Re-thinking the Future of Food Systems

Each month, we will highlight a recent development, initiative or trend in the technology and SDGs landscape. In this month’s story, we look at the the future of food systems.

Re-thinking the future of food systems

To end all forms of hunger and malnutrition by 2030, we must dramatically improve the way we grow, share and consume food - and this must include increased effort to ensure that we use resources more efficiently along the value chain. 

Global food systems are responsible for around a third of global greenhouse-gas emissions. And while nearly a third of global food production is currently wasted, over 820 million people are undernourished. Recent estimates suggest that for every dollar spent on food, society pays two dollars in economic, social and environmental costs.

2030Vision believe that digital technology, although not a silver bullet, can and must play an important role in solving these challenges. In 2017, we identified a range of digital technology solutions that have the potential to transform the food system. Here we explore three recent ways that companies are developing or using digital technologies to help improve resource efficiency in the food system by 2030.

Increasing precision in the use of agricultural resources

Precision agricultural techniques could increase global crop production by up to 300 million tonnes, reduce farmers costs by USD 100 billion and reduce freshwater withdrawals by 180 billion cubic metres, according to WEF and McKinsey’s latest analysis.

Precision agriculture takes advantage of modern technologies to collect and provide information that can inform crop management decisions - including what resources are needed - at a spatially precise level on farms. For example, Farmer’s Edge, BASF and several other companies provide apps that integrate data from satellites, microwave sensing, tractor GPS and other sources to help farmers to use resources such as water and fertiliser precisely where and when they are needed.  

Investors are taking an interest in these new technologies. For example, Waterbit, a company that allows farmers to precisely monitor and control irrigation based on data collected through web-enabled sensors, secured USD 11.4 million from investors in 2018. Their technology helps to ensure that water is delivered in the right place at the right time.  

Robotics are also being developed that will transform the way we farm. For example, Harper Adams University announced in 2017 that they had planted, tended and harvested a hectare of crop hands free by employing autonomous vehicles and drones. 

Boosting traceability in supply chains

IBM’s Food Trust pilot with Walmart and Tsinghua University in 2017, demonstrated that whereas previously it took 7 days to track a food item back to source in a supply chain, with blockchain it could be done in just 2.2 seconds. The tool connects growers, processors, distributors, and retailers and enables companies to - for example - locate and recall contaminated products before consumption. Since it was launched commercially in 2018, brands such as Carrefour, Dole, Kroger, Nestle and Unilever have signed up.

Leveraging Artificial Intelligence to reduce food waste

According to Ellen Macarthur Foundation and Google, artificial intelligence (AI) could generate up to USD 127 billion in economic opportunities per year in 2030 by helping to design food waste out of global food value chains. 

Norwegian company TOMRA produce AI algorithms that analyse images and data to identify, evaluate and sort food products. Their technology can, for example, identify non-uniform carrots or potatoes, sort these according to their optimal use and so prevent unnecessary wastage.  

Google are exploring how AI can help turn leftover food into valuable products. Working with software company Leanpath, they support front-line food service workers to make use of hundreds of thousands of tonnes of pre and post-consumer food waste from their cafes. For example, in a food service kitchen, smart hardware identifies excess bread and AI is then used to suggest recipes it can be used for, such as croutons, breadcrumbs or even animal feed. This helps to ensure that maximum value is extracted from raw produce. 

Collaborating to achieve the goals

Although these recent developments are encouraging, there is clearly much more we must do if we are to make our current food system sustainable by 2030.  
At 2030Vision, we believe that collaboration between businesses, NGOs and governments will be critical way to accelerate and scale technological progress towards the sustainable development goals. 2030Vision provides a forum in which some of these discussions can take place.

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