Resilient food systems are more important than ever. As the coronavirus pandemic threatens to double the number of hungry people around the world and the climate crisis continues to constrain and reshape food production, we need innovation. We need entrepreneurs ready to imagine the impossible – to use science and technology in new ways, alongside nature, to reimagine how we grow, process, distribute and eat food.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is at the vanguard of such reinvention. The country aims to rank among the top 10 countries in the Global Food Security Index by 2021, and as #1 by 2051. This is an audacious goal, especially in an arid region where traditional farming is nearly impossible. So the UAE is stimulating new approaches through its FoodTech Challenge, a global competition for solutions to secure sufficient, safe and nutritious food. Dr Rami Zurayk, a global expert on food, planet and health, is one of the judges for the Challenge. We spoke about the innovations it seeks to inspire and how they fit into broader trends for our collective food future.
Lorin Fries: The UAE Government is hosting a global, $1M FoodTech Challengefor which you are a judge. Why is food innovation important in the region?
Dr Rami Zurayk: Food security is a concern in all over the world, taking different forms in each country. In the UAE, food availability is a major challenge. Their natural endowment does not allow them practice conventional forms of agriculture. The region has little arable land, scarce water for irrigation, and far more people than it can feed through its own production. So it is reliant on imports. It is food dependent. The UAE wants to relieve that pressure, using modern technologies and innovative approaches to improve the availability of homegrown food.
Fries: The UAE Government has demonstrated itself to be innovative, even recently creating a Ministry for the Future. How does the FoodTech Challenge reflect this ethos?
Zurayk: The UAE created the Ministry of Food Security, an extremely important step. This allows for a policy framework and governance structure that is multidisciplinary and multi-ministerial, helping the government toward its 2051 vision of being a world-leading hub in innovation-driven food security. This particular FoodTech Challenge aims to support technologies through incubators and accelerators supporting entrepreneurs – a formula that has proven itself in many other sectors and countries, and that can be applied to the food system to catalyze a transformation.
Fries: What key constraints does the UAE face in its food systems?
Zurayk: Food production is the biggest difficulty, mostly because of the scarcity of water. This is part of what we refer to as the water-food-energy nexus. Most of the region’s water comes from desalination, and much of it is recycled and reused. But you can only do that for a certain amount of time. And, given that conventional agriculture is a heavy user of water, we need to look for new ideas, approaches, technology, information systems and biological innovations.
Fries: One Challenge criterion is that solutions must be sustainable. What does that mean in this context?
Zurayk: Part of this is about environmental sustainability — green technologies that reduce the footprint of food production and processes. We also consider economic sustainability — a business plan based on what can be sold, not subsidized. I also urge us to consider social sustainability — matters of equity, labor rights and good agricultural practices. We can’t only consider the environment and economics; we also need to put the human being at the center. I am adamant that this is how we build resilient societies.
Fries: What types of innovation do you expect to see?
Zurayk: We’re looking for the smart use of information technologies, associated with biological technologies, within a system that relies minimally on the use of fossil fuel and maximally on the use of green energies appropriate to the region. Options like solar energy are no brainers. We’re also seeing approaches like vertical farming, which several countries have started to do, especially where land and water are scarce. There’s been a lot of talk about producing food in labs and about alternative foods such as insects. There’s also major potential for marine food sources.
Fries: Zooming out, you recently co-authored a pathbreaking report with the EAT-Lancet Commission on sustainable diets. What were its messages?
Zurayk: This work is based on the concept of planetary boundaries, building on the work of Johan Rockström at the Stockholm Resilience Centre. We have several clear boundaries. Water is one of them, along with those related to biodiversity, land, the marine environment and others. In the Commission, we’ve put them at the level of the planet, recognizing our interconnectedness, but the principle can be applied to country-specific science-based targets. I am a firm supporter of this.
Fries: Are there recommendations from the Commission’s report that should guide our actions?
Zurayk: Today, across the globe, we’re not just dying fromundernutrition anymore. People are dying from malnutrition, including excessive nutrition. This has implication on food availability because it forces us to ask how much we produce, what is good food, and whether we’re producing the kind of diet that the EAT-Lancet Commission recommends — Mediterranean-style, where meat is used essentially as a condiment.
We need to move from the idea that nature, and the food produced from it, are infinite. The big dietary transformation that has taken place — in which we’ve adopted diets based on fats, carbohydrates, sugars and animal fats — needs to change. We have commodified food completely, as we have commodified many other things. Yet food is about conviviality, culture and health. We need not only to increase the quantity and change the type of food we produce; we need to reduce the amount we consume — to change our relationship with food, linking it completely with our health and that of the planet.