Feeding the world’s population over the next 50 years will require as much food as we’ve produced since the beginning of civilization. Can we do it?
I believe we can. But the question highlights the magnitude of this challenge. We feed 7.7 billion people today and by 2056 will need to feed a projected 10 billion. Failure to meet this challenge would mean widespread food shortages, hunger and starvation, and social and political upheaval. Since we cannot create more arable land, we must do the following:
- Grow more. There is a need to focus on the pre-harvest portion of the food supply chain to increase farmland yields.
- Increase efficiencies throughout the supply chain, especially in our use of water.
- Reduce waste. The opportunities here are enormous. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) found that one-third of all food grown in the world, or 1.3 billion tonnes, is either lost or wasted.
Agricultural technology (AgTech) is vital to making progress in all three areas. And as I will explain, so is the farmer.
Much research is being conducted to improve crop yields. For example scientists have found plants in the desert—which would otherwise be impaired by soil salinity—benefit from microbial life. Bacteria might be able to help non-desert plants and food crops grow amid high levels of salinity, extreme temperatures, nutrient deficiency or drought.
Research is also underway to develop crops that are more resistant to insects (since diseases and pests reduce global food yields by approximately 35 per cent) and herbicides, allowing farmers to kill weeds without harming their crops. Drought-resistant crops are also under development.
Significant global investments are being made in smart farming. Companies are offering a variety of technologies and solutions for several types of precision crop farming tools, including GPS tracking, soil scanning, data management, precision irrigation, crop scouting, and yield monitoring and forecasting, among other technologies. Indoor agriculture has been found to cut supply chain lengths dramatically, reducing the carbon footprint. Indoor and vertical growing, combined with renewable energy technology, can cut energy costs and carbon footprints.
The opportunity to reduce food and ag waste is enormous. The challenge here is personal. I grew up in a small farming community in Saskatchewan, Canada, and in 2009 my parents suffered a devasting loss of grain due to spoilage. This incident, which could have been prevented, spurred the creation of a family-based innovation to help farmers reduce grain spoilage through the establishment of a product called Bin-Sense®. This product gives farmers the ability to monitor their stored grain, anywhere, anytime using a smartphone app.
Grain spoilage can happen in a number of ways. For example insects can create hot spots that spread through the grain as the infestation grows. Another cause can be a high percentage of green seeds, that is, seeds that are not dry, that create pockets of moisture, spoiling the grain through mould growth.
Even farmers who take all the precautions can experience large quantities of grain spoilage without warning. Worse, there is no insurance available. Farmers bear the full brunt of the loss, which can cost as much as $500,000 for a single incident. And those costs do not include any damage to the bin itself. Worst case, the bin becomes useless.
Canada has some of the best storage practices in the world. Yet, we still lose far too much to spoilage. Developing countries lose much more partly due to poor storage.
Solutions Must Benefit the Farmer
It’s tempting to think of AgTech as top-down innovation, where solutions move from laboratory to field. But having grown up on a farm I know first-hand that any solution lacking buy-in from farmers is doomed.
Agriculture is still very much a family-run industry. The FAO says 90% of farms are family-owned and produce 80% of the world’s food.
Asking a producer to adopt new technology for the greater good is like asking your kids to finish their dinner because of global food insecurity. If farmers don’t value the technology they won’t use it.
So what is a key success factor for feeding the world’s hungry? Keeping the farmers’ best interests in mind.