Africa has 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land, and has the potential to become an agricultural hub by applying agri-tech and futurist thinking. Lessons from a Canadian food economy.
“Our food system is broken.” And Africa is no exception.“Just consider that 30 percent of all food produced doesn’t make it to the plate. Much of it ends up in landfills where it creates methane, a greenhouse gas.”
These were the words by Barbara Swartzentruber, the Executive Director of Strategy, Innovation and Intergovernmental Relations at the City of Guelph, west of downtown Toronto in Canada, to a range of journalists in a bid to encourage foreign direct investment for the city’s visionary smart city plan.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, “every year, consumers in rich countries waste almost as much food (222 million tonnes) as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tonnes)”.
To address these challenges, the entire design and food production system needs to be rethought and reimagined.
Thought needs to be given to what we put on our plates, to how we produce it and to how we dispose of it etc., reckons Swartzentruber.
Failure to do so will have dire consequences for the nine billion people expected to live on this planet by 2050, she adds. In response, Guelph-Wellington, the city in Canada I am visiting, which has a long history of agricultural excellence, is re-imagining its food system.
Many of the discoveries and solutions it is applying could be adopted and repurposed in Africa, which has 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land, and the potential to become a burgeoning agricultural hub of the future.
Circular food economies
Guelph-Wellington has started work to be among the world’s first circular food economies by 2025. Its ambitious plan will see a system where everyone has access to nutritious food, nothing is wasted and the impact on its own environment is minimal, reveals Swartzentruber.
It is proposing a 50x50x50 model, in which access to affordable, nutritious food is increased by 50%, 50 new circular businesses and collaboration opportunities are created and economic revenues are increased by 50% by reducing and recognizing food waste,she adds.
To achieve this, food experts, academics, social innovators, farmers, community partners and entrepreneurs will collaborate to tackle Guelph-Wellington’s most complex food challenges using big data and the latest technologies.
One of these academics is Professor Amar Mohanty, Director of the Bioproducts Discovery and Development Centre (BDDC) and Premier’s Research Chair in Biomaterials & Transportation at the University of Guelph. Mohanty, who comes from India, is working with plant biologists,chemists and engineers to reuse waste, investigate and commercialize biomaterial. His passion stems from a desire to save the environment, the ebullient scientist tells FORBES AFRICA.
His zeal to contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gases, which he calls ‘slow poison’, is already bearing fruit.
Together with Toronto-based coffee roaster Club Coffee, the BDDC created the world’s first fully-compostable coffee pods, which became available in Canada in 2016.
To address the scourge plastic straws are having on rivers and oceans, Mohanty says his department is currently testing a 100% compostable straw made with biodegradable plastics.
The BDDC is also working with the likes of Volkswagen, Ford and Tesla to turn plant materials such as wheat, soy and corn into alternatives to petroleum-based sources for car parts. In December, together with one of the car manufacturers, it is launching these products.
Controlled environment systems
A few blocks away on the same campus, Professor Mike Dixon of the Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility (CESRF) and his team are hard at work creating controlled environment plant production.
The technology will be used to feed people living in harsh environments, astronauts traveling to Mars, to growing plants on the moon, to improving the medicinal components of plants such as cannabis, to developing new cancer therapies, says Dixon.
With confidence, Dixon reckons, provided he gets funding,that he will send the first plants to the moon in 2019. True to his Scottish blood and love for single malt whiskey, the plants will be barley.
The laboratory where Dixon and his team of researchers work uses new attributes of light-emitting diode (LED) lights to promote production of various plant commodities. For example, says Dixon, “researchers have learned that exposing lettuce to different LED light changes metabolic compounds that influence the color and taste of lettuce and even the medicinal properties of other plants”.
Professor Paul Hebert from the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of Guelph was the first scientist to propose that a short DNA sequence be used to identify species. According to the university, he called the system ‘DNA barcoding’, analogous to how retail products are tagged to allow for quick identification.
“With DNA barcoding, scientists may identify species within hours – and, ultimately, minutes – using all life stages and even fragments of organisms.”
The technology can also be used to eliminate food fraud and ensure that you get what you order and pay for at shops and restaurants.
On its journey to becoming the food basket of the world, Africa has a treasure trove of new ideas to use. The future is in her hands.