Geographical disparities in food availability are posing a challenge for aid and relief agencies. Emerging digital and corporate efforts attempt to ease this problem in a multi-lateral effort to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.
Dubai, UAE, February 14, 2018: Even as lavish buffets wrap up and piles of leftovers are thrown away, thousands of children in developing countries are being diagnosed with life-threatening malnutrition. It is ironic that malnutrition exists even while the abundance of food in the world increases. Every hour, nearly 1,000 people – mostly children under five years of age – die from malnutrition-related health complications, according to UNICEF.
Annually, malnutrition causes more than 300,000 deaths in children younger than five years in developing countries. Today, malnutrition is the third leading cause of death in children under five in sub-Saharan Africa.
The numbers are alarming, and so is the fact that such a condition exists in the 21st century. With generations of children unlikely to reach their full mental and physical potential because of chronic malnutrition, the condition poses a serious long-term human and economic cost.
Digital technology is coming to the help of aid institutions working to relieve some of the effects of malnutrition.
At the World Government Summit 2018 in Dubai, held from February 11 to 13, Her Royal Highness Princess Haya bint Al Hussein, Chairperson of International Humanitarian City, launched the Humanitarian Logistics Data Bank, an information-exchange platform. “The bank will facilitate real-time data collection for the deployment of aid in impacted regions, quickly and professionally,” she said.
The bank has been designed with the inputs of 70 UN agencies and international organizations. It will be duplicated by 10 other humanitarian hubs by 2019. It will allow global mapping of available relief items and help co-ordinate and optimize relief efforts.
ELIMINATING THE CAUSES
To root out the causes of malnutrition in a region, it is necessary to collaborate with government, non-government, and donor stakeholders, discuss possible interventions, interview data sources, and identify information gaps. That is precisely what the World Food Programme's (WFP) ‘Fill the Nutrient Gap' team did in Pakistan between November 2016 and April 2017, in collaboration with national and provincial branches of the Scaling Up Nutrition Movement.
After conducting a study into food availability and household purchasing power in the country, they found that two-thirds of Pakistan's households – 67 per cent, to be exact – could not afford to eat well. Other factors such as poor access to food and the prevalence of natural disasters compounded the problem.
Unlike staple food like wheat – which Pakistan has been a surplus producer of – the prices of many nutrient-dense foods such as pulses have increased significantly in recent years, according to the WFP. The analysis made a series of recommendations that were sent by national stakeholders to different sectors to improve nutrition in the country.
REDIRECTING FOOD WASTE
Along with initiatives to tackle malnutrition, efforts are being made to reduce food wastage. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reports that up to one-third of food is spoiled or discarded before consumption, which contrasts with the 800 million people considered chronically hungry globally.
Food waste also has rippling environmental effects. Wasted food accounts for 19 per cent of the waste dumped in landfills, which contributes to the production of greenhouse gases like methane, which is at least 25 times more powerful in global warming than carbon dioxide.
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, decomposition of uneaten food accounts for 23 per cent of all methane emissions in America.
Fortunately, we can recover and redirect uneaten food waste to other uses. California Safe Soil, for example, leverages food waste for fertilizer, helping supermarkets recycle their organics, improve store hygiene, and reduce costs, whilst enabling farmers to save money, increase crop yield, and reduce nitrate runoff.
Meanwhile, wholesalers usually throw away thousands of tons of perfectly edible food every day. Although many would rather donate the food than get rid of it, they often have trouble finding charities before the food perishes.
This has given rise to forward-thinking businesses such as Food Cowboy, a US company that uses location-based technology to route food “waste” to its highest and best users.
BuffetGo is another business helping to combat the food waste epidemic around the world. The American company has partnered with restaurants to allow customers to purchase their unsold fresh food before they close at massive discounts, as well as buffet leftovers. Through a mobile app, users can purchase takeout meals from local restaurants with discounts of up to 90 per cent.
In the UAE, there are initiatives such as Dubai Municipality's ‘Heafz Al Na'amah', a food donation drive where excess food from large banquets and buffets is packaged and delivered to the less fortunate.
While these efforts are helping to cut down food waste, they do not address the expected surge in agricultural demand.
The world's population is projected to grow to almost 10 billion by 2050 from the current 7.5 billion, based on UN statistics. This is expected to boost agricultural demand by some 50 per cent by 2050 compared to 2013, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FOA) has predicted.
Unconventional routes are now being explored as possible solutions for food shortages in the future. As the growing global population puts more pressure on traditional sources of protein, experts are looking at making insects more palatable for human consumption.
Speaking at the World Government Summit 2018 in Dubai, Kees Aarts, founder of Protix, a Dutch company developing smart technologies to convert end-of-life organic waste into valuable nutrients, said governments have a huge role to play in managing new avenues of agriculture and steering populations away from less sustainable models of food supply.
Protix was founded with the idea of rearing insects — which can survive on the wasted produce — and then be turned back into protein, which can feed animals and potentially humans. The company has developed technology which can produce large quantities of this insect-based ingredient for feed on a weekly basis and has plans to scale it internationally.
In that context, insects - which are abundant and a source of good protein – could be added to supplies of fish and chicken, or eaten directly. “There is a mind-boggling number of opportunities – as there are thousands of different species. In nature, many animals feed on insects naturally so there is huge potential for farming in this area, as does our own consumption,” Aarts said, adding that these ingredients also have the lowest footprint of any protein source.
However, it is the use of digital agriculture that will make the biggest and fastest difference, enabling farmers and other stakeholders in the agriculture value chain to improve food production. The result would be more consistent, more productive, and promote more resource-efficient farming, according to Project Breakthrough, a partnership between UN Global Impact, sustainability group Global Compact Lead, and transformation agency Volans.
Most of today's farmers make decisions such as how much fertiliser to apply based on a combination of rough measurements and experience. The results are normally not seen until harvest time.
In contrast, a digital agriculture system gathers data more frequently and accurately, often with external sources such as weather information. The resulting data is analyzed so the farmer can make more informed decisions, which can then be implemented with greater accuracy through robotics and advanced machinery.
Digital technologies include sensors, communication networks, Unmanned Aviation Systems, artificial intelligence, robotics, and advanced machinery. Each of these technologies brings something valuable to farming. Sensors help agriculture by enabling real-time traceability and diagnosis of crop, livestock, and farm machine states. Automation could boost agriculture output via large-scale robotic and micro-robots to check and maintain crops at the plant level.
According to London-based PA Consulting, the digital agriculture market is projected to triple to USD 15 billion by 2021. The forecast growth includes the value of software, algorithms, platforms, and links between farming and technology hardware.
Digital agriculture holds the potential to advance many of the Sustainable Development Goals, including SDG 2, which aims to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture by 2030.
BUSINESSES STEP IN
Policy and governance play a major role in achieving this goal. But with the private sector taking a more active role in implementing the SDGs, ending hunger and malnutrition looks within reach.
“Never before has speed of change been so fast as in 2018, but also never again it will be so slow as in 2018. We have to move much more quickly to a situation where nobody is left behind,” Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, said at the WGS.
Just seeing the number of corporates that have joined Business for 2030 – an official Action Network of the UN Partnerships Registry of the Economic and Social Council – gives an indication of the private sector's large involvement.
Phillips Healthcare Services has pledged to provide 150,000 Kenyan children with micronutrient powder by 2018. So far, the initiative has reached around 22,500 children through the sale of 39 million units. Walmart, the world's largest food retailer, aspires to provide four billion meals to those who need them in the US from 2015 to 2020 via grants from its foundation and food donations from its stores. To date, 1.1 billion meals have been provided and USD 61 million has been contributed to organizations.
American multinational agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation Monsanto adopted a goal to help farmers double yields by 2030 from 2000 levels for canola, corn, cotton, and soybean. This will be accomplished through improved seeds and agronomic practices. The company has reported yield gains 44 per cent in canola, 33 per cent in corn, 28 per cent in cotton, and 21 per cent in soybean against the 2030 goal.
“Agriculture intersects the toughest challenges we all face on the planet,' Hugh Grant, CEO of Monsanto, said when announcing the commitment to double yield in their three core crops by 2030. “These commitments represent the beginning of a journey that we will expand on and deepen in the years ahead.”