Technology and innovation: The key to ensuring sustainable global food security

02 April 2018

With Nampo taking place in Bothaville, Free State, this week, a concern that should be uppermost in the minds of everyone attending this premier annual AgriBusiness event in Bothaville is how the world is going to ensure that there is sufficient affordable food to feed an ever-growing population.

Global population growth is expected to continue on an upward trend, while arable land is progressively diminishing and weather patterns are becoming less predictable. It is estimated that the global population will reach 9.8 billion people by 2050, demanding 70% more food than is consumed today. The year 2050 may seem far, but it is a mere 32 years away. Meanwhile, available arable land is not increasing, which means that the children in school today will need to produce 70% more food in 2050, yet with the same resources we have today. The ongoing issue of erratic weather patterns, in turn means, that it is going to be increasingly difficult to produce food. All these factors have combined to put the issue of global food security high on the agenda, and call for sustainable solutions to deal with the threat of mankind running out of food in the future.

A key answer to the food security threat that future generations face lies in harnessing the latest technologies and inputs to create an environment that supports optimal food production. This, coupled with the use of advanced agricultural skills and innovative ways of using information or data, should assist our children in remaining productive.

This is where careful analysis of data comes in, especially since it has been said that 90% of all global information that has ever been captured or created took place in the past two years. The intelligent use of data, part of the so-called “Fourth Industrial Revolution”, will increase efficiency and, ultimately, drive profits and cheaper agricultural production systems. Some of the new technologies showcased at Nampo promise to assist farmers to use and protect their existing resources more efficiently, while growing their profit line. These technologies include bio-innovation, gene editing, robotics, big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning.

A few examples come to mind. Through bio-innovation, today it is possible to produce a beef burger patty entirely from plants. Heme, the magic molecule obtained from Leghemoglobin in the roots of legumes, is what makes this all possible. Heme provides the meaty flavour – from plants! Plant-based patties treated with heme braai, roast and taste like real beef. Currently, 45% of the earth’s surface is used to grow livestock. With heme, further increase in greenhouse gasses as well as the loss of habitat and species can be prevented. Food-borne illnesses and carcinogens are limited. The world will need 75% less water and 95% less land, and no cows, to produce burgers. There are no hormones, antibiotics, pathogens or cholesterol involved.

Gene editing is another example of technological innovation that should go a long way in enhancing the world’s capacity to feed itself: The Institute for Sustainable Agriculture in Spain managed to eliminate 85%, or 35 out of 45, gliadin genes in wheat. This has given hope to have gluten-free wheat soon. However, regulatory issues in many countries remain the largest stumbling block in enhancing wheat varieties for drought and disease resistance.

The field of robotics can also play an important part in ensuring global food security. For instance, robots, such as strawberry harvesters, are already capable of picking as much as 25 acres in three days, a job that is currently being done by a crew of 30 people.

Other examples include:

  • The latest tomato processing equipment is saving up to 90% in labour costs.
  • Water jet cutting technology in Florida to cut lettuce is paid off in a year thanks to increased efficiency.
  • Eighty percent of grapes will be harvested mechanically in Florida by 2022.

The economic benefit of these developments must be seen holistically: they increase efficiencies and economic development for countries.

The use of “big data” will also be crucial to unlocking the world’s potential to produce sufficient food. Vertical farming production systems in the US use 130 000 data points to optimise and monitor growing conditions. Vegetables are grown without soil or sunlight in a fully controlled environment, and about 95% less water is used compared to field farming. Engineered lighting to control the size, shape, colour and even flavor of vegetables is used. Through smart pest management, the life cycle of pests are disrupted without the application of chemicals. 

Artificial Intelligence is another area of innovation that should be considered. Artificial intelligence is the ability of digital systems to perform tasks that are commonly associated with intelligent beings. For example, technology can run pheromone traps to detect pests in a field, the concentration and life cycle there off and to decide when the application of a pesticide will be optimal and timely to combat pests with minimal cost involved and with less environmental impact.

Machine learning: machine learning uses algorithms to parse data, learn from it and make determinations without human intervention. The latest seed and spray technology can trim the world’s spend of $25 billion a year on herbicides by 95%.

Those involved in the production of food should ensure that they keep up with the latest technological developments to avoid being left behind. Worldwide, producers need, in addition to this latest technology, a stable and certain policy environment for producers to focus their attention on production, before it’s too late. 

* Wessel Lemmer is a Senior Agricultural Economist at Absa

Disclaimer: The advice contained on this blog is for general purposes only and does not take into account individual circumstances, objectives or financial needs. Accordingly, readers are advised to seek appropriate advice from licensed professionals prior to making any investment, or taking up a financial product or service.