Singularity University and the Food Global Grand Challenge

Food is one of Singularity University’s global grand challenges, which we define as creating a world of consumption of sufficient, safe, and nutritious food to maintain healthy and active lives for all people at all times.

Food plays an essential role in all of our lives. According to the World Food Programme, about 821 million people still go to bed hungry at night and one-third of the global population is malnourished, experiencing either undernourishment or suffering from obesity, diabetes, or other food-related diseases. The agricultural and food industry is also a large employer and a sizable chunk of our global economy. According to the World Bank, about 28% of the global workforce is employed in agriculture and the food and agricultural sector as a whole is worth about $8 trillion.

The food global grand challenge is also closely linked to several other global grand challenges, including health, prosperity, environment, disaster resilience, water, and energy.

Our Faculty and Experts are working to solve the food global grand challenge

Before joining Singularity University in 2011 (initially as a participant), I had not thought much about technology and food. I knew that genetic engineering was a controversial issue in agriculture, but had not heard about other ways people were using technology in the food industry.

My mind was first opened by our Faculty member, Dr. Mark Post, about five years ago. Mark was an early pioneer of the cultured meat industry in the Netherlands, and shared that by growing meat in bioreactors from animal cells using techniques from regenerative medicine (rather than raising and slaughtering animals), we could improve both human food security and well-being while also dramatically reducing damage to our environment from beef, pork, chicken, seafood, and other animals raised or caught for food. This was a key moment for me in realizing it was actually possible to make meaningful headway in solving big issues such as overfishing and rainforest destruction, which the majority of people were saying were impossible to solve. It was also a significant moment for me in realizing that as a social innovator, I needed to become more deeply involved with technology.

Today, Singularity University has a number of Faculty who speak about the cultured meat industry, the clean meat industry, plant-based meats that have used technology to become more realistic, and more. Check out the work of  Dr. Ryan Bethencourt, Dr. Liz Specht, and Dr. Lauri Reuter, based in Finland, to learn more.

We also have a number of Faculty who focus on the global food and agricultural industry. Dr. Nicholas Haan was a senior economist with the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization and speaks about the global food challenge; Ignacio Peña covers innovation, food, and prosperity; and Dr. Banning Garrett focuses on overall global policy and development. Garrett recently published a report with the Global Federation of Competitiveness Councils entitled Connecting Farm, City, and Technology: Transforming Urban Food Ecosystems in the Developing World, which provides fascinating examples of companies and startups innovating in this space.

Closer to home, Nick Davis focuses on corporate innovation and is also Chief Platform Officer at the Mid-Ohio Food Bank, which distributes food to more than 650 food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, after school programs, and senior housing sites in eastern and central Ohio.

While food is about health and nutrition, it is also a major part of our culture and history. Dr. Irwin Adam Eydelnant speaks about how technology intersects with the way we consume food—including the personalization of food and futuristic dining experiences. Yunwen Tu focuses on the future of food through technology, art, and design, and has created several museum exhibits.

In many of my own talks, I like to share the numerous developments happening in the food sector across the board—from how we grow food, process it, prepare it, and deliver it—and how as we digitize each of those pieces, the whole system can work together more efficiently.

Vegetable farming

Ecosystem and startups addressing global food challenges

We have a number of startups working on solving the food global grand challenge at Singularity University.

Genius Foods, based in Mexico, uses new dehydration techniques to create healthy,  affordable, and sustainable ingredients that also taste good.

Hexagro Urban Farming uses technology to create indoor gardens that can grow food.

ImpactVision uses hyperspectral imaging and machine learning to better understand freshness, tenderness, and moisture and to also detect contaminants in food. Learn more about their amazing work in our case study.

Over the last few years, Singularity University has also worked closely with the World Food Programme (WFP) Innovation Accelerator with the goal of creating a world of zero hunger. We hosted a Global Impact Challenge to fight hunger, with some of the participants and winners participating in WFP’s bootcamp and Singularity University’s Global Startup Program. We also collaborated on WFP’s Building Blocks blockchain for refugees initiative, which is serving more than 100,000 refugees and has dramatically reduced costs.

Most recently, my colleague Christine Kelly and I spoke at the World Food Programme Innovation Accelerator Bootcamp in San Francisco at Google LaunchPad, and attended their pitch night featuring their startups working to create a world of zero hunger. In particular, I had the chance to serve as a mentor to GrainMate, a startup from Ghana working to help small farmers reduce the loss of grain to spoilage and other technology for farmers in Africa.

I hope that some of these stories and developments inspire you to help solve the food global grand challenge or support those who are working on the mission. Get a free copy of our 2019 State of the Global Grand Challenges Report to learn more about the progress in solving global food challenges and to learn how you can make a difference.