This week, after thirteen years, there is a new World Trade Center in New York City.
Built on the site of a horror that redefined America’s relationship with the world, One World Trade Center makes a powerful statement. It rises up from what once was - and could have remained - the sullen graveyard of three thousand people. Rejecting the grip of misery and fear, Lower Manhattan was rebuilt. One World Trade Center is an emblem: not for the suffering of thousands, but the great, driving optimism at the heart of human culture.
On raw numbers the new building doesn’t beat its predecessors. To begin with, there’s just one tower where there used to be two. One World Trade Center holds 2.6 million square feet of offices space; the combined Twin Towers held 7.6. It has 104 floors, where the originals had 110. At $3.9 billion, it cost more 2014-adjusted dollars than the original’s $2.3, and it’s the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere - but not the entire world.
Take a deeper look, though, and things get impressive. Hardened against another attack, the building’s concrete core resists fire and explosives and its ventilation system can filter out chemical and biological weapons. Designed by a society that cares more about efficiency, much of the new tower is made from recycled materials. Its windows are made with an ultra-clear glass that reduce the power required for lighting. The building will collect and recycle rainwater, which it uses for cooling. A built-in 4.8MW fuel cell system, the world’s largest, generates power and steam for heating - with the rest of its energy coming from renewables. It’s one of the most advanced, efficient structures ever designed.
The new tower stands as proof that progress isn’t always a straight line; sometimes the next step forward comes as part of the recovery from a terrible setback.
In our world, millions of people go hungry every day. Without new ways to produce food, things are going to get worse as our population grows and the climate goes haywire. Scientists, and organizations like the UN, have called for help from entrepreneurs. In response, inventors are figuring out new ways to make the food on your plate cheaper while keeping it healthy and delicious.
Our company, Tiny Farms, is building the infrastructure for large scale insect farming. We’re farming insects because they’re recognized around the world as a fantastic, delicious type of food, and because they’re more efficient to produce than traditional meat.
In terms of the potential for human suffering, global food shortage is more devastating than any world war. The World Trade Center attack killed nearly three thousand people in a terrible act of violence, but undernutrition kills almost 8,500 children every single day. As a stimulus for new technology it’s motivating a huge amount of work, from farmed insects to plant-based eggs and lab-grown meat.
While many people are excited about the transformative power of new types of food, there is a vocal subset of the population who claim to prefer business as usual. Grievances range from the subtle to the zany. Some worry that admitting we’re not able to feed the world with our existing agricultural system is somehow a proclamation of civilization’s decline. Others spin wild conspiracies; that new food companies are plotting with the government to send all their steaks to Africa and feed Americans on bugs.
A recent PBS photo essay documents urban farming in post-industrial West Virginia. In a region that was once home to heavy manufacturing, new urban farms are proving a regenerative force in towns that have lost much of their population to a changing economy. Industry moved away years ago, and land that has been derelict for decades is finding a new use as productive, profitable farmland.
While the article is full of positive quotes from residents, some comments underneath reflect typical Internet cynicism - people claiming that the replacement of factories with productive farmland represents a step backwards for “progress”.
Ignoring the fact that these sites have been empty for years, a commenter suggests that factories are being replaced by farms, as if we’re moving backwards from industrialization to a pastoral economy. Critics are conflating the wound with the band-aid; that the historic loss of middle class industrial jobs in the US heartland was somehow caused by these efforts to restore local pride.
We see the same reaction from people hearing about new types of food. Seemingly blind to the world’s desperate need for better nutrition - a need that has driven agricultural innovation since the dawn of mankind - they act like food technology is actively creating the problems it is trying to fix. Threatened by the thought that their lifestyle might change as the global economy shifts, they blame the folks offering solutions rather than the underlying cause.
As disheartening as it may be, in a world where macroeconomic cause and effect can be difficult to resolve, it’s understandable when people blame the solution. As entrepreneurs, it’s our job to help clarify the situation and make sure the public knows we’re doing the right thing.
Luckily for us, we’re doing something amazing. We just have to focus on the goal: providing plentiful nutrition for everybody in the world and making it possible for everybody to enjoy healthy food, not just a lucky few. We aren’t taking away anyone’s steak; we’re inventing new ways to give people the foods they love to eat. The more productive we are, the cheaper your steak will remain.
As urban farms help reconnect the West with the land that produces our food, and advances in technology and engineering make it possible for the rest of the world to share the bounty we’ve enjoyed this past century, we’re not moving backwards. We’re rebuilding that tower - often amongst the tragic remnants of the structures that existed before - but we’re building it stronger, safer, and more robust. We’re forging an industry that won’t rust away, a food system that provides for billions, and a world that can focus on culture and creation, not stark survival against the odds.
With the news filled with fear and loathing, it’s easy to miss the facts: global hunger is at its lowest level in history, deaths from war have similarly fallen and while Western inequality is rising, global inequality and resulting poverty has been drastically reduced. Despite the threats we face, I’m excited and optimistic for the next hundred years. I hope that you are, too.
-- Daniel Imrie-Situnayake, co-founder of Tiny Farms