil acidity. A local solution for local soils with bespoke fertilisers, which is now scaling up.

There are also companies such as TFF finalists RiseHarvest, who are helping farmers use fertilisers in the right way.

Fertilisers only increase yields if they’re applied properly, at the right time and in the right doses. Inefficient use of fertilisers causes far more damage than good, especially for the surrounding environment, which all feeds back onto what happens on the farm, eventually.

Rivers eutrophy, seas die, biodiversity suffers and then so do farms.

RiseHarvest are using data and technology to inform farmers in Myanmar when and where to apply fertilisers, both decreasing fertiliser use while increasing rice production. In the future they plan to develop a GPS map for nitrogen deficiency, as well as other nutrients, which will further help in monitoring fields and optimising yields.

The Safi Organics team answer questions from the judges, alongside TFF host Holley Murchison. Jelmer de Haas Fotographie courtesy of Thought for Food.

Potato crop

Simple solutions

Sometimes solutions are so relatively simple they’re overlooked long before they turn out to be useful.

In Ghana, snails are nutritious and abundant but seasonal. Likabs Food, TFF finalists, said: “why not farm them?”

Dario Gonzalez, CEO of Colombia's Cultivando Futuro - last year’s TFF winners, pointed out that most farmers in the developing world are only using half or two thirds of their available land, something which their company is acutely aware of.

As far as solutions go, information is key.

Cultivando Futuro, much like Brazil's Agrosmart - led by Mariana Vasconcelos - another successful TFF star who gave a rip-roaring keynote talk to wrap up the summit, are big on information. Data to support agriculture at every step of the agricultural value chain. Data for farmers to better use their land or commoditise their products, data for buyers to find the right producers and data for organisations for transparency and sustainability.

The better informed people are at every stage, the more value for everyone. The technology is there, it’s how we apply it in innovative ways.

Open quote marks

It’s only through multispectral thinking that we can see every shade of colour reflecting and refracting through our global prism without filtering through a tinted lens.

Closing quote marks

Multispectral positivity

We can learn much from Thought for Food and the teams who, every year, come up with even better solutions for how we can reinvent our food systems and strive towards feeding a throbbing global population.

It’s easy to feel pessimistic about the world, especially with a global media that paints a perpetually negative picture of plastic waste and environmental destruction, political torment and civil disgruntlement.

That’s all well and good, arguably that’s their job.

The beauty of Thought for Food is that although the problems are laid bare, clear, stark - there is the optimism and willingness to believe that we can make a difference and continue to keep changing the world for the better.

Christine Gould, TFF CEO, filling us all with optimism for the future. Jelmer de Haas Fotographie courtesy of Thought for Food.

Pac Bio

It’s only through multispectral thinking that we can see every shade of colour reflecting and refracting through our global prism without filtering through a tinted lens. Sometimes it’s good to sit back and take a different perspective. It’s hard to move forwards if we’re all at loggerheads.

Whether a climate change denier, or indeed a believer, most of us are still complicit in causing greenhouse gas emissions. Whether an opulent omnivore or a frugal vegan, we’re contributing to a decline in biodiversity in one way or another.

It’s easy to chastise big business, big ag, yet individually we’re hardly any wiser - and many of the positive solutions are coming from these very organisations, aided by publicly funded science such as that which goes on at institutes like EI.

Innovation doesn’t come from ripping everything up and starting again, but builds on the foundations of millennia of accomplishments and advancements.

To uproot the status quo, as Christine Gould has challenged the growing Thought for Food community, we must innovate and renovate across disciplines and expertise - and where better to start than with TFF’s diverse, global movement to feed the world sustainably by 2050?

The finalist teams I met this year give me greater confidence than ever that we can do it.

Article author

Peter Bickerton

Scientific Communications & Outreach Manager