Sustaining the Future of Food

Dec 21 2015 | By Jesse Adams | Photo by Timothy Lee Photographers

With Earth’s carrying capacity strained by human population growth and attendant pollution and water depletion, feeding future generations has become an increasingly urgent challenge. Uniquely situated in a city that is not only a global innovation hub but one of the world’s great culinary capitals, Columbia Engineering hosted a timely forum exploring how leading engineers and entrepreneurs are innovating sustainable solutions to nourish more people with fewer resources, less environmental damage, and no loss of flavor.

L-R: Dickson Despommier, Sonny Wu, David Rosenberg, Adnan Durrani, and Dean Mary C. Boyce.

“Grappling with and finding solutions for feeding the world is the kind of challenge we tackle at Columbia, drawing on the University’s breadth of expertise and interdisciplinary strengths,” said Dean Mary C. Boyce in her welcome remarks at the School’s NYC Entrepreneurship Night held Dec. 3 at Metropolitan Pavillon.

Boyce moderated the conversation with Dickson Despommier, professor emeritus of microbiology and public health at Columbia and a noted authority on vertical farming, or non-traditional agriculture on vertically inclined surfaces; Adnan Durrani BS’81, chief executive at American Halal/Saffron Foods, president of Condor Ventures, and a longtime leader in ethically sourced foods; David Rosenberg ’02BUS, chief executive at AeroFarms, a company innovating controlled highly efficient indoor agriculture; and Sonny Wu, managing director of GSR Ventures, a major Chinese investment firm engaged in the field.

“There is not enough arable land,” Despommier said. “Humans use the size of South America to grow food, not counting grazing. Vertical farms are not the only answer but part of the answer.”

Agriculture runoff is the world’s leading source of pollution and billions of people use human waste for fertilizer, he noted, encouraging parasites and causing about half of all cases of infectious disease.

“I used to feel like a lone wolf saying that we are in a deep crisis in agriculture, with pollution, mistreated animals, labor abuses, and superweeds,” Durrani said, discussing innovations that are disrupting the agricultural market. “There is an enormous opportunity for young entrepreneurs harnessing big data to lower the price of goods.”

Rosenberg discussed his company’s progress in growing food using fewer resources.

“We like to think we’re leading a revolution in how we feed our society,” he said. “We’re growing leafy greens with 95% less water, no pesticides, less fertilizer, and many crop cycles annually.”

AeroFarms, currently constructing a facility in Newark, NJ, one of the world’s largest indoor vertical farms, is also figuring out how to save energy costs by providing plants only the range of the spectrum that they actually use.

“In China, food safety is on everyone’s mind because the soil and water are so contaminated,” Wu said, adding that the efficacy of traditional Chinese medicines is decreasing due to soil depletion and pollution. “I expect the catalyst for change will be food safety, and there’s tremendous space for innovation.”

The gathering continued with a sumptuous networking reception featuring a variety of alumni-led startups advancing the science, business, and art of food. Participating startups included DinersCode, a service connecting diners to perks at New York City restaurants, and Sharebite, an app that empowers take-out diners to help end childhood hunger in the city. DinersCode and Sharebite both have seats at Columbia Startup Lab, a collaboration between Engineering, Columbia College, the School of International and Public Affairs, and the Business School that provides co-working space for young alumni starting their own businesses.

Columbia Engineering’s Entrepreneurship Night was co-hosted by Columbia Entrepreneurship and the Columbia Alumni Association.