Travel Review: Our Thirsty Planet

This is a review of a trip I took in January 2020, which could be my last significant travel for a long while in this pandemic world.

CONTEXT
Civilization and the first cities began in regions fertile in freshwater and food. Abundance of sustenance allowed early communities to pursue creativity, arts, and the sciences. Only then, could cities thrive.

So, to think about new cities in an era of resource dislocations is to revisit the initial basic building blocks of food and water.

I started with a family holiday in Israel over the Christmas-New Year break, where I learnt about the country’s food production, water security, utopian farms, and startup eco-systems. After that, I went to meet with Atsushi to visit various projects in the Netherlands, Finland and Estonia. This is a quick summary of what I processed from this trip, which I will present in a future-progressive order

CURRENT/BEST – DO MORE WITH LESS


In recent years, Singapore, Israel and Australia became widely regarded as three of the most successful countries which have overcome scarcity and hostile environments to achieve stability in water and food.

Israel has achieved tactical self-sufficiency in food and water. This is possible in their overwhelming desert environment because they waste very little. 90% of the waste water is recycled, more than anywhere else in the world. In one of the desert kibbutzes I visited, the kibbutz suffered a decade of crop failures and almost gave up before they stumbled on a simple drip irrigation solution. They made the desert bloom and flourish with crops, and eventually created the world’s largest irrigation company.

Contrast between a flourishing kibbutz and the desolate badlands surrounding it

Important though the maximization of current efficiencies is, there are limits. My visit coincided with record floods in Israel that left severe infrastructure damage. This was preceded by 5 consecutive years of drought that dropped water reserves to record lows. Climatic extremes are a current problem in Israel– the dry regions have become more drought prone and the more temperate regions suffer from worse floods

And of course, Australia was making the news at the same time for its massive wildfires and towns running out of drinking water

IMMEDIATE/NEAR FUTURE – CLIMATE ADAPTATION


“To import food is to import water”, said Stuart from Alesca when we were prepping to receive our first container farm in Jurong back in mid 2019.

Earth is covered in water, but it is mostly saltwater. Useable freshwater makes up less than 1% of the total water supply, and the majority of freshwater used by humans is for agricultural purposes.

To a non-agricultural society like Singapore, these numbers are staggering. 1 kilo of beef uses 15,415 liters of water to produce, 1 kilo of pork uses 5,988 liters, 1 kilo of rice uses 2,487 liters, 1 kilo of tomatoes uses 214 liters

Conventional industrial meat-farming is clearly unsustainable for a rapidly expanding global population. But do we even have the water resources to sustain conventional agriculture for largely plant-based diets? Water tables are dropping rapidly everywhere and two thirds of the world’s population is projected to have inadequate water for their needs. This can lead to severe consequences – a severe drought may have contributed to the Syrian conflict that left many dead and created millions of refugees

A consortium of universities, farmers, and agencies in Europe have been exploring saline agriculture – using salt water instead of fresh water to grow food crops. Much of the practical expertise is coming from the Netherlands. With more than a quarter of the country under sea level, there has been long-running salt intrusion in the country’s farmlands in the northwest and southwest. Despite these challenges and its relatively small size (ten times smaller than California), Netherlands is the world’s second largest exporter of food.

In the cold windswept island of Texel in the North Sea, we were hosted by Marc. A kindly grandfather who sold his successful business as Netherlands’ largest producer of fresh cheeses, Marc become one of the earliest pioneers in using salt water to farm. His domain knowledge is both practical and extensive, and he shares it with poor farmers in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Egypt whose crops are failing because of shortages in freshwater or contamination from sea-water. For example, the Egyptian farmers that he is working with uses well water for irrigation. A couple decades ago, they could find freshwater by digging wells a few meters deep, but now the new wells have to be over 200 meters deep.

While we were there, Marc shared that recent farmers to suffer from crop failures because of salt intrusions in their formerly fertile lands are now coming from Southeast Asia, like Philippines and the Mekong Delta

On a windswept winter’s day with the pioneer of saltwater farming – March van Rijsselberghe
Marc leads a consortium of universities from Netherlands, Belgium, UK and Germany
We were served samples of their saltwater vegetables – they taste sweet!

Despite his success, Marc said it was hard to persuade farmers to use salt-water instead of fresh-water. Freshwater yields are noticeably higher, farmers are by nature traditionalists, and by the time these farmers have no choice but to abandon fresh-water farming, they have zero margin for error and typically end up migrating to the cities.

LONGER TERM – AUFHEBEN?


After Netherlands, Atsushi and I went to Helsinki to meet with Mistletoe investment partner Lifeline Ventures, and one of their startups Solar Foods. This startup is in stealth mode, so we had to meet in a disguised secret location, and we didn’t take many photos of their test facility.

Solar Foods aims to break the ancient links between agriculture and food. By using a unique bacteria and precision fermentation, their initial results show they can produce protein at about one tenth the ecological footprint of plant-based protein. We smelt the product, which has a umami scent, and a prominent Guardian journalist wrote that the Solar Foods protein pancake tasted just like any other pancake.

Solar Foods is working with the European Space Agency to create food production for space flights and for food production on Mars in the future

Is this the future of food on Mars….or on Earth?

Using current technology deployed in a facility about the size of 4 football fields, they can theoretically produce all the protein required for Singapore’s 30% by 2030 goal. Initial markets that could be a good fit could include countries where renewable energy is abundant, and water and fertile soil is scarce.

CONCLUSION


I don’t think any of the above approaches need to be mutually exclusive with one another. Complex problems may require a diversity of approaches and solutions. In fact, the fact that there are courageous innovators like those that I met on this trip gives me great hope that we are not alone on this journey, and that we are fortunate to have fellow travelers who are both very committed and very capable of meeting the challenges of our time.

PS. We also had interesting new collaboration points with the accelerator Lift99 in Estonia/EasternEurope and the Dutch sustainability group Except, but that will be addressed at a different time

Leave a Reply