From Vertical Farms to Edible Insects, Lily Shen on the Future of Food

On December 3, I attended Columbia Entrepreneurship Night: The Future of Food Sustainability. Dean Mary Boyce of SEAS moderated a panel of experts who are leading the way in providing solutions to the challenges of food sustainability.  Here are some highlights from their presentations.


Presenters (L-R): Dickson Despommier, Sonny Wu, David Rosenberg, Adrian Durrani, and SEAS Dean Mary Boyce

Dickson Despommier, emeritus professor in microbiology and public health. With increasing urbanization around the world, cities must produce more of their own food by growing it indoors and on rooftops, in skyscrapers—essentially vertical farming. With vertical farming, we can reduce and control food contamination and GMOs, pesticides, and agricultural runoff—a major source of pollution.

Adrian Durrani ’81SEAS, CEO of American Halal/Saffron Foods and president of Condor Ventures, a firm devoted to strategic investing in natural food companies. There is a crisis in the agricultural industry, which mistreats animals and exploits farmworkers. Overuse of hormones in animals, and toxic, polluted farmland all pose health risks. Sustainable organic farming is part of the solution and it can also provide decent wages to farmworkers.

David Rosenberg  ’02BUS, founder of AeroFarms, a clean technology company that builds and operates advanced vertical farms in urban environments. Vertical farming uses 95 percent less water and is 70 times more productive than land farms. Scientists are figuring out ways to optimize taste and nutrition density in food grown in vertical farms. Eating insects can be an alternative protein source requiring fewer resources to produce.

Sonny Wu, managing director of GSR Ventures, which focuses on investments in the new materials and new energy sectors.  In China, Wu’s home country, he has invested in a home modular system to grow food on balconies. GSR Ventures has also invested in Rosenberg’s company, AeroFarms.


Eat Offbeat team

After the panel discussion, I enjoyed touring demo team tables staffed by food startups founded by Columbia alumni, students, and faculty, including Sharebite, a food ordering platform that allows you to make a social impact; Eat Offbeat, offers home-style ethnic meals conceived, prepared, and delivered by refugees resettled in NYC; and Untamed Sandwiches, an eatery offering food produced locally and sustainably.

I left thinking that maybe one day balcony farms and a dinner of munchable bugs won’t seem that farfetched. Clearly Columbians are at the forefront of food sustainability thinking!

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