On the baby formula airlift, the food synthesizers of science fiction, and vertical farming as a humanitarian solution
With reputable news outlets like The Economist warning of threats to the world's food supply ("Ukraine's exports of grain and oilseeds have mostly stopped and Russia's are threatened. Together, the two countries supply 12% of traded calories.") and a domestic production shortage in the United States precipitating the need for an airlift of 35 tons of baby formula from Europe, we ought to be reminded that the world depends upon a food supply that is perpetually susceptible not only to human mistakes and bad choices, but to natural catastrophes well beyond mortal control. It is too far back to remain in popular memory today, but the eruption of Indonesia's Mount Tambora in 1815 led to crop failures in Europe the following year -- making 1816 the year without a summer".
■ It would seem likely that one of the most pro-social investments that could be made on a global scale would come from developing a ready-made system for producing lots of food calories in a short period of time. We don't have the Star Trek food synthesizer at our disposal (at least, not yet), but it wouldn't exceed our technical capacities to develop solutions like pre-built vertical farms, made ready for rapid deployment.
■ Basic, compact, fast-growing foodstuffs with widespread dietary acceptance around the globe -- like soybeans and potatoes -- can and probably ought to be readied for speedy production in containerized systems to which we could literally "just add water" in order to get them growing. Soybeans can be harvested in 45 to 65 days from planting, and potatoes can be harvested in 50 to 55 days. That's quick enough that emergency food supplies can be used to bridge the gap in a place encountering a food crisis.
■ Most hunger emergencies can actually be traced to human intervention -- like the people starving in Ethiopia because food is being used as a weapon of war. Those problems need direct attention, too -- but it is attention of a different sort. A world that is serious about stopping war crimes must be extremely serious about keeping starvation from being used as a weapon.
■ But our continued susceptibility to calamities of nature and of the evil choices of madmen should compel us to use our ever-advancing technological tools to come up with answers.
■ In essence, we should be able to effectively flip a switch and soon after have a basic food supply with protein and essential nutrients available during any season of the year. Storage alone isn't enough -- not with a country like Russia targeting grain elevators in a truly vile and wicked campaign. The world needs to take seriously the need for rapid production, too; thus, the need for approaches like compact vertical farms that can operate under tight conditions with the aid of artificial light.
■ So far, that kind of technology has largely been niche-focused, serving the demand for things like organic salad greens in cities.
■ But the same technology can be -- and needs to be -- highly scalable, so that lots of food can be produced quite nearly on-demand. And it can be used to improve the nutritional value of what is raised. These are technologies with great promise.
■ We wouldn't want to do anything to displace or impoverish existing agricultural economies, of course. But we also need a "Break glass in case of emergency" kind of answer. The devastating case of Ukraine's food supply amid the Kremlin's reprehensible war of choice is just such an emergency that demonstrates why.