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The 10 Billion Challenge Initiative

Changing food together

As the world will soon be home to 10 billion people, we simply can’t keep producing food the way we do today. Changing the global food system requires a very wide range of actors in society to work together and form circular partnerships. This is the 10 Billion Challenge Initiative.

In just 30 years, the world’s population is expected to increase by 2 billion people. By the next turn of the century, we will have peaked at around 10.4 billion.

By then, seven out of ten of us will live in a city somewhere – a seismic shift compared to today, when half the world still lives in the countryside. That means less farmland and more demand for food.

So here is the elephant in the room: How will ten billion people eat? How will the global food systems adapt to meet the needs of the citizens of the earth, without wrecking the earth itself?

The problem with food

Our ways of feeding ourselves already cause growing problems. Agriculture is responsible for a third of global climate emissions. The amount of food that simply goes to waste could feed 1.26 billion people every year, but ends up aggravating those emissions instead. Fertiliser nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen are crucial to food production but are sourced in unsustainable ways and often end up in waterways, causing eutrophication.

Among the Planetary Boundaries defined by scientists, nutrient overload is the one where we are already the deepest into red territory, meaning a very high risk of irreversible damage to the planet. Same thing when they take into account how human lives are affected: Ill-advised use and production of phosphorus and nitrogen cause more grief today than climate change or diminishing access to water.

Toxic, algae-infected water, fishery collapse, and wider environmental degradation have followed. But the problems go beyond eutrophication.

Throwing away precious nutrients

Outdated wastewater treatment, even in the richest countries, is responsible not only for damage to people and planet, but also for the continuous wasting of these crucial nutrients. Keep in mind that without them, crops would be half of what they are today and hunger would skyrocket.

  • We throw away the plentiful phosphorus from our sewers, supplying agriculture with new phosphorus from increasingly depleted mines instead. By 2100, the only known phosphorus reserve left in the world will be in Morocco (Western Sahara). Those mines are tainted with high levels of uranium and cadmium, and the extraction exposes local communities to harmful mining waste and human rights abuse.
  • We release nitrogen back into the atmosphere at wastewater facilities, while producing new nitrogen fertiliser using a century-old method responsible for nearly one percent of global climate emissions.

And 2.4 billion people aren’t sure of having enough to eat. (Ironically, many of them live in countries where most of the food is actually produced.)

“Keep in mind that without phosphorus and nitrogen, crops would be half of what they are today.”

All these existing challenges will grow as the world’s population grows. This is why we launch the 10 Billion Challenge Initiative.

The initiative aims to gather businesses, innovators, and entrepreneurs from the entire global food system and showcase the solutions they bring to the table. It will demonstrate how circular partnerships can promote sustainable food production and reduce the risk of overshooting planetary boundaries. We want to accelerate change, scale circular models, and create synergies that reward innovative companies.

"We want to accelerate change, scale circular models and create synergies that reward innovative companies.”

At the environmental company Ragn-Sells, our contribution lies in developing circular solutions for key nutrients. We offer technology for producing clean phosphorus from sewage, and for capturing nitrogen instantly applicable on farmland instead of releasing it back into the air. We turn fish poop from aquaculture into energy and fertiliser, enabling sustainable expansion of a valuable protein source without increased pressure on marine environments, and extract potassium from the ashes from waste incineration.

From megacities to urban mines

We want to see every wastewater treatment plant turned into a resource plant. A factory for raw materials from urban waste, not the end of the pipe where we handle the dirty stuff to keep cities from smelling bad. From this viewpoint, the expanding megacities offer enormous opportunity: Urban mines, containing a nearly endless supply of safe fertiliser nutrients that have already been sourced. Finally, cities will contribute to the food production outside their limits and be part of the loop. The more we tap into these rich, renewable mines, the better for everyone today, as well as for future generations.

“Expanding megacities offer enormous opportunity: Urban mines, containing a nearly endless supply of safe fertiliser nutrients that have already been sourced."


But we bring only one piece of the jigsaw. We know that many companies all around the food world are working hard to find solutions to the unsustainable situation. If we are serious about feeding the planet with 10 billion people on it, many players need to come together and fundamentally change how food is grown, distributed, and cleaned up.

We believe that companies working on new technology have a role to play in this, as well as banks and other investors who enable the development and distribution of these methods. We need food producers, grocery store chains, wholesalers, and consumer organisations to apply their power in the same direction, paving the way for large circular loops. International organisations and local governments can facilitate trade and remove barriers to innovative technology. There are many, many others.

If we succeed in tackling the food challenge, we will contribute to solving many other sustainability issues in the process. This is entirely possible. But we have to do it together.

This is the 10 Billion Challenge Initiative.

 

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