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9 September 2021

Hipster or tech-savvy: what is the solution for sustainable food systems?

Photo: Aqua Mechanical / flickr.

Are you the tech-savvy person or the low-tech enthusiast? In discussing food systems transformation, there are always two camps with very different solutions. But do you really need to pick a side? Food systems are complex, ranging from seed production to food consumption and beyond, including different environmental, economic, and social factors. Thinking of them in silo is missing out on the bigger picture.

Nonetheless, from academic literature review to policy measures, a tendency to look for “the best strategy” or “the best practice” persists. When it relates to food systems, it is always framed as a crossroad between “going back” to traditional practices or “moving forward” with technological solutions, the so-called “smart farming” approach. Since both strategies are widespread and find adepts worldwide, SEI Asia, the Department of EDS (Environment, Development and Sustainability) at Chulalongkorn University, Chipko Asia, and SIANI organised an independent food systems dialogue to feed into the United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS). The dialogue critically unpacked this technology clash interactively and engagingly.

The dialogue gathered speakers from different sectors, enabling a multistakeholder discussion on what sustainable food systems look like. Social entrepreneurs, researchers and think tanks engaging in sustainable production and consumption came together to discuss their work and their view on how to best create sustainable food systems, fulfilling people’s needs while respecting planetary boundaries. Despite the opposite standing points, one thing remained clear:  business as usual and one-size-fits-all approaches no longer work if we want to sustainably feed the global population.

Misconceptions about high-tech and low-tech food systems

High tech is often associated with hydroponics, energy-demanding vertical farming or machine intensive monocropping, while low tech is thought of as low output farms, mainly running thanks to human labour. Both of these perceptions can be true, but don’t necessarily have to be: some entrepreneurs, such as Rohan Brammall, Founder of Farm^2, a hydroponic business in Bangkok, reminded the audience that the principles of aquaponics have been used for millennia. “High tech is a mere complement but no replacement of ancient methods”, Rohan added. While infrastructure is changing, principles and strategies are kept the same.

Technology, to be understood in its broad sense, can also help to attract consumers, as stated by Moh, Co-founder of Happy Grocers, a food startup based in Bangkok, providing urban dwellers with locally grown, organic foodstuff, pop-up truck markets and organising trips to local farms. Social media can play a pivotal role in raising awareness amongst citizens as well: “It can educate about food waste occurring at the consumption level”, said Wasamon Nutakul (Mon), Researcher at King’s Mongkut University of Technology Thonburi. Mon suggested that the use of blockchain technology could also increase trust amongst consumers, who are actively seeking transparency.

Elena Sam Pec, Guatemala

Elena Sam Pec, Guatemala

Photo: UN Women / flickr.

Different approaches to farming – same obstacles

Low tech proponents encounter similar difficulties to those faced by high-tech adepts. Economic instability, supply and demand fluctuation along the value chain, logistics, and efficiency issues are all realities any endeavour within food systems encounter. Lack of employment opportunities leads any actor to diversify their earnings; regardless of the farming practices, consumer needs must be met, while the market and bigger actors decide upon prices and income.

Moreover, access to markets, land, and inputs are shared issues, both in rural and urban settings. Young people are deserting jobs along the uncertain food value chain, hoping for a better future thanks to a white-collar job – usually to be found in city centers.

“We need to make farming sexy”, Rohan added.

Youth could bridge the technological gap between generations – picking up new technologies quickly and daring to try out different production methods, but also prototyping alternative processing and marketing solutions. At the same time, youth practicing agroecology ensures the passing of traditional growing methods, safeguarding the longevity of locally adapted practices, and ensuring sustainable food production, as raised by Melissa Alamo, Youth Programme Coordinator at PAMANAKA, an association of young farmers in the Philippines.

Environmental concerns of different farming practices

When it comes to the environmental side of distinctive farming practices, data is needed to compare them against each other. Food waste is a real issue, no matter the stage in the food value chain nor the farming practice. Energy use in high-tech farming can be higher, but the output might be more important as well. Compiling that information with losses occurring at the farm level might very well counteract this superiority.

Of course, we intuitively understand that ecosystems are best preserved in an environment as close to nature as possible. Hydroponic succeeds for instance to restore, control and surpass most features inherent to the growing of plants, but could never provide the same conditions as a field.

Lastly, organic certification is becoming an increasingly critical topic of discussion in South-East Asia. The high certification costs represent a barrier on the one hand, while legere requirements can challenge consumer trust and foment mistrust amongst conventional farmers on the other hand. Moreover, when organic rice is sold at the exact same price as non-certified rice, it is no surprise that many farmers don’t dare to make an effort to change their farming practices.

The way(s) forward for sustainable food systems

As issues related to agriculture and food systems are highly complex and require specific, localised approaches, the dialogue battle didn’t get a clear winner. Merging approaches, exchanging best-practices (or practice models, as there are no “best” practices in this complex world), learning from different perspectives, listening to experienced but also young, motivated voices can lead to food systems that would provide good food for all without exploiting any human nor natural resources. Exclusively adopting the one or the other solution wouldn’t represent the rich reality in which we live.

Watch the recording of the dialogue.