Today, there are over seven billion people on Earth. And in 2050, the world population is expected to hit nine billion. The big question is: How do you feed that many people when the global food supply is practically not increasing, and in fact, is dwindling at an alarming rate?
Food security is on everyone’s mind today, with climate change, global warming, war, political and economic crises, and gross inequality of wealth all contributing to the deprivation of food in many parts of the world. The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has reported that, as early as 2009, people who are chronically hungry had hit the one billion mark. Just imagine, a billion people mostly from Asia and Africa, tethering on scraps of food, barely surviving.
Ironically, at the other side of the world, in the west, food waste and food loss is an everyday occurrence. In 2007, wasted food globally was equivalent to 1.4 billion hectares of agricultural production. FAO’s statement on this inequity hits the mark. It says “Up to one third of all food is spoiled or squandered before it is consumed by people. It is an excess in an age where almost a billion people go hungry, and represents a waste of the labor, water, energy, land and other inputs that went into producing that food.”
Saving Food Using Technology
According to FAO, we need to produce and equitably distribute 70% more food in the next three decades if we are to save billions from going hungry. This has brought scientists, researchers and agricultural experts in a race to come up with solutions to arrest food waste and food loss and make agricultural production more efficient.
Food loss can happen throughout the food supply chain, from initial production to household consumption. Inefficient ways in harvesting, storage, packing, and transport, as well as problematic infrastructure or market/price mechanisms and institutional frameworks lead to food spoilage or food loss.
Thankfully, technology has reached that level of advancement where, if used humanely, can lead to the planet’s deliverance. For example, technology today allows for the management of end-of-life products, such as what the French start-up company Phenix has been doing. Using a web-based application, they connect supermarkets who want to dispose of their near-expiry products to Non Government Organizations (NGOs) and consumers who still want these products. This and many other heroic and high-tech initiatives are being done to support efforts to lessen food waste. Behind all these is the use of big data.
Experts believe that using big data and advanced analytics in the value chain — from production to post-harvest to marketing and consumption – will not only lead to higher agricultural yield and more food for more people, it will lead to sustainable value creation. The ultimate goal of advancing a circular economy can now be applied in the global food chain using big data.
Use of Big Data in Agriculture and Post-Harvest
In the Digital Age, data has become a precious, indispensable component in every aspect of life, but most specially, perhaps, in agricultural production. Advancements in technology has made it possible to implement precision agriculture.
Precision agriculture is today’s high-tech approach to agricultural production. Farms can be observed, measured and analyzed to determine what necessary intervention can be done to accelerate growth and increase harvest potential. We have mentioned use cases of technology-enabled farms in previous blogs (Smart Farms To Keep the World Food Secure) where we explained how big data and advanced analytics are helping farmers increase productivity.
Robotics is also part of precision agriculture as it comes in handy for gathering data, from aerial images to weather. Tech companies have come to great lengths to offer farmers with better performing sensors that can be installed in farms. The sensors generate a range of data, from irrigation and soil condition, to needs of every plant. Tech giant IBM is has released its latest precision weather-forecasting solution, Deep Thunder.
Down the line of the value chain, big data and advanced analytics is used as well for efficient post-harvest packaging, delivery, and marketing. The major concern in this part of the food chain is waste management which is tied to efficient packaging, transport and delivery. Another critical concern is food safety.
Automation is often the solution to prevent spoilage and make reliable deliveries along the value chain. By using automated systems, transporting products takes lesser time and thus lessens risk of food spoilage. As in the case of Tahona Goyesca, efficient transport and delivery of products is possible using an IoT platform. They use Wireless Sensor Network (WSN) system to monitor the exact longitude and latitude position for each delivery van, and acquire real-time reports on the status, including temperature, network signal and battery.
One laudable innovation being done using IoT and big data is on improving food safety. Scientists are now developing consumer food scanners called spectroscopy which analyzes a dish to generate information about its ingredients, microbial composition, if any, and other organic matters present in the food.
Better Financial Services for Farmers
Apart from setting up climate-resilient farm planning and practices, another problem area that is being addressed by technology is the set-up of more efficient financial services. Big growers often use insurance contracts to protect them from risks such as harvest failure, crop damage due to weather and pests. By using big data, insurers are able to calculate the level of risk for every geographic area and thus generate analysis and recommendations. Advanced planning and mitigation efforts can also be done by the growers to minimize risks.
To make payment systems for food trade more efficient, experts devised digital platforms that can be used by ordinary farmers. For example, in Kenya, a trading platform for newly harvested crops by small growers allows transaction exchange using mobile phone. Updated market prices are also sent via SMS to farmers to help them make better marketing decisions.
All around the world, digital tools, big data and IoT are taken to the level in which these become indispensable to producing food and ensuring that every table in every home anywhere have food that is sufficient and safe.