• Article
  • Learning

Thought for Food: Uprooting Assumptions

What do you get when you mix 350 food curious social entrepreneurs together at the most innovative and interactive food security summit in the world?

May 06, 2016

Ideas, creativity, fun, friendship, morning raves – and projects that are making a difference on a global scale to help feed nine billion people by 2050.

This is Thought for Food.

Founded by Christine Gould – the first TFF summit was held in the Atomium, Brussels, and attracted around fifty game changers and thought leaders, from camel milk connoisseur Sebastian Lindstrom (the semi-skimmed was surprisingly tasty) to champions of agriculture such as Julie Borlaug, granddaughter of Norman Borlaug – father of the green revolution.

Since that wonderful first gathering, this truly global family has blossomed.

I took part in the first ever Thought for Food (TFF) competition in 2011, and it has been a pleasure to see this inspiring movement develop from just ten teams in the UK to over 400 teams representing 102 different countries.

This year our biggest ever competition came to fruition in the lush green setting of the Giardino Verde in Zurich, beautifully decorated with the cardboard designs of Oupas!.

Open quote marks

The setting was ripe for an incredible three-day experience that, in the words of New York Botanics founder Sebastian Cocioba, “has ruined all other conferences forever.”

Closing quote marks

What is Thought for Food?

An ever-expanding international family and movement; at its heart Thought for Food is a competition for students around the world who compete for $10,000 with innovative projects providing novel solutions to help avert the global food crisis.

By 2050, we will have to feed at least nine billion people. The way we currently produce and distribute food still means that almost 800 million people remain hungry and malnourished while over one billion others are obese or overweight.

We need to uproot the status quo, which is precisely the aim of Thought for Food.

By the start of 2016, student teams from around the world had pitched their ideas, solutions and businesses online.

After this round, an expert panel of judges – including SynBioBeta CEO John Cumbers – decided which ten teams would compete for the grand prize in Zurich.

The finalists represented every corner of the globe, with teams from Indonesia, India, Uganda, Kenya, France, Britain, the USA and Brazil.

Ideas ranged from biotechnological applications through to the development of novel food products and ingenious tweaks to agronomic infrastructures.

Open quote marks

By 2050, we will have to feed at least nine billion people.

Closing quote marks

The Summit.

A Thought for Food Global Summit is like no other conference you will ever attend.

Stimulating, thought-provoking and groundbreaking concepts delivered as keynote talks happen at the start of each day and at the end of the second.

In-between there are no tedious lectures.

Far from it – this is a place to come and share ideas; to imagine, create and build a more secure future of food, harnessing the untrammelled imaginations of people from every conceivable industry and background.

Expertly facilitated and moderated by Holley Murchison of Oratory Glory, the conference attendees were guided toward workshops covering seven tracks: Growing innovations, sustainable business, hacking biology, empowering change, open data, nutrition and health and natural resources and climate change.

We were first inspired to think.

What are the current problems we face today? What are we currently doing to deal with these problems? What are our knowns, unknowns and assumptions?

Cauliflowers as fast food? Credit: Shutterstock/ ittipon

Cauliflower

We were then allowed to set our creative minds to make.

Create what?

I personally would like to see Cauliflowers eaten as fast food rather than burgers. I want a worldwide cauliflower appreciation campaign with “super gobi” at the heart of it.

Taking all of what we had learned into account, the floor was set for us to let loose the shackles of our minds and imagine our ideal futures.

Led by Sara Farley, COO of the Global Knowledge Initiative, and ably assisted by TFF ambassadors, the summit came together to brainstorm and map out innovative journeys in order to deliver solutions to the problems and status quo we all wanted to uproot.

Over four intense and rewarding hours, in a maelström of post-it notes and free-flowing thoughts, between us we produced some inspiring futures spanning the range of issues facing food security.

Over wine, we shared our visions of the future – and the journeys that would take us there.

In a group of people such as this, nothing seems impossible.

Rave. Pitch, repeat.

A Thought for Food Global Summit is like no other conference you will ever attend.

Stimulating, thought-provoking and groundbreaking concepts delivered as keynote talks happen at the start of each day and at the end of the second.

In-between there are no tedious lectures.

Far from it – this is a place to come and share ideas; to imagine, create and build a more secure future of food, harnessing the untrammelled imaginations of people from every conceivable industry and background.

Expertly facilitated and moderated by Holley Murchison of Oratory Glory, the conference attendees were guided toward workshops covering seven tracks: Growing innovations, sustainable business, hacking biology, empowering change, open data, nutrition and health and natural resources and climate change.

We were first inspired to think.

What are the current problems we face today? What are we currently doing to deal with these problems? What are our knowns, unknowns and assumptions?

Keron Bascombe, Christine Gould and Alpha Sennon raving at 9.30 AM. Credit: Miguel Quesada & Thought for Food

Winners

We were then taken back to TFF Lisbon 2015, with presentations from two winning teams – FoodFresh and FoPo Food Powder.
These teams came up with innovative ways to reduce food waste, which accounts for up to half of the food we produce but never consume.

FoodFresh, of Bangladesh, described their clever solar-powered cooling system to prevent the postharvest loss of fresh fruit and vegetables.

At the other end of the waste spectrum, FoPo of Sweden showed us the potential of their ingenious idea to freeze-dry fruits that are about to go off – thus keeping them edible and nutritious for years.

Then it was time for the pitches.

Choosing between such diverse and applicable projects covering nutrition, labour, economics, infrastructure, waste and sustainability – essentially the range of fields we could possibly hope to tackle – must have been quite the task.

We heard of edible insect oil to replace unsustainable palm oil and black fly larvae to more sustainably feed Tilapia in fish farms. We were presented with ways to improve farming, from reducing risk through public investments to increasing the availability and access to labour.

Ideas to improve nutrition with healthier noodles and fortified yoghurts were delivered alongside methods of better monitoring fields and beehives with sensors.

Waste was again tackled, with improved wastewater recycling using novel filters and more efficient delivery of food to market stalls with an improved, biogas-fuelled tricycle.

To think that these were just ten of over 400 ideas delivered at the start of the competition provides an enormous sense of optimism for the future.

Building futures.

The fun didn’t end there.

Not limited to thinking, creating, making and dreaming – we were inspired to build.

Be it building a business, raising funds, pitching innovations or learning how to improve yourself through getting ridiculously efficient or telling your glory story – the last workshops left participants buzzing under the surprisingly warm Swiss afternoon sun.

Apart from me – as I was pacing around with a slight case of the shakes (as much down to caffeine and karaoke-induced sleep deprivation as nerves) in anticipation of the poem I was about to deliver on stage before the announcement of the winners.

Thankfully, “2016-2050: An Odyssey” was very well received – and I could settle back in giddy anticipation of discovering who the winners would be.

Pete on stage delivering his slam poem. Credit: Miguel Quesada & Thought for Food

Peter Bickerton

And the Winner is...

Thought for Food always comes with lovely surprises – and this year saw four teams come away with funding for their business proposals.

Firstly, the special Kirchner Group Prize of $5,000 was announced, which went to Peer-to-peer Probiotics of France for their biotechnological enhancement of beneficial microflora in yoghurts, which would significantly help reduce malnutrition in India.

Beautifully, Holley then announced that the Borlaug Foundation would be awarding a surprise grant of $5,000 to Fruti-Cycle of Uganda.

The emotion with which Julie Borlaug delivered the prize to a team who can truly make a difference to food security in Uganda, combined with their clear elation on stage, was a heartwarming experience.

Then – to my sheer delight as a long time insect-eating champion – the winners were announced.

In second place, Biteback, with their idea for a sustainable and healthy insect cooking oil produced from mealworms, won $5,000.

As if things couldn’t get any better, Kulisha, with their idea of feeding blackfly larvae to Tilapia in aquaculture in Africa, won the grand prize of $10,000.

Entomophagy (insect-eating) has been a growing field since we first were championing the concept in the first ever Thought for Food competition, therefore is was wonderful to see that in just five years since the concept has really taken hold.

Team Fruti-Cycle of Uganda with Julie Borlaug. Credit: Miguel Quesada & Thought for Food

Winners

Thinking for food at EI.

What was equally pleasing, and struck me during the summit, is that at the Earlham Institute (EI) we are helping to answer these issues from a similar but more research-orientated perspective.

One of the major themes running at TFF this year was open access, which we embody at EI – striving to make protocols, data and research available to the global scientific community through supporting international collaborations and providing open-access data platforms.

While Kulisha are producing more efficient feed for Tilapia fish on farms, our researchers are investigating their genomics in order to better inform us about their ecology.

As Agrosmart are deploying sensors in fields in Brazil and B-Box are monitoring bee-hives, EI’s Phenomics Project leader Ji Zhou is helping to develop in-field monitoring systems utilising Raspberry Pis in order to track the growth of crops and inform better practises.

Similarly, from helping to develop new genome sequencing platforms such as the MinION through to setting up a synthetic biology lab, EI is at the forefront in the genomics research than can better enable agriculture to respond to a changing climate.

By harnessing the latest innovations in next generation genome sequencing, we can hope to better inform scientists, breeders, farmers and industry to provide a more sustainable and secure food system.

Entrepreneurship and businesses can prosper side-by-side with publically funded research. Through knowledge exchange and encouraging collaborations, alongside growing international movements to foster these, there is increasing optimism that with a multi-faceted and combined approach, we can sustainably feed nine billion people by 2050.

Article author

Peter Bickerton

Scientific Communications Officer (Part time)