Space for Food is an initiative of The Yield Lab Institute, a global leader in open innovation for sustainable food systems. Food sustainability isn’t just an Earth-bound problem, food access, and food security matters wherever people are. As humans explore space, the Moon, and Mars, the same problems astronauts face are the ones innovators on Earth are trying to address - sustainably producing nutritious food with fewer resources and inputs, and with less waste.
In early 2021, NASA and the Canadian Space Agency launched the Deep Space Food Challenge (DSFC) to incentivize innovators to address opportunities in these areas. The Yield Lab Institute (YLI) committed to supporting the DSFC and the teams applying to the DSFC while also creating a community for these innovators whether they win a DSFC grant or not (or even if they don’t apply for that challenge).
To kick-off Space for Food, we gathered a few thought leaders in food, space, plants, data science, and ecosystem development for a roundtable discussion to talk about the opportunities and challenges this represents for innovators and those that support them.
Members of the panel were:
Malia Gehan (Principal Investigator at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center)
Thad Simons (Founder of the Yield Lab Institute)
Tony Sardella (Founder of Evolve24 and the National Center for Location Sciences)
Jonathan Volk (Director, Commercialization Strategies at Space Commerce Matters)
The panel dove into how ecosystems of innovators combined around initiatives like NASA’s and those solving Earth-bound food problems could collaborate and make both more effective. Key ideas that emerged were:
We’re moving to an understanding of the circular nature of our food systems. No longer do we think of how much we can extract from the land, what we can add to force it to behave the way we like, and where to dispose of our waste. Food systems are more and more seen as circular, with inputs that must be replenished, outputs that must be re-incorporated, and parts of the system that function interdependently rather than as standalone entities. The very nature of closed system space exploration provides enormous opportunities to test ideas that we can deploy on Earth.
Producing food in marginal areas like deserts and locations affected by rising sea levels or climate change is very similar to trying to produce food in inhospitable places like space. Basic research is already ongoing to use open up marginal land for farming or to make existing foods even more nutritious - and the visibility of space in the public’s eye can accelerate that work.
There’s a huge amount of food produced already that never makes it to consumers - possibly up to 50%. Solving the transportation, storage, and spoilage problems on Earth is critical, and the costs of getting food into space present an opportunity to get extremely inventive in ways that translate to benefiting consumers and the environment on Earth.
Collaboration in solving these problems is good for local economies - it offers exciting opportunities and good paying jobs as it requires ecosystem wide collaboration between sensor designers, microbiologists, data scientists, remote sensing experts, packaging experts, life support system designers, packaging experts, horticulture experts, statisticians, sustainability experts, engineers of all types, plant scientists, and food experts to make whatever we produce nutritious and delicious.
For a full video archive of the session and it’s transcript, click here.
This is an enormous opportunity space that goes by many names on Earth and for space travel - Controlled Environment Agriculture (vertical farms and the like), Alternative Proteins (cultured meat, microbial ag and similar), Circular Growing Economies (bioremediation, biomaterials, etc.), and Life Support Systems (air, power, water, waste, light, and microbiome quality). We launched SpaceForFood.org to convene and serve a community of innovators in all the above areas or adjacent ones we haven’t identified.
Any innovator - whether in research or a startup - can sign up as a team and gain recognition and access to subject matter experts. Resource providers and others that want to support these innovators can sign up, too. And those that are curious but not ready to launch their own effort can follow along, too. Sign up at no cost or obligation for access to our events and to be listed on our site. Get involved by clicking here.