April 14, 2022 ImpactNights™ – Food Systems in Urgent Need of Transformation

Even before 2020, before anyone heard of something called “COVID-19,” the world was already facing serious food challenges. But today, with long-term economic uncertainty due to the pandemic, rising inflation, the war in Ukraine, and climate change, the global food system may be nearing a breaking point. 

To discuss the crisis facing our globe, Hunt Institute convened three panels of experts on April 14 for its latest ImpactNights™ event, “Food Systems in Urgent Need of Transformation.” The event featured Hunt Institute representatives and Fellows, business executives, medical experts, non-profit leaders, and a City of Dallas coordinator. 

The common theme that linked the three panels was the critical importance of building trust with and among all stakeholders – whether it be the farmers that grow crops, the financial institutions that serve the farmers, or those who distribute the products to the market. Panelists also discussed the vital role of health care providers who develop bonds with communities and patients, especially in underserved areas. 

“With 3.3 to 3.6 billion people in the world highly vulnerable to climate change, most of them smallholder farmers and vulnerable groups, the urgency cannot be overstated,” said Dr. Eva Csaky, Executive Director of Hunt Institute. “This is a crisis of food production, food security, and livelihoods, and the sharing of global experiences and best practices must inform urgent evidence-based climate action in vulnerable communities around the world.” 

Participating in the first panel were Clara Ford, a Hunt Institute Fellow who is working on a community-driven, climate-smart rural development model; Miguel J. Martins, a Hunt Institute Fellow who is working with climate-smart value chains with a focus on mycelium; and Mohan Seneviratne, a Hunt Institute Fellow who is helping build resilience and improve livelihoods of smallholder farmers in Sri Lanka. 

“If we’re talking about global value chains, we need to talk with the farmers,” said Seneviratne. “If there are no farmers, there are no cover crops. Sri Lanka, like all emerging countries, is primarily agricultural. If you want to alleviate poverty, we need to address 80% of the people, and that’s agriculture.” 

Clara Ford, the founder of Kijiji Innovative Solutions in Tanzania, teaches local farmers how to grow more crops to sell, and thus sustain themselves and provide a better quality of life. “In a small village of about 1000 to 5000 people, the economy is agricultural productivity, but somebody coming from America to Tanzania and telling them this is what you need to do – that is something I figured wouldn’t work.” 

To address the issue, Ford created a local center for the village to bring people together, to invest in locals first, and to allow them to start the conversation as peers and stakeholders. She hopes her idea – a center to gather, learn, and take action – can be scaled to other villages as a community development approach.  

The second session, led by Corrie Harris, Assistant Director of Hunt Institute, featured Felisa Conner and Dorothy Hopkins, VP of Operations and President & CEO, respectively, of Frazier Revitalization, Inc.; Rabekha Siebert, Urban Agriculture Coordinator of the City of Dallas; Matt Smith, Sr. Director of PepsiCo’s Food for Good; and Meghna Tare, a Hunt Institute Fellow, Chief Sustainability Officer of UT Arlington, and Founder of the North Texas Food Alliance.  

“When you’re working in underserved communities, you should never do what they should do,” said Felisa Conner, speaking on the session’s topic of bringing affordable healthy food to South Dallas. “When you’re having events, the idea is that you draw people so you can develop relationships. That’s what your program is built from. That’s what helps people stick together, to see them work through a problem and to help with solutions.”  

The final session on food system needs was led by Alex Radunsky, a Hunt Institute Fellow and Postdoc Research Fellow at UT Southwestern. Participants included Sandi Pruitt, Associate Professor in the Department of Population and Data Sciences at UT Southwestern, and Milette Siler, Community Dietitian and Culinary Lead Instructor at the Moncrief Cancer Institute at UT Southwestern. 

Attendees Nadia Zrelli Ben Hamida and Haddijatou Njie also shared valuable information about the food security crisis in Tunisia and the challenges of scaling climate-smart solutions in The Gambia. 

Panelists agreed that technology has a central role to play in fixing and improving the world’s food systems, but that governance, infrastructure, education, training, and access to financing and markets must be prioritized for the good of all stakeholders and the people most at risk of food insecurity.  

Follow us on Eventbrite to stay informed when the next ImpactNights™ session is scheduled. 

Written By: Chris Kelley

To read more about the Hunt Institute’s work to develop future-focused solutions to some of the world’s biggest problems, please click here. For the latest news on the Hunt Institute, follow our social media accounts on LinkedIn. We invite you to listen to our Podcast called Sages & Seekers. If you are considering engaging with the Institute, you can donate, or sign-up for our newsletter by emailing huntinstitute@smu.edu

Controlled Environment Agriculture Technologies

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After working at the Hunt Institute over the summer of 2017, Adrienn Santa decided to continue her research in controlled environment agriculture in an attempt to help address the issue of food deserts in urban areas like South Dallas. Adrienn grew up on a family farm in Hungary. She expressed her surprise when she discovered how difficult it was to find fresh food in urban areas and deep sadness at the reality of food deserts in one of the most prosperous countries in the world.

The video in this post explains her passion and vision for high-tech, small, urban greenhouses to help mitigate extreme climates in order to bring fresh fruits and vegetables closer to the consumer.

In the Fall of 2017, Adrienn recruited a team and together they began their senior design project monitoring Evie, the mobile greenhouse. As shown in the images, Evie was invited to the Science Place at the State Fair of Texas. Adrienn led her team as they installed sensors to read temperature and humidity in the small mobile greenhouse during the length of the State Fair.

Santa said, “My main goal is to be able to apply my educational and life experiences to this research and to contribute to finding a solution to this pressing global problem of food deserts found in low-income communities.”

Controlled environment agriculture (CEA) is a technology-based food system used in large high-tech greenhouses for the purpose of controlling the temperature, humidity, airflow, and light in the building. With a greenhouse, the growing season can be expanded to be year-round if the inside conditions are controlled properly according to the requirements of the plants. With CEA, technology can assist the growers and reduce both the number of people and the amount of time needed to monitor and care for the plants. In the case of Evie, where the space available to grow is small, there are no low-cost solutions to grow food efficiently in small urban spaces as of the writing of this post. Combined with vertical gardening, technologies like hydroponics and grow lighting CEA can help to address food production issues anywhere from the most remote rural areas to urban areas.

The best possible orientation and structures of a greenhouse, heating, cooling, ventilation, lighting, and glazing as well as insulation materials are discussed in Adrienn’s report. Adrienn says, “Results show that the most efficient and sustainable technologies are currently more expensive initially than the other ones. Due to this fact, most of the time small urban farmers are not able to afford sustainable and energy-efficient technologies.”

The findings of her report Controlled Environment Agriculture Technologies, the team’s research, and their observations of Evie’s sensor readings were that Evie was too small for CEA technology. This led her to conclude that CEA technology needed to evolve in order for it to be useful and affordable for small-scale farming operations.

Adrienn Santa graduated SMU in 2018, and she married one of her teammates Osama and is now Adrienn Alolabi-Santa. She and her husband live in Austria where she is pursuing a Masters in Sustainable Energy Systems at the University of Applied Sciences Upper Austria.

To read more about Hunter & Stephanie Hunt Institute for Engineering and Humanity’s work to develop future-focused solutions to some of the world’s biggest problems, please click here. For the latest news on the Hunt Institute, follow our social media accounts on LinkedInFacebookTwitter, and Instagram. We invite you to listen to our Podcast called Sages & Seekers. If you are considering engaging with the institute, you can donate to the work, or sign-up for our newsletter by emailing huntinstitute@smu.edu.

A Food System in Crisis

Sustainable farming and best practices for a better food system

Fighting climate change and food insecurity are two core issues addressed by Dr. Eva Csaky, Executive Director of the Hunt Institute, co-founder of the Inclusive Economy Consortium (IEC), and creator of the Texas Sustainable & Inclusive Food System Coalition. These organizations are working together to address a food system that is in crisis. Social entrepreneurs working locally, like Dr. Owen Lynch founder of Restorative Farms, are also paramount in addressing these issues as we adjust to the disruption in our global supply chain by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Two weeks ago, The Guardian published an article by Tom Philpott with the alarming headline, “Unless we change course, the US agricultural system could collapse.”

Philpott explains that California is responsible for growing a significant portion of the country’s vegetables. In fact, according to the USDA 2017 Census of Agriculture, California comprised 42% of total U.S. vegetable sales. Moreover, California had 1.2 million harvested vegetable acres in 2017. The problem is, with global warming, that supply has been and continues to decline. In years when there is little precipitation, farmers tap aquifers to fulfill their irrigation needs. Unfortunately, this process causes the ground to gradually sink, a phenomenon called subsidence. Subsidence, in turn, damages the canals that carry the melted snow of the Sierra Nevada to farms in the area. And thus, we have a vicious cycle that continues to negatively affect the water supply available to California’s farmers.

The state of Iowa comprises 7% of US agriculture sales, according to the USDA 2017 Census of Agriculture State Profile. With its fertile topsoil, called mollisol, Iowa is a great place for farming. However, again due to climate change, more intense weather patterns have put extra pressure on the soil. Also contributing to the loss of mollisol is the fact that Iowa primarily grows only two crops – corn and soybeans. The article cites the soil scientist Rick Cruse, who found that “Iowa is losing soil at a rate 16 times the pace of natural replenishment.”

There is not a simple solution to the food system in crisis. Complex issues require complex solutions. Philpott proposes that other areas of the US should increase their fruit and vegetable production, and Iowa farmers could diversify their crops rather than accepting payment to overproduce corn and soybeans. Others theorize that technology-based growing systems like hydroponics that enable vertical farms would significantly reduce the agricultural footprint. The implementation of these solutions should be collaborative and sustainable in practice.

Fighting climate change and food insecurity go hand in hand. At the Hunt Institute, we are working toward finding solutions in collaboration with farmers. Through collaboration, the IEC, Hunt Institute, scientists, agriculturalists, and farmers can come together to share knowledge and experiences in order to create sustainable solutions that achieve climate and food justice. Read more about the Texas Sustainable & Inclusive Food System Coalition and their founding members to find out how you can engage.

To read more about the Hunt Institute’s work to develop future-focused solutions to some of the world’s biggest problems, please click here. For the latest news on the Hunt Institute, follow our social media accounts on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. We invite you to listen to our Podcast called Sages & Seekers. If you are considering engaging with the institute, you can donate, or sign-up for our newsletter by emailing huntinstitute@smu.edu.