While the world’s attention is rightly focused on climate change, another extremely pressing problem is getting far less attention. By 2050 we could well see the world’s population heading very close to the 10 billion mark, as opposed to today’s 7.8 billion. That’s another 2.2 billion mouths expecting to get at least two square meals a day, and ideally, three.

The arithmetic is staggering. We can’t solve this demand problem with conventional techniques. According to the UN, in the US alone 56 million acres of land are used to grow feed for animals, while only four million acres are producing plant food for humans.

The hunger for meat in developing nations is on an exponential upward curve and very little of that is good in terms of its implications for solving world hunger.

Cities, traditionally, have verged on being deserts in terms of food production. However, as Mark Horler, founder and chairman of the association, UK Urban Agritech (UKUAT), points out, there is now a tremendous surge of interest in many metropolitan areas in vertical farming.

The association Horler has founded welcomes members using a broad range of technologies to produce food.

“The way we define the scope of our organisation is that members are using technology in any of its forms to grow an edible or otherwise consumable end product in an urban environment,” he says.

This encompasses a huge range of technologies and projects, from small vertical farms and rooftop greenhouses, to alternative protein production and large scale plant factories using techniques such as hydroponics, aeroponics and aquaponics.

Commenting on the founding of UKUAT, Horler says: “We were founded as a network of interested groupings in 2017 and became formalised as a not-for-profit organisation in early 2020, just before the first big pandemic lockdown in the UK.”

The organisation has two categories of members, organisations and individuals. As of now, UKUAT membership comprises some 45 organisations, including universities, and around 90 individuals, many of whom are entrepreneurs in this new sector.

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“We are already seeing our numbers growing very encouragingly. We started as an informal network but since we launched formally we have more than doubled our membership. So the signs are that we will be growing strongly over the next few years as interest in urban farming grows,” he comments.

Horler argues that urban farming really can make a very significant contribution to combatting world hunger. “We are already seeing a big push in many countries towards nutritional security and ensuring supply chain resilience.

“What COVID highlighted was these big ‘just-in-time’ global supply chains that have been so popular can actually have very little resilience to them in the face of adversity.”

Urban farming offers the possibility of much shorter supply chains, he points out. Add in the potential contained in alternative protein production and it is clear urban farming really could make a spectacular contribution to world food production over the next few years.

“There are so many different technologies springing up, it is truly inspiring,” he comments. “There are very interesting things happening around the science involved in growing food in limited spaces.”

However, Horler emphasises urban farming is not a silver bullet for world hunger. It is simply looking to be part of the overall solution.

“One of the biggest problems we have is that hunger, very often, is a distribution problem rather than a production problem.

“Global statistics show we waste around a third of all the food the world produces. There has to be a part of the solution that addresses this part of the problem as well,” he says.

Urban farms, generally speaking, are not about growing food at the top end of the calorific scale but are very strong in providing nutrients. “If you just feed calories and not nutrients you very quickly have the obesity problems much of the developed world is now suffering from. Fresh, healthy local produce has a huge role to play in combating obesity.”

For more information visit www.ukuat.org

This article appeared in The Herald COP26 report on the sustainable food sector in Scotland