By 2050, global food systems will need to sustainably and nutritiously feed more than nine billion people, while providing economic opportunities in both rural and urban communities. However, the food and agriculture sectors have not seen the same levels of investment support as other sectors, such as healthcare for example. Research carried out by McKinsey & Co found that $14bn had been invested into 1,000 food systems-focused start-ups since 2010, while healthcare attracted $145bn into 18,000 start-ups during the same period.
The UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs) have identified the need to transform the world’s food systems, to help billions of people who remain under-nourished (according to the UN, an estimated 821 million people were undernourished in 2017), and millions of farmers struggling to survive. The enormous amounts of food being wasted while people starve, strongly suggests a global food system in need of fixing.
UN SDG number two, zero hunger, states: “It is time to rethink how we grow, share and consume our food. If done right, agriculture, forestry and fisheries can provide nutritious food for all and generate decent incomes, while supporting people-centred rural development and protecting the environment.”
Emerging technologies need to be harnessed more within the food and agriculture sectors. Digital building blocks such as AI, systems such as robotics and new energy technologies, must all be maximised to both overcome the detrimental effects being done to the environment in addition to raising the quality of living for millions around the world.
Blockchain - a type of distributed ledger technology - holds potential for both the consumer and the farmer, serving a multiple role in the food system. It can be used to monitor food moving through the supply chain, the technology making it impossible to tamper with the information passing through the system. This allows farmers, manufacturers and retailers to justify premiums for certain products and consumers can be more confident about the source and quality of their food.
A pilot study ongoing since October 2016 by IBM and Walmart found that tracking information using blockchain could be done in 2.2 seconds, when previously this would have taken around one week. Using this system would not only reduce response times when contaminated foods are discovered but would also make it possible to perform selective recalls. The World Bank predicts that if half the world’s supply chain used this technology, it could reduce millions of tons of waste.
Similarly, the Internet of Things (IoT) can be harnessed to give consumers better trust in food sources and reduce waste through real-time supply-chain transparency and traceability. Sensors and actuators connected by networks to computing systems, makes it possible to track everything from transportation to storage. Data can be used to not only track supply and demand but ensure that sourcing is sustainable and ethical. Other factors beneficial to the consumer are the availability of nutritional and environmental information about the food they purchase from farm to plate. The World Bank predicts that if the IoT was implemented in 50-75% of developed countries’ supply chains by 2030, 10–50 million fewer tons of food will be lost in distribution.
Food Cloud in the UK, founded by Irish business women Aoibheann O‘Brien and Iseult Ward, is doing this at the community level, using cloud technology to redistribute food from farmers and retailers to those in need. Charities get access to fresh food and businesses can contribute to the community while reducing food waste. It helps over 9,000 charities now access fresh food, the technology allowing the organisation to ensure its freshness and quality. The founders have made more than 50 million meals go to people, not to waste.
Food wastage in countries with hot climates, such as India is commonplace. With cold storage sometimes in short supply, it is believed around 30% of perishable goods go to waste each year. Small farmers cannot afford the technology needed, meaning hoarding, price fluctuations and ultimately, low prices post harvest for the small farmer whose priority is to shift produce fast. Energy company Ecozen, founded by three graduates of the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur, Devendra Gupta, Prateek Singhal and Vivek Pandey, developed micro cold storage to help remedy this problem. The solar-powered cold storage system not only benefited the farmers’ bottom line - with a 40% increase in profit in just two years - but also offered solutions to the issues of food waste with a sustainable solution. With 50% to 75% of farms lacking electricity, this kind of technology could prove vital to changing lives globally.
South African startup Mobbisurance, a self-funded venture launched by a man who says he was entrepreneurial since childhood, Kudzai Kutukwa, has also shown that technology can be critical in not only reducing food waste but ensuring that farmers are not victims of bad weather. There are a massive 1.4 million smallholder farmers responsible for producing around 80% of the food consumed in South Africa. But their vulnerability to drought can mean dead crops, livestock dying of hunger or being sold off at below market rate to compensate for losses, and in turn, farmers eating into savings to overcome the consequences. By using satellite imagery to monitor crops and weather, Mobbisurance - a system farmers can sign up to via their mobile phones - gives small farmers access to affordable crop insurance to help reduce waste and avoid the poverty trap.
Insurance solutions could be provided to 200-300 million farmers worldwide by 2030, and could generate 40–150 million tonnes of additional food and $15–70bn in additional farming income, according to research. Indirectly, farmers would benefit from improved nutrition and health with studies showing that households facing severe environmental conditions will not refrain from having proper meals when income is guaranteed by some form of insurance.
Both from start-ups and global companies, the solutions are out there. Technology can bring about changes from micro to macro level and the sooner the better. This needs to be implemented globally to protect the health of the world’s population and stem the tide of food waste.
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