It's time to get real serious about food
In 1996, representatives of 185 countries attending the World Food Summit in Rome made a commitment to eradicate global hunger. Yet, almost 25 years later more than 820 million people remain chronically hungry... and over 2 billion more experience moderate to severe food insecurity. This includes 8 per cent of the population of North America and Europe.
The Rome declaration went on to state that “Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”
For all the Rome summit’s good intentions, the general consensus among governments and organisations specialised in this sphere remains that the world’s growing population urgently needs more food. While this is undoubtedly true, there are a number of additional and crucial points to consider.
Firstly, consumers are becoming increasingly focused on the sustainability, healthiness and freshness of the food they are eating. This in turn is forcing the food industry to innovate in the areas of production, demand and adhering to necessary regulation. As a result, the market for plant-based proteins alone is expected to grow from $5 billion to $85 billion over the next decade, a growth rate of 28 per cent year-on-year.
To meet this surge, new technologies are emerging to create innovative ways of producing fresh food. The “food tech” sector is, as a result, growing exponentially, exploring not only how and where food is grown, but also how it reaches its consumers.
There are also tremendous opportunities to leverage the latest advances in smart transportation and storage technologies to reduce pre-consumer food waste, which in a market such as the US amounts to a staggering 40 per cent of all wasted food.
Sheer growth in waste
A second consideration that is rarely highlighted by the “more food” lobby is the accelerating global trend towards urbanisation. According to the UN, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050, adding another 2.5 billion people to the existing 7 billion. Ninety per cent of this population growth will be in Asia and Africa.
As history tells us, urbanisation of such extraordinary proportions means a likely rapid rise in urban food insecurity, as well as poverty. In addition to facing the challenge of providing adequate employment for the urban poor, these cities are burdened with the problem of disposal urban waste, projected to reach 2.2 billion tonnes/year globally in 2025, an increase of 70 per cent in just over seven years.
Here’s the solution
Urban agriculture can eliminate the high costs of supply chain and logistics, especially to the urban poor, while creating new jobs. It can lead to new technology-infused building architecture for efficient indoor farming, the use of sustainable and efficient re-utilization of organic waste as compost, and novel urban wastewater techniques for irrigation.
Its integration into the urban food system helps to shape sustainable urban policies and plans. In essence, “ag tech” provides powerful integrated solutions that can simultaneously reduce urban poverty, food insecurity and enhance urban environmental management.
But don’t forget the traditional
All this is not to say that developing more efficient ways of producing food in the traditional ways is not needed as well. In Asia, for instance, a new model for collaboration in agriculture is being implemented by five countries in ASEAN. A group of private sector companies, government and NGOs in Indonesia are working with corn farmers to improve productivity and profitability by offering bundled services such as microfinance, crop insurance, digital payments, financial literacy and markets access.
This is producing higher yield per land and water usage which benefits traditional farmers. Similar efforts in Vietnam have led to coffee farmers increasing productivity by 30 per cent, reducing water usage by 40 per cent and cutting their carbon footprint by half. The model now serves as the basis for a new national sustainability platform.
In sparking innovation in the food security sector, governments and private sector businesses must work together to spearhead new initiatives. A multifaceted approach is critical to solving food security issues, and it’s important that the goals and objectives of the private sector are built around those of the government.
This is the aim of the FoodTech Challenge, an initiative I am honored to be a part of. Launched last September by the UAE Food Security Office and Tamkeen, an Abu Dhabi-based company mandated to deliver projects to meet the UAE’s vision of knowledge-based development, the FoodTech Challenge underscores the need for greater investment in innovation and research in food security.
It seeks innovative solutions across the food value chain by drawing on local and international collaboration and offers prizes worth $1 million. Encouraging participation by university students, startups, and incubators in the urban farming space, the deadline for submissions is on February 13 and an awards ceremony is to be held in April.
- Ramesh Jagannathan is Vice Provost for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and Managing Director of startAD, the global accelerator at NYU Abu Dhabi.