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The hi-tech tools emerging to help build a sustainable food system

Beekeepers' Demonstration

Of 100 staple crops that provide 90% of world’s food, 70 require bees to pollinate them. Can citizen science help? Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images


Powered by article titled “The hi-tech tools emerging to help build a sustainable food system” was written by Tess Riley, for on Wednesday 2nd July 2014 13.39 UTC

In a world of widespread antibiotic and pesticide overuse, factory farming, food miles and patent-protected seeds, it’s easy to feel, as consumers, that we have little control over the food available to us. This sense of disconnect isn’t helped by the widespread use of technology enabling so-called efficiencies of scale and conglomeration between companies that squeezes out small-scale farmers at the expense of food diversity, wildlife and the environment and rural economies, not to mention the resilience of agriculture itself.

However, with every force comes a counter-force and the global food system is no exception, with people and organisations across the food chain using new technologies to encourage more sustainable practices. At its most basic are the proliferation of apps that enable us to do everything from upping the seasonality of our diets to sharing leftover meals with our neighbours.

Cutting out the middle-man

More broadly, consumers now have access to organisations like FarmDrop and the Food Assembly, which cut out the middle-man (and woman) to ensure that consumers can access fresh, seasonal produce direct from producers, while farmers get a fair price for their goods. What’s more, having ordered food online, customers then collect it at weekly ‘drops’, meeting producers and other local customers in the process.

According to Ben Patten, CEO of FarmDrop, his organisation is challenging the model of supermarket exploitation that has taken hold in recent years: “At a recent conference, the NFU publicly stated that farmers today receive approximately 11% of the money spent on food. At FarmDrop, we ensure that any producer selling through us gets 80% of the total money spent. In short, we’re proving that there is an alternative to the shameful marginalisation of producers currently taking place.”

Renewable farming

Where the sustainability of food itself is concerned, a number of groups – not least farmers themselves – are using new technologies to tackle growing problems of environmental degradation, rising energy prices, climate change and agribusiness competition.

Paul Sousek’s carbon neutral farm in Cornwall, for example, not only uses no fossil fuels but also produces energy for surrounding homes while promoting organic and low-intensity farm methods.

Likewise, Norfolk farmer Nigel Joice puts the 8,500 tonnes of poultry manure produced on his farm each year to good use, converting it to energy to heat his chicken sheds. Thanks to their willingness to embrace high-tech renewables, Sousek, Joice and fellow on-farm renewables enthusiasts are establishing a blueprint that has the potential to revolutionise the way agriculture is practiced worldwide.

Halting bee decline

Producers and consumers aside, there is a broader group of people deeply concerned about the impact that our current global food system is having on the environment and they’re not waiting around for politicians and corporations to rectify the situation.

The Open Source Beehives (OSB) project, for example, has designed a project enabling anyone concerned with bee decline to become an active contributor towards finding a solution. The team has created two open source beehive designs that anyone can download for free and load onto a CNC router – also known as a computer-controlled cutting machine – which will automatically cut out the designs from a single sheet of plywood. The cut-out assembles in minutes, without the need for screws or glue, to enable cheap, scalable access to beekeeping and therefore bee conservation. What’s more, with a sensor supplied by OSB, any beekeeper can connect their hive to the internet and log data, which collated can help determine the causes of the honeybee’s demise.

As co-founder of OSB Tristan Copley Smith points out, few ecological problems are as critical to the future of humanity: “We’re keen to help those concerned with bee decline to become active contributors towards finding a solution. Citizen science helps us move away from the idea that only people working in labs can solve critical environmental problems. The UN has reported that of the 100 staple crops that provide 90% of the world’s food, 70 require bees to pollinate them. It’s therefore key that we think broadly, using distributed data to get as big a picture as possible of what’s going on.”


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