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Farming and the city: How local-grown agriculture can feed the world’s urban areas

Sustainability / -

© Michael Hanson/Corbis

Urban agriculture and horticulture provides food while educating our citizens, improving their health, and preserving local biodiversity. Data on the growth of these green areas, carved out of our gray cityscapes, inspires optimism.

More and more space is being allocated for farming within, or on the outskirts of, our cities. A recent study, carried out by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and the Research Program on Water and Land Ecosystems of the University of California-Berkeley and Stanford University, confirms the social and environmental effectiveness of strategies that encourage urban and peri-urban farming.
 
In the document Global assessment of urban and peri-urban agriculture: irrigated and rain-fed croplands, researchers estimate that, worldwide, 456 million hectares of land are being farmed within the urban environment, an area the size of the European Union.

A productive area shared by cities around the world
Urban farming is becoming increasingly popular and, looking at the overall picture, redundant land that has been repurposed tends to get more attention and can, therefore, deliver high quality produce. Indeed, plots of land within the urban area or on its outskirts, are less dry than rural farmland. In the city, green areas are often well-irrigated, fertilized using compost, and are subject to crop rotation.
 
By contrast, in the countryside, traditional farming practices are being replaced by monoculture and mechanization, which are not only weakening biodiversity but are also damaging soil fertility. Small-scale family farming, in interstitial or marginal areas within urban areas, results in a higher ratio of food production per hectare than that in rural areas, while helping to boost sales of local farm-to-table fruit and vegetables.

The spread of urban farming opens up debate, inviting further research
The potential contribution of urban farming to global food security is still at the “case study” stage, despite the ever-increasing volume of data on its economic and social benefits. Urban agriculture is widespread, and continue to increase. Some 87 percent of cities with more than 50,000 inhabitants have, within their perimeters, agricultural areas equipped with an irrigation system. Meanwhile, 98 percent of these same cities also have rain-fed land given over to farming.

Urban farms represent just under six percent of the world’s agricultural land
While, in developed countries, urban farming has a positive impact on pollution, food and environmental education and also helps integrate the weaker sectors of the community, in developing countries, this becomes a resource. Researchers found that more than 20 percent of the outskirts of cities in countries such as India, Pakistan and China consist of irrigated agricultural land, while the same percentage is estimated for rain-fed urban farmland in European countries, including Italy, as well as Canada, and some African nations.
 
Over and above providing food, urban farming gives land back to the people, establishing and protecting land rights. For this reason, the expansion of urban farming can be seen as a positive phenomenon, and one that is expected to grow.
 
The development of urban farming is one of the most compelling trends right now, and finds, in Expo Milano 2015, a forum for debate, not just within the Participating Country Pavilions, and the Pavilion Zero but also, of course, in the Biodiversity Park.
 

Artificial intelligence and food

Innovation / -

David Orban intelligenza artificiale e cibo
© Mike Powell/Corbis

The applications of artificial intelligence to food are helping to develop better solutions for our nutrition. And provide creative recipes, too!

Artificial intelligence (AI) is the area of computer science applying advanced techniques to solving problems that are inspired by the capabilities of human cognition. Having been born practically together with our information technology 60 years ago, it has progressively accumulated a series of tools that spread across application areas. Image recognition, speech recognition, planning and recommendation engines, natural language processing were all once advanced areas of AI, and now are part of the toolset of programmers who incorporate them in their applications. One way of defining AI has been somewhat whimsically, the area of engineering that looks at problems that stop to be part of its study once solved. Famously IBM designed and built a supercomputer in 1996, Deep Blue, that beat the world champion of chess, Garry Kasparov in 1997. Since then chess stopped being seen as an especially hard AI problem!
 
Smart techniques
Each of these techniques have important applications in food and agriculture. Being able to analyze the images of satellites to study climate shows us the impact of broad changes in precipitation patterns. Our models of weather are getting better and better, allowing now amazingly precise predictions within a day. Relying on our phones telling us if it is going to rain hour by hour in a given city during the day now is reliable enough to decide how to dress or to leave the umbrella at home.
 
Data analysis in genetics or in the development of better tools for pest control allows increased yields at lower levels of pesticides. Integrating sensor data in a feedback loop with control systems makes autonomous drones possible for the monitoring of crops.
 
As more and more knowledge becomes available online, through scientific journals and various databases and repositories, being able to derive value from the correlation of disparate sources of information becomes a useful but very complex task. In my previous article I illustrated how interdisciplinary approaches can produce superior results.
 
Automation of creativity?
A more recent effort by IBM has been geared towards the analysis of natural language, and the capability of absorbing vast repositories of knowledge to be able to answer questions relative to what the AI program learns. Called IBM Watson, this system was pitted against the all time champions of Jeopardy!—a popular quiz show whose questions often contain jokes, word play, cross references to different domains—and won! Absorbing large amounts of unstructured knowledge, text that is not residing in well-ordered databases, this has been especially interesting, since the machine was not connected to the Internet during the contest. IBM Watson is now being applied to various areas of human knowledge, with vertical specialization allowing it to complement the judgement of human experts, for example in health, helping doctors making diagnoses based on recently published scientific research which is very hard to keep up with.

One of the more curious applications of IBM Watson’s smarts and correlation of different parts has been the food truck experiment of “cognitive cooking”. For a period of time, you could go on the streets of San Francisco, and buy street food whose recipe was designed by the AI of the computer, combining in unexpected ways components that hopefully added up to pleasant results!
 
 
 

The shopping list of the future will be online and coming straight from the fridge

Innovation / -

elettrodomestici del futuro imm

From now until 2020, billions of objects, appliances and homes will be increasingly connected to the internet. While it is important to try to prevent waste and incidents and to provide families with a higher level of convenience and technology, the Internet of Things (IoT) will also ensure secure connections that can be protected from hackers, spam and theft.

Predictions, research and optimistic statements are abounding on the new market for smart objects, That is, objects that are connected to the internet and our mobile devices. Known as the Internet of Things (IoT), it is expected to be in the next few years the only area to experience double-digit growth in the consumer goods sector. From the major technology trade shows like CES in Las Vegas and IFA in Berlin, we’ve seen some impressive numbers, such as those from GFK and Gartner: by 2020, 85% of consumer electronics and home appliances will be connected to the internet. The number of devices and appliances of the Internet of Things will total between 25 and 50 billion, including refrigerators, lamps, whisks, TVs, watches, sprinklers, air conditioners, security systems and coffee machines. This was confirmed on February 4, 2015 by the head of Samsung at their annual European Forum in Monaco.

Who will win the challenge of the connected home?
"The company is strongly committed to the development of Internet-connected objects", said Boo-Keun Yoon, CEO of Samsung Electronics. "We have made the greatest investments on a global level, $100 million in 2015 alone, and today 75% of Samsung TVs are connected to the internet. By 2017 we will reach 100% and by 2020 this will apply to all Samsung devices. We intend to become the leader in this new market. Already last year, our consumer electronic appliances, home appliances, air conditioners and other products enabled for IoT, totaled over 665 million". It’s a technological evolution that is growing fast and will soon allow people to control the entire house, car and company, all from a smartphone.

The benefits? No waste and many savings
In just a few years the number of incidents at home as well as domestic burglaries could be significantly reduced. It will soon be possible, and at almost no charge, to receive alerts, photos, videos and to send messages to set the air conditioner, the oven and the dishwasher – all with ease, with just a few taps on your smartphone, while reducing waste at the same time. Something that is available to only a few at present.

Message for the oven, there are guests coming to dinner
The "smart" online oven already exists, even if currently it speaks "the exclusive language” of the company that manufactures it, sells it and that also provides the application that allows it to be controlled from your smartphone. So, what does it do? This device, once activated, prevents costly losses due to food being burnt by incorrectly setting the timer or the temperature, or by distractions that can make a dish or even an entire menu completely inedible. The appliance can also be used at times when electricity costs less. Via a smartphone or tablet you are able to visually check how something is cooking by "taking a look" in the oven. You can also find the best recipe based on what you currently have stocked in the fridge or what’s in season.

The internet "saves" frozen items
There are also washing machines, dishwashers and refrigerators that phone for assistance in case of technical failure or that send an alarm via SMS to the homeowner. With the Internet of Things, everything is getting quicker. You can, thanks to low cost micro-sensors, connect appliances and devices to the internet and come home to find the ice cream ready and kept cool by the connected ice cream machine or a delicious pot of coffee ready when you wake up. The fridge and freezer, with their valuable contents, will also operate in case of power failure and through a shared open language, thanks to sensors and open protocols.

With home automation, bills come down
"For increased security and energy savings for families, the answer is home automation", says Federica Rossi Gasparrini, president of Federcasalinghe-Donne Europee. “Already, thanks to a simple app to control the heating, air conditioning and lighting remotely, energy bills in Europe can be reduced by 11 to 30%. We are working with public and private institutions in Europe so that these new technologies are no longer a luxury, but an affordable reality".

No more throwing away of food
The ultimate challenge is smart food management. "Only a refrigerator with energy class A+++, controlled remotely, can help us", continues Rossi Gasparrini, "together with the blast chiller to reduce what I consider the most shameful type of waste, that of food. This would mean saving 30 to 40% of food that families literally just throw in the trash". Federcasalinghe is also working on a project at European level, on domestic technology innovation for preserving food and reducing household waste.

Without a password, the refrigerator risks being "hacked"
A completely connected house, other than being environmentally friendly and secure, can however become easy prey for hackers. A new mega-fridge, which also makes the coffee, is able to receive via the internet or smartphone instructions to make ice cubes and to keep the champagne perfectly chilled. But, as has already happened, if not password-protected, the signals coming from the various appliances, for example from the television, or the ice cream maker, may be intercepted. More and more often it happens that alarm systems are getting disabled or foiled or that the super-connected house is without power.
 

Over a million people are already #FoodConscious. What about you?

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