To achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals the world must answer a major question: how can we feed a growing population in a sustainable way? Global innovators are showing the way
At the heart of all our hopes for future development is a simple equation. According to the United Nations, the world will need 70 per cent more food by 2050 to feed a population of nearly 10 million. To do this, we will need to improve agricultural yields while simultaneously tackling climate change, a thorny issue as food production accounts for one-quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
The food industry faces both immediate and slow-burning challenges. In the short term, the war in Ukraine has exposed the vulnerability of global supply chains, while highlighting the link between energy and food prices. But over the long term, food production also needs to use less land and become less water-intensive and wasteful. And our reliance on synthetic fertiliser, produced through the energy-intensive Haber-Bosch process, is further driving fossil fuel consumption while causing damaging nutrient pollution. Finding new, smarter ways to fertilise crops is therefore vital.
In many ways, the question of food is key to the achievement of all the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. And while the challenges are great, innovators around the world are showing that progress is possible.
SDG 2: Zero hunger
The most obvious SDG relevant to the food industry is SDG 2, which calls for zero hunger. Across the globe, there are 3.1 billion people who can’t afford a healthy, nutritious diet, and one of the key targets within SDG 2 is to end all forms of malnutrition by 2030. To solve this problem, we need to identify those who are undernourished. And here innovators can help. For example, Action Against Hunger has developed the SAM app, which uses images to identify those suffering from acute or chronic malnutrition.
The next step is to treat people. Fortifying food with micro-nutrients is a common solution, and innovators are working to make food fortification more efficient. For example, social enterprise Sanku has developed smart technology that helps small-scale maize millers fortify their flour without passing costs on to consumers. And it’s not only in developing countries where there is a need to tackle malnutrition. Even in the most developed countries, malnutrition is a common condition in hospitals. Startup HealthLeap has developed an AI-powered clinical assistant to tackle this issue.
SDG 1: No poverty
Hunger and poverty are closely linked. Most obviously, those with little money, have little money to spend on food. But the link also exists on the supply side. Small farmers form a large bulk of the people most affected by poverty. According to a World Bank study, 65 per cent of poor working adults make a living through agriculture, and the organisation believes that farming innovation is one of the surest ways to alleviate poverty.
Innovators are rising to the challenge. In Nigeria, ThriveAgric is using software and hands-on assistance to help small farmers earn top dollar for their produce. And in Brazil, TerraMagna is using fintech to help smallholders access affordable credit to invest in their farms. Meanwhile, in Southeast Asia, Wavemaker is making it easier for agricultural producers to turn biomass into higher-value products – all while helping to fight climate change.
SDG 15: Life on land
According to the United Nations Environment Programme, the global food system is the primary driver of biodiversity loss. As we work to feed a growing population, it is vital that we ensure that we are not doing so at the expense of natural ecosystems.
In broad terms, innovators are taking two approaches to this issue. One approach is to reduce the amount of land used for agriculture. For example, New York-based UpFarm plans to add the world’s largest vertical farm to its network in 2023. The new facility will conserve more than 120 acres of land on an annual basis. Meanwhile, others are working to make farmland more compatible with nature. For example, researchers in Germany have found that fields planted in strips of different crops support insects and birds better than conventional farming methods. Meanwhile, in Canada, Bee Vectoring Technologies is reducing the need for harmful chemicals by using bees to deliver organic fungicide as they pollinate.
SDG 6: Clean water and sanitation
Agriculture has a big impact on the availability of clean water in two ways. First, traditional agriculture is water intensive with agricultural irrigation accounting for 70 per cent of water use worldwide. And second, fertilisers, pesticides, and salts from agriculture end up in watercourses leading to water pollution.
Innovators are tackling the first problem through solutions such as solar-powered water pumps that enable farmers to increase their crop yields while using less water, and quick-growing cultured meat that uses only a tiny fraction of the water used in animal husbandry. And to tackle water pollution caused by fertilisers, microTERRA is creating food additives out of an aquatic plant that doesn’t require fertiliser at all: duckweed. Meanwhile, another company, Wyvern, is using satellite technology to help farmers use fewer chemicals, and a solar-powered weed-seeking robot is reducing the amount of chemicals needed to manage weeds.
SDG 12: Responsible production and consumption
Food waste is a huge issue, with one-third of food produced for human consumption lost or wasted globally. It is therefore little wonder that target 12.3 within SDG 12 calls for food waste to be halved by 2030. In the Netherlands, Orbisk is tackling the issue with a system that uses artificial intelligence and computer vision to help commercial kitchens manage food waste. And another AI system from Neolithics checks food for signs of rot, helping to reduce the amount of food that is lost before it even reaches the shelves.
Another way of approaching this problem is to find uses for food that does end up as waste. UK startup LyteGro, for example, uses waste bananas as a growth enhancer that turbo-charges fermentation in food, agricultural, and pharmaceutical processes. Meanwhile, a team of Japanese researchers has discovered a way to use vegetable scraps, such as cabbage leaves and orange peels to create cement.
Words: Matthew Hempstead
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13th October 2022