One airport’s bid to alleviate future food, water shortages

Written by By Stephanie Anderson, CNN Rome, Italy; Written by Chiu Chen, CNN

NASA plans to launch the first solar-powered spacecraft to Mars, a $1.5 billion mission that is aimed at exploring and documenting the planet’s surface and atmosphere. Yet even on our frontiers, the concepts of resource scarcity and scarcity of energy continue to shape space exploration.

In Los Angeles, pollution limits, remote bases and sleek ultra-modern buildings are all hampering the expansion of a city set to host the 2024 Summer Olympics. So as policymakers seek new ways to make their cities sustainable and resilient, airports are playing a role in increasing the role of food and water systems for humans.

“Airports have long been considered an economic component and nothing more,” said Roderick Price, managing director of Ontario, Canada-based agroecology consultancy Agroscope , which is co-organizing a conference at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, the largest in North America, on Sept. 27. “Today airport facilities are the food and water supply chain for many cities, so it makes sense that they are thinking about issues of food security, water security and the ability to grow food on the ground.”

As a “city within a city,” the Pearson International Airport operates as both the larger hub of Toronto’s aerodrome, and a food and water hub within the city itself. As a long-serving customer of its own food provider, Terminal 3, Pearson has seen a changing food philosophy that will roll out to the other terminals of the airport by 2025.

“With the Pearson Summer Olympics coming, we’ve worked with the food vendors and become a major partner of the transportation, the airport and the transportation authority as a whole in establishing these rules for the service providers to deliver sustainable food to the travellers,” said Mike Blacklock, executive vice president of food services at Porter Airlines, which operates five different flights at Pearson.

A “composter” farm, which uses rainwater to convert sugar cane residues into clean and nutrient-rich, pesticide-free sugar cane juice. Credit: Courtesy WestJet

“It’s actually laid the groundwork for the Olympic movement to look at how they can be part of the solution to solve sustainability issues,” said Blacklock.

In a pilot program at the airport, Porter has implemented solutions for a low-carbon strategy that include a methane digester and greenhouses, which do not require power generation, using their own kinetic energy from customer vehicles.

These canisters of clean and natural vegetable juices are being given to passengers as an alternative to sugar-sweetened beverages at the terminal’s food and beverage options, although customers can also request the most energy-efficient beverage or choose from several options without them.

“Anything that can help change the way that we eat, think about the foods that we produce and the impact of those products, and certainly how we prepare them, should be thought about and studied,” said Rosemary Ayliffe, Canada’s deputy minister of agriculture, said of the airport program.

Airlines are a contributing factor in one of Canada’s largest food problems: the shortage of fresh food, said Toja Carstensen, a Toronto-based professor of agricultural sciences and an expert on meat and milk production.

Yet the demand for meat and milk is becoming one of the biggest challenges facing the world, she said.

“The increase in meat consumption in India, China and also in Africa has lead to a hunger problem,” she said. “In the coming years, it is estimated that between 50% and 60% of the greenhouse gas emissions is related to the production of meat.”

In an effort to curb the growing demand for meat, airlines in the United States are shifting their weight calculations to ensure that the food served to passengers are safe and do not add unnecessary weight to their aircraft.

“We’ve switched back to using the lean white meat and we’ve made a decision that the fat is no longer the priority,” said Scott Smith, global chief of food and beverage and customer experience for Air Canada.

Smith said that in addition to limiting fat content, they’re also focusing on ensuring that their salads are “completely environmentally friendly,” and might consider using seaweed in salads.

In the meantime, airports are stepping in with some innovative solutions for working with space.

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