Previously, only natural disasters contributed to the mass extinction of life and species on Earth. Today, a different picture is emerging; it is said that we are living in the beginning of the sixth great mass extinction, that of the Anthropocene, that of man-made mass extinction. All over the planet a picture is emerging of our rapid and relentless human activity, through our technology and destructive power we have put ourselves first, and now the consequences are beginning to appear all over our blue planet. We are headed for potential disaster with all life as we know it.
We are increasingly urbanizing and causing desertification, converting land and forests to agriculture. Not only that, but we burn fossil fuel carbon and emit methane, both of which cause pollution of the oceans and cause global climate change. We are bringing invasive plant species, using toxic chemicals everywhere in agriculture and industry, resulting in an unprecedented accumulation of waste in nature, on land and at sea. The red lights are flashing, and the impact is visible in nature: 40% of the world's insect species are already extinct, and priceless plants, tree species and wildlife are also on the brink of catastrophe and extinction.
It's troubling to see one of the latest species acting like a bull in a china shop. We, the Homo sapiens, are one species out of 1.5 million species to date. It's only 60.000 years since we left Africa, and the reality is that organic life has been around for at least 3 billion years. We are just the leaves on the tree of life, and rightly we should live in harmony with the rest of the branches.
Fortunately, both national and global attention is emerging, so why not start with what made it all possible? That which gave us the oxygen, and thus the basis for the whole food chain - the plants; all before it is too late.
Plants only have one living environment for their entire existence, and so they have had to develop a unique strategy for survival and development. Mankind only began to learn and exploit this strategy around 10.000 years ago. In doing so, they created the agricultural society, which became the basis for sustaining life and, historically, the longest lasting form of socio-economic organization in human history.
Now, a new pioneering technological approach to agriculture is taking shape that does not rely on niche production, nor does it destroy the biodiversity of an entire agricultural area. The use of pesticides is a no-go, as you are not fighting against nature. You live together and form partnerships with nature, the rewards are immediate: nutritious, preservable and sustainable food. In the long run, there is the possibility of creating the first genuine democratization of global agriculture, a point to which I will return.
This new cutting-edge technology is vertical farming, where plants are grown hydroponically indoors. When a plant is grown hydroponically, its roots receive nutrients and oxygen through water. The revolution is that the plant does not need soil to do photosynthesis, as it gets the oxygen and water it needs from the water. Additionally, the plant receives sunlight from artificial light, and it is particularly in this area that major progress has been achieved. The discovery of the blue light-emitting diode (LED) in the 1990s made it possible to create completely white lighting, and the diode was now able to provide the full range of Newtonian colour codes in the spectrum of sunlight. Science had thus successfully solved the problem of lighting, paving the way for giving plants exactly the colour of light that best nourishes them and promotes their growth, health and well-being.
Finally, the conditions of the plants are optimized through artificial intelligence, which collects data on the crop vitals, pH levels, light sensitivity, nutrient supply, and more using different hardware. By using machine learning, AI can recreate the growth trajectory of the plant and optimize its living conditions.
This brings us to the core, that is the reward, of the innovative vertical farming approach. The energy that the plants would otherwise have used to extract nutrients and water from the soil is now being used to grow from seed to mature plant in just 2-4 weeks. The plants, in these conditions, celebrate Christmas every day all year round.
Global agriculture now occupies about 50% of available land and accounts for 30% of greenhouse emissions. The new vertical agriculture uses between 50 and 250 times less agricultural area. In traditional agriculture, between 30% and 50% of food production ultimately ends up as waste. With vertical farming, production can be located directly in the world's urban centres, where consumers live. This means far less transport, and therefore minimal carbon footprint and waste. We can now return farmland to nature, regain lost biodiversity, improve the carbon footprint and the planet's greenhouse effect.
Clean water is a precious commodity in much of the world, and population growth will increase rapidly towards the next century. Vertical farming uses a tenth of the water used in conventional farming, reportedly saving enough water to give a full glass of water to every person on the planet every year. In impoverished, disaster-stricken areas of the world, where population growth is also problematic, it is now possible to share knowledge and develop food production, creating unskilled jobs with a sense of purpose and vital innovation, but only if renewable energy is also used as a propellant, otherwise we are at the same point. That is, performance, product quality and quantity are intact. Not many industries can fulfil this requirement.
But who are the individuals driving this revolution in agriculture?
Aerofarms founder, David Rosenberg, previously worked in the tech industry as a software engineer. No agricultural background. He thought artificial intelligence and machine learning could be used for something more life-enhancing than dry statistics and finance. His idea was simple: revolutionize an established industry using cutting-edge technology to create sustainable, green manufacturing. And right he was, as Aerofarms is now a world leader in green production and has received numerous awards for its efforts.
Nordic Harvest was founded in 2015 in Denmark by Anders Riemann, an economist and financial advisor. Like David Rosenberg, he had no agricultural background. Anders Riemann is a very mission-driven character who built his business model on sustainable production, renewable energy and responsible use of our collective natural resources. He saw that the conventional farming model has hit a dead end because it has become a major contributor to the global challenges the world faces - when it instead should have been the means to solve them. He suggests we should examine a country like the Netherlands, which is now the world's 6th largest food exporter, despite its relatively small area of land. They have made a strong investment of political will to get there. Anders Riemann points out: "If we stopped talking so much about the environment and actually did something about it, I think this could be our next Vestas."
However, we are currently facing a worldwide energy supply crisis caused by the greed, gluttony and lust for power of rogue states. But this might, if anything, speed up the transition to renewable energy sources, for there is no way back to the future. We will need a lot of "strategic endurance", as the famous politician Boris Johnson advised in a different situation. Innovative and knowledge-intensive companies, mission-driven and passionate entrepreneurs are the avant-garde. But what about the rest of us? We might advantageously follow the footsteps of Francois Voltaire when he says: "il faut cultiver notre jardin - Vive la (agri)culture" [edited]. Indeed, we can all now start cultivating our own gardens, and that is what I mean by the first genuine democratization of global agriculture.
All of us can now make a difference because now we can eat where we are and grow what we eat where we live. With the right know-how, you can start in your garage, carport or basement - the possibilities are endless. Now, we can all contribute and cultivate for a better world instead of just becoming passive consumers and recipients. And Voltaire, of course, has a twist on the idea. He says paraphrased: "We need not feel banished from paradise, for by doing this work we shall rid ourselves of the three evils which have brought us there, namely weariness, vice and want".