In this guest post, Robin Saluoks, co-founder and CEO of climate tech-focused startup eAgronom,on how technology can help increase food security in the face of climate change.
Avocados from Mexico, bananas from Ecuador, strawberries from Egypt and rice from India – the global food market is the most incredible and complex market in the world. It connects 570 million food producers with 7.96 billion consumers. Unfortunately, it is an incredibly fragile system, with the Ukraine war being just one of the many crises that continues to rock the structure to the core.
Between conflicts, droughts, floods, pests and Covid-19, the United Nations’ 2015 Sustainable Development goal to end world hunger by 2030 has never felt more out of reach with nearly 193 million people acutely food insecure, which is 20% more than in 2020. And things are about to get a lot worse with fertiliser shortages expected to keep food prices high well into 2024. At the same time, the UN IPCC warns that agricultural output will reduce between 10 to 25 percent for every degree our planet warms up.
There is barely a market that requires such far-reaching restructuring as the world’s food system, which today is responsible for between 21 and 31% of total global greenhouse gas emissions. There is a continued risk that by slipping from one crisis to the next, short-term patch-ups will derail any long-term plan to clean up the industry and improve food security for millions and millions of people while protecting habitats for the future. Necessity is the mother of invention and digital transformation and technological innovation are storming through the sector. Below are a few areas where technology is making a big difference across agriculture and food supply chains.
Data equals Power
The 2007 and 2008 food price crisis that saw food produce more than double was a wake-up call to many industry insiders. It transpired there was a shocking lack of statistics within the food ecosystem with no comprehensive data on what and how much was produced where and who went hungry due to lack of what. While intergovernmental institutions such as the World Bank and the UN have been busy improving agricultural and supply chain statistics, technology has been an important element for improving access to information for farmers and consumers themselves.
Access to the right information empowers farmers to make better decisions. Technological help can come in many forms and in some cases the most basic can have a profound impact. For example, providing farmers with mobile phones in developing regions gives them access to a wealth of useful information, financial tools, training and advice and the ability to be part of a farming community for the first time. Anything from access to correct weather information, insurance, mobile wallets and food marketplaces is only a thumb click away. Empowering farmers through access to information allows them to improve their livelihoods and be better able to adapt to the effects of climate change.
Digital Supply Chains
In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, farmers had the produce, but were unable to get it to the shops and therefore the consumers. The Great British Egg shortage of 2020, to name one example, came partly as a result of carton shortages from a shut-down of one of only three factories in Europe that produce them.
Experiences such as this have led to attempts at regionalising food ecosystems on the one hand and moves to digitally transform food marketplaces on the other. Digital transformation within the food industry creates a web of access points as opposed to one single channel between producers and consumers, which opens up new trading routes, minimises bottlenecks and slashes food waste — a particularly important area.
It is well documented that the world already produces enough food to feed 10 billion people according to current consumption patterns, but that an incredible one third is lost or wasted, leaving millions of people hungry and habitats unnecessarily destroyed.
AI-powered farms and supply chains
While farmers across the world face different challenges, at a core level, many features are the same, including the importance of land, soil, water and farm management, weed, pest and disease control, as well as harvest, storage and distribution techniques.
From developments in indoor farming systems, smart sensors, soil testing, autonomous vehicles, alternative feed supplies, and soil sequestration to name but a few, Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence-powered tools are helping farmers to become more economically and environmentally sustainable.
Take the impending fertiliser shortage, for example: AI-powered sensing technology today allows detailed adjustments of dosage, so that only the exact amount needed is distributed onto the field, hence cutting down on waste, pollution and saving resources. Imagine if every farm were equipped with this technology today.
In addition, blockchain allows for the management and sharing of huge swathes of clean, incorruptible data, improving the traceability and transparency of produce along the supply chain. This not only improves the ability to locate and distribute food to where it is needed most, it also enables farmers to become part of and earn income through high quality carbon projects with sustainable initiatives including soil sequestration and agroforestry.
The interlink between food security and climate change
While there are some impressive developments in lab grown food and indoor farming technology, whether billions of people eat depends on the health of soil and sea and well-functioning distribution systems. The Ukraine war is the latest in a long line of tipping point events that threaten to topple the fragile global food system. However, tech innovators and investors have woken up to the fact that the agricultural sector holds the key to survival of our species and all life on earth. To this end, technology is empowering farmers, policymakers, businesses and consumers to improve the functioning of the food supply system for the better.