Our vision is to convert all depleted agricultural land to high-yielding, biodiverse farms with the help of the world's smallholders.
This is a map of our soil and the risks we're facing for soil biodiversity, the fundament for all other diversity. The areas with the lowest level of risk are mainly concentrated in the northern part of the northern hemisphere. Not surprisingly, the areas with highest risk are those that reflect the greatest exposure to human activities. Please note that the Sahara desert is not green because all is well. After having lost it all, the Sahara now poses a direct threat through its expansion.
Lead Applicant Organization Name
Sweden Foodtech AB
Lead Applicant Organization Type
Small company (under 50 employees)
If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.
Sony Computer Science Laboratories, Inc. (Sony CSL),
Centre Africain de Recherche et de Formation en Synécoculture (CARFS)
Website of Legally Registered Entity
How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?
Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?
Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?
Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?
We start in Burkina Faso, a landlocked country in West Africa. It covers an area of around 274,200 square kilometers. Then all of Earth.
What country is your selected Place located in?
First in Burkina Faso, then locations will be all over planet Earth.
Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.
Burkina Faso is a key country for the development of Synecoculture™ - the underlying farming technique that has resulted in the vision of Terraforming Earth. It is in Burkina Faso that it has been proven that you can take land from fully depleted to ultra-productive (as in 40-150 times higher productivity as compared to a normal field) within 12 months by introducing hyper-diversity; hundreds of different plants in one field.
Synecoculture is an approach by Sony CSL in which ecosystems are artificially created for cultivating a rich variety of crops while also enriching local biodiversity. Proving tests conducted in Japan and sub-Saharan Africa have already yielded substantial results. The intent of the project is to harness the power of AI to understand complex ecosystems that are too difficult for the human mind alone to comprehend, and apply the findings to further initiatives.
The concept of Terraforming is the outcome of a project between Sony CSL and Sweden Foodtech looking at how new business and financing models could be deployed in order to support a high-velocity spread of Synecoculture.
Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.
Burkina Faso is a former French colony, until 1958 known as Upper Volta. It is home to 20 million Burkinabés that populate a country stretching from the desert of the Sahara in the North to the moist tropics of the South. It is far from idyllic, like so many places on planet Earth.
The 2018 CIA World Factbook summarizes: "Burkina Faso is a poor, landlocked country that depends on adequate rainfall. Irregular patterns of rainfall, poor soil, and the lack of adequate communications and other infrastructure contribute to the economy’s vulnerability to external shocks. About 80% of the population is engaged in subsistence farming and cotton is the main cash crop. The country has few natural resources and a weak industrial base.
While the end of the political crisis has allowed Burkina Faso’s economy to resume positive growth, the country’s fragile security situation could put these gains at risk. Political insecurity in neighboring Mali, unreliable energy supplies, and poor transportation links pose long-term challenges."
While this situation is not unique, it might be slightly worse in Burkina Faso than in most other places, which makes it an excellent testbed for radical disruption. If we can make it happen in Burkina Faso, chances are that we can make it happen in other places as well.
The severity of the situation is stated by Wikipedia:
"According to the Global Hunger Index, a multidimensional tool used to measure and track a country's hunger levels, Burkina Faso ranked 65 out of 78 countries in 2013. It is estimated that there are currently over 1.5 million children who are at risk of food insecurity in Burkina Faso, with around 350,000 children who are in need of emergency medical assistance. However, only about a third of these children will actually receive adequate medical attention. Only 11.4 percent of children under the age of two receive the daily recommended number of meals. Stunted growth as a result of food insecurity is a severe problem in Burkina Faso, affecting at least a third of the population from 2008 to 2012. Additionally, stunted children, on average, tend to complete less school than children with normal growth development, further contributing to the low levels of education of the Burkina Faso population."
Many, many people around the world live under similar circumstances and struggle to make ends meet, living of gradually depleting land, slashing and burning their way to new fields that sustain them for a while, caught in an endless cycle of despair where absent rain isn't only a threat to the harvest, but to the ability to send their children to school or that can send entire families from their land.
That said, there is also an eagerness to learn and to grow in Burkina Faso. Friendly people growing good produce. They deserve better, as so many other of the close to two billion smallholders who till the soil of our one and only planet. The fact that farmers in Burkina Faso already have proven the value of Synecoculture makes it a unique showcase and experimental hub for new models.
What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?
Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.
According to IPBES, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services 75 per cent of the land on planet Earth has been affected by human activities. Land degradation has already reduced productivity in 23 per cent of the global land area and over the last 40 years we have lost a third of all arable land according to the University of Sheffield’s Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures.
The situation for our farmland is already bad and is predicted to become a lot worse.
Burkina Faso is landlocked and prone to natural disasters, including drought and floods. Food and nutrition crises are continuous and many families struggle to protect themselves from severe hunger. Malnutrition is common in women and children. Large amounts of the population suffer from stunted growth and micronutrient deficiencies.
With a changing climate, shocks related to changes in rainfall patterns can be expected to increase and with a poverty rate above 40% (Burkina Faso ranked 185 out of 188 countries on the UNDP Human Development Index in 2015) there will be little to no chances for the Burkinabés to buy themselves out of a crisis. The situation isn’t helped by the rapidly growing population (approx. 3.6% annually). Burkina Faso’s vulnerability to high levels of food insecurity and malnutrition seems chronic.
But then again this situation with a rapidly growing population and food insecurity isn’t unique to Burkina Faso either.
With a projected addition of 1.1 billion people, countries of sub-Saharan Africa could account for more than half of the growth in the world's population between 2019 and 2050. But the population growth doesn’t stop then; it is projected to continue to grow through the end of the century. Food insecurity and malnutrition risks becoming even more wide-spread. Bad farming practices will aggravate the problems.
This is a negative loop that needs to be turned, and not just in Africa but all over the planet. Otherwise we risk repeating and permanenting the global food crisis of 2007–2008 when a drastic surge in food prices lead to high rates of hunger, malnutrition, and political and economic instability in nations across the globe.
Increased food production, however, is not just about increasing the production of what we already produce, it should also result in various lifeforms including plants, animals, and microbes, creating a rich ecosystem. Around this rich natural ecosystem we need to create a rich ecosystem of social, cultural and economic activities that both feeds of and is fed by nature. This is the Synecoculture process that underlies the Terraforming Earth concept.
Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.
Over the years we have taken paradise Earth and turned her into an increasingly desolate place, on a path to becoming unsuitable for human life. But what we have wronged we can right. Why talk about terraformation of foreign celestial objects when we can use knowledge and technology to terraform Earth to something that can both serve man and nature?
If the right knowledge, technology and business models can be applied at scale we can change Earth into something new within a few decades time, simply by working with depleted land. At the same time we can give subsistence farmers opportunities to feed themselves and raise themselves out of poverty. In fact, it is hard to see how Synecoculture could be deployed at scale without activating the world's smallholders.
High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.
If we could set the models and examples for how to easily start deploying Synecoculture - it is after all a new model of farming that most farmers can start with after a short and basic introduction - terraforming could happen quite organically, just because it provides subsistence farmers with what they need in order to lift themselves out of poverty. Suddenly, reclaiming lost land will be an opportunity and increased productivity on your existing fields will enable the terraforming of huge swaths of land on Earth. The caveat is that synecoculture does not work with industrial farming methods. The irony that this new and truly green revolution cannot be handled with the industrial methods of the former "green" revolution, is not lost on the project participants.
But it isn't just the smallholders and subsistence farmers that will be better off. We will all benefit from increased carbon sequestration, better produce and new ways to relate to nature. And perhaps we need to challenge our assumptions regarding where growth happens? Perhaps you don't have to leave your land in order to seek your fortune in a city somewhere. With new methods for producing and preserving food, nature could be a new career for budding entrepreneurs in food - the world's largest sector.
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
A field in Burkina Faso Before and After applying Synecoculture. It is one year in between the pictures.
Terraforming Earth is no small feat, yet it has to be done if we are to make it as a species. With Synecoculture the underlying method also exists. In order to accomplish this goal the project partners fully embrace the United Nations' SDG number 17: Global Partnerships.
Synecoculture is a project growing out of Sony CSL in order to create abundant ecosystems through new agricultural methods.
Synecoculture is an approach in which ecosystems are artificially created for cultivating a rich variety of crops while also enriching local biodiversity. Proving tests conducted in Japan and sub-Saharan Africa have yielded substantial results.
In practice, Synecoculture is about planting hundreds of edible plants (including trees and bushes) together and letting them feed of each other and re-enforcing each other. Just like in nature, but with the very big difference that the density of plant varieties is artificially high. Creating such an environment results in a hyper-productive ecosystem with many various lifeforms including plants, animals, and microbes.
Furthermore, Synecoculture has as its goal to involve various social and industrial activities in new ways to enrich the natural environment and biodiversity, aiming for a positive feedback loop in which cultural diversity creates ecological diversity, and vice versa.
Since every plant in a Synecoculture field grows together and matures at different stages depending on shadowing, proximity to other plants etc. it is impossible to harvest the field with today's industrial methods. If you want food, you venture into the field and see what is ripe and ready. In short; you can have all the food you want, but you cannot run a tractor over the field. For the sake of nature, this is good. It is also good for the people tending the fields since Synecoculture puts the knowledge, and thus the power, of our food back into the hands of those who grow it. New career paths open.
The Earth contains more than 30,000 known species of useful plants with applications in food or materials, but agriculture is presently focused toward growing a small number of specific crops, approximately 200. This bias is destroying the natural environment and damaging biodiversity throughout the world.
A multitude of issues must be considered when trying to optimize growing food. Combinations abound as to which plants to plant, associations between plants, and how to control vegetation succession afterward. Learnings have amassed over millennia of farming, but since the days of the green revolution of the 1960's, those learnings have had to yield to massive industrialization of all parts of the food chain. While providing many secure calories, the green revolution was a success. The price we pay today in the form of depleted soils, mono-cultures and food-related malnutrition.
But there is a new way of amassing the "wild" knowledge of yesteryear. Big data analysis and AI are extremely powerful, direct tools for learning these combinations and communicating them to other people. As animals, we humans do not immediately understand how plants attempt to grow or how ecosystems attempt to skillfully circulate materials. Using various sensors to measure environments and activities of diverse lifeforms makes it possible to acquire information with multi-scale resolution and consolidation regarding the current state of ecosystems. We believe that we can transform various information on nature's dynamics in a form that humans can understand its long-term consequences. The intention is to harness the power of AI to understand complex ecosystems that are too difficult for the human mind alone to comprehend, and apply the findings to further initiatives.
This is the post-industrial way to approach the big food production question of our times. We need not sacrifice nature on the altar of food production. Rather we can work with nature. While synecoculture in its most basic form is growing more plants together than we thought possible, technology can help further augment nature.
But it isn't enough with science and data. In lockstep we need to develop the new economic models that can support the growth of Synecoculture. How do you make sure that a society that cannot use the normal industrial methods for food production can reap the benefits of Synecoculture? Food needs new ways of thinking and new combinations of knowledge and technology:
- Can a field of hundreds of different edible plants offer more value than just food? (carbon sequestration, biodiversity, etc.)
- Can a Synecoculture field be a target for excursions for an urban-dwelling humanity?
- Could Synecoculture be a way of developing new forms of housing or communities?
- Could Synecoculture give rise to new service models where meals are prepared near the fields based on what is ready to harvest and preserved with new techniques for later consumption?
- Could a Synecoculture field be an investment case or even an asset class?
The answers to the questions above - and many more like them - is a resounding yes! When fundamentally changing the nature of farming by taking the vantage point of what nature can give and going from there, new models can be seen and explored. This project brings together vastly different competencies from literally world's apart. Japanese ingenuity and technology, Swedish business-building skills and, not the least, the farmers and nature of Burkina Faso. In a sense, this combination is Synecoculture too.
If we can terraform Burkina Faso we can terraform any country. Long before 2050 we hope to have created a new food situation for the subsistence farmers of Burkina Faso where they are food secure, have developed new models for preserving food from the abundant fields of the country side and have lifted themselves out of poverty.
And then we go beyond.
In the last 40 years, planet Earth has lost a third of its arable land. By 2050 we shall have taken it back!
Stockholm, Tokyo, Ouagadougou
# Synecoculture is a trademark of Sony Corporation.
How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?
Daniel Skaven Ruben at Rockefeller Foundation