India’s lunar leap & food system moonshots: What’s the connection?
India just landed a spacecraft on the moon – only the fourth country in history to achieve the feat, and the first to reach the moon’s South Pole.
It was a moment that made 1.4 billion Indians – myself included – incredibly proud.
It also reminded me of JFK’s “moonshot” speech from the 1960s: the idea that a moon landing should be attempted, not because it was easy – but precisely because it was hard.
It was a call to be radical and disruptive, to achieve something momentous, and to not shy away from big or daunting endeavours.
In short, it was a call to be innovative.
As many of you know, I’ve been framing the challenge of responding to climate change and transforming food systems in similar terms: it’s a moonshot that we simply need to take. It inspired me to establish Clim-Eat at the end of 2021.
A year and a half later, I can confirm: It’s not easy.
But that’s why we’re still here.
India’s moon landing gives me renewed hope that that as a human race, we can channel our innovative strengths into successfully tackling the challenges back on Earth.
I believe innovation in every part of the food system will enable us to produce more nutritious food, more sustainably – from production to transport to retail to consumption. There are already lots of reasons to be excited.
For example, new approaches to food packaging are challenging the use of plastics in the food sector. Of course, we Indians are masters of sustainable food packaging – I remember the ‘pothichoru’ from growing up in Kerala – a meal parcel of wrapped banana leaves. It was biodegradable, and handy when travelling.
But edible food packaging takes things to another level. A company in the UK is using brown seaweed to create sauce sachets and food boxes that are completely edible and biodegradable. Another in Belgium is producing packaging from potato starch, while another is using the seeds, peels and pulp of fruits. Some of these innovations do a better job than plastic packaging, in terms of improving shelf life and inhibiting bacterial growth. Even if you don’t eat the packaging, it will eventually break down to soil-replenishing nutrients. You can read about this and other innovations in Clim-Eat’s Tweaks & Disruptions Discussion Starter.
On the subject of soil, there have been exciting developments in the production of ammonia fertiliser. Typically, ammonia – a critical input for farmers everywhere – is generated via an energy-intensive process using fossil fuels. I was shocked to learn that this accounts for around 2 per cent of global GHG emissions. But “green ammonia” can be produced via water electrolysis – a much less energy-intensive method. And it’s not just a fertiliser – it can be used as a carbon-free fuel too. Europe’s first commercial-scale green ammonia facility began operating last year, and the industry is likely to see considerable expansion in the coming years.
Now let’s turn to proteins – the vital building blocks of life. From cultured, or “lab-grown” meat, to a range of plant-based options, this is a highly innovative space. I find the concept of protein fermentation particularly inspiring. It involves the production of protein by extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and combining it with water, nutrients and vitamins inside a bioreactor. That’s where the magic happens: hydrogen-oxidising bacteria generate a nutritious protein powder similar to soy, which can be used in a variety of food products. If the bioreactor is run on renewable energy, protein production is essentially carbon neutral. It’s hard to understate how important this could be: protein synthesis requires significantly less space than producing livestock or field crops and leaves no greenhouse gas footprint. That’s a major win for people and planet.
If some of these innovations seem a bit out “out-there”, don’t worry – innovations don’t always have to be complex or high-tech. They can simply involve a fresh take or a new perspective. A good example is urban agriculture. Again, India is no stranger to this, with lots of small farms producing food in close proximity to town and cities. But there is growing global interest in food production systems that make use of limited space and cater to local consumers. In urban areas, this can mean using the roofs of office buildings or supermarkets to grow fresh herbs and vegetables. This is partly an innovation in rethinking urban space. It doesn’t require high-tech approaches, just a mind that is open to new possibilities.
Innovations like these are at the heart of Clim-Eat’s Is On Our Plates campaign. This recently started with the three-year INNOV-EAT phase in which we identify the innovations that could change the game for climate and food. Following that we will need the determination that humanity has shown in space exploration to actually test, implement, and scale-up these innovations and bring about the impact we so urgently need.
One of the things India’s moon landing success teaches us is that while the challenges may be substantial, our great ambitions can overcome them.