If we’re to feed a rapidly growing global population, we must use new technology evolved from the 4IR to support innovation that can boost food production and reduce waste. For hundreds of millions of people, technology could mean the difference between food security and hunger.
According to the UN, 821 million people are starving and 52 million children under the age of five are malnourished. In addition, the 2018 Global Report on Food Crises claims that 124 million people in 51 nations face crisis-level hunger.
As these statistics show, eradicating malnutrition is one of the biggest challenges we face. Such is its importance that the UN has included it within their Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), bringing together governments to encourage action. However, it is far from a simple issue to resolve. Its complexity lies in multiple contributing factors such as conflict, displacement, climate change and disease – each presenting a difficult problem in itself.
And yet the challenge of world hunger is set to worsen with food shortages likely to rise as the global population increases. The UN estimates that by 2050, the world population will reach 9.8 billion people and 11.2 billion by 2100 so to keep up, the global food supply chain must grow by 70%. The vast majority of populations affected by malnutrition live in rural areas and therefore, as businessman and philanthropist Bill Gates said in a recent interview, easing and eventually solving global hunger is "about increasing food productivity ... better crops, better livestock, so we can double productivity.”
To increase food production, new or enhanced methods must be found and for this, many are utilising emerging technology driven by the fourth industrial revolution (4IR). By bringing connectivity to parts of the world that were previously isolated, those struggling to produce enough food can gain access to information, aid and support that can make a real difference to food security in that area. For instance, it is estimated that 70% of the world's food comes from small, isolated farms that are no bigger, on average, than 2 acres. Until now, people working on these farms received little information about innovation in farming, meaning their methods did not evolve. However, the 4IR is transforming access to information, which in turn is affecting the food they produce. For instance, peer-to-peer service WeFarm uses a simple form of social networking to help farmers stay informed and connected within an online community. According to WeFarm, 90% of small-hold farmers are now able to access a cell phone and so the company encourages them to connect through the site to solve crop-based problems and issues through community engagement. Using the platform, a useful answer could be returned within minutes potentially saving the crop and enabling better food production.
In another example of 4IR working to solve food security challenges, in collaboration with Vodafone, Project Healthy Children set up the Sanku-PHC initiative. The project involves combining state-of-the-art dosifier technology and IoT solutions at small mills throughout Africa to provide fortified flour to millions of people. The Sanku dosifier helps African millers to add critical nutrients to flour in a sustainable and affordable way. Vodafone’s involvement means that the idea can be scaled as cellular and remote monitoring capabilities allow a single worker to monitor 100 mills and fortify flour for 500,000 people. Vodafone and PHC have already rolled out this tech to mills in Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya, Malawi and Mozambique, but want to reach 100 million people over the coming years.
Brian Humphries, CEO of Vodafone Group Enterprise believes the Sanku initiative demonstrates how innovative thinking and technology can solve major issues such as food security: "Tech companies have a responsibility to constantly evaluate how they can use their services for good, and this project is a great example of the benefits that can be realised by pushing this agenda.”
Phytoponics is also transforming lives in developing countries through 4IR farming. Its hydroponic technology produces better crop yields than traditional systems through a smart, controllable platform that enhances fresh produce, higher quality and improved yields for commercial growers. During a pilot test at a glasshouse facility in Wales, UK, Phytoponics produced two tonnes of high-quality tomatoes using the patented technology.
Explaining its potential, Adam Dixon, CEO and co-founder of Phytoponics, says: "The hydroponic systems have very high productivity and closed loop efficiencies that could be rapidly deployed in areas of low fertility to restart troubled food chains and produce fresh local fruit and veg that is both calorific and nutritious."
The Internet of Things (IoT), a key element of the 4IR, is a particularly promising application for agriculture. Organisations such as Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) are using wireless networking capabilities to collect, secure and send data derived from algorithms, artificial intelligence and machine learning, to manipulate huge amounts of data and quickly produce recommendations for farmers. Working alongside Purdue University, HPE is using its technology to wirelessly monitor farm fields through sensors gathering data each day about the traits and growth of different crops. It has also set up an advanced phenotyping facility – a state-of-the-art greenhouse - with the capacity to generate 1.2 petabytes of data per week which can then be used to advise farmers. These computing systems allow users to filter data at the ‘edge’, or in their location, rather than at the core computer system, avoiding the need for large data capacity or sophisticated networking.
Although the growing population means more mouths to feed, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, limiting global food waste could reduce the need to produce more food by 60%. Technology is helping minimise food waste in innovative ways, for example, BT9 uses blockchain technology to form a “real-time cold chain management system, the BT9 XSENSE. This system monitors the condition of perishable food products along the supply chain, from the producer to store shelf. The data it collects allows users to identify problems along the cold chain and take action against waste by maximising product quality along the journey.
In addition, the solar-powered, standalone device, Wakati uses hydration to preserve food creating a low-cost, low-energy alternative to conventional refrigeration. Using just one liter of water per week and solar energy, the Wakati system keeps fresh produce hydrated and enables farmers in warm climates to store their harvests on-farm and in transit more effectively, increasing their ability to bring crops to market.
Using a different approach, Gebni is a food app delivery service that reduces food waste using an algorithm to adjust prices according to real-time demand. By lowering prices during off-peak hours it can increase sales, while also increasing the accessibility of food delivery to low-income customers.
Whilst malnutrition is a global problem that cannot be solved overnight, it is becoming clear that technology is at the heart of the solution. The 4IR has the power to enable real change and save millions of lives across the globe, and by working together to drive forward innovation, we can save and improve even more lives.
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