Feeding a burgeoning population with a destabilising climate: Web Summit 2018

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At the Web Summit 2018 in Lisbon, we joined Robert Opp from the World Food Programme, Richard Shirreff from Strategia Worldwide LTD and Christiana Figueres from Mission 2020 to discuss the future of food. What would happen if restaurants in 15 years from now would follow the same policy on meat that they're following on smoking? Why does 40% of food in developing countries go to waste? How can technology and data help us resolve resource inefficiency and feed the growing population? We wrote down the highlights of this thought-provoking discussion.

By 2050 we will have somewhere between 9 to 12 billion people. With the climate change and exhaustion of natural resources, we have a lot of threats to our food supply. How are we going to feed all of those people?

Christiana Figueres: The challenge of food is actually the nexus of 4 trends that we are seeing:

  1. Population explosion: we’re going up to 9 billion brothers and sisters hence more food necessary.
  2. Economic sustainability: We need to ensure that 2 billion people who are currently driving their income from food production (mostly poor women in developing countries) do not lose their income.
  3. Urbanisation trend: very soon three-quarters of the world population is going to be living in cities. This contributes to a logistical challenge of getting the food from rural areas where it is produced to the urban areas where consumers live.
  4. Climate: unless we address climate in a timely way we will have increased food insecurity in vulnerable countries. Conversely, unless we’re able to manage land properly we will be exacerbating the climate change.
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There at least three challenges that we have to address:

  1. How we produce food for the future: We have to do much better from an ecological and sustainable point of view as well as take advantage of both horizontal and vertical agriculture.
  2. What we are producing: 75% of the land area in the world is inhabitable and 25% is not. 50% of that is actually devoted to food production and 80% of that 50% is devoted to livestock, which is inefficient and bad for our health. What we produce and what we eat has to change.
  3. Irresponsible food waste on every step of the value chain all the way from the farm to the fork.

I think that what we have done up until now is just not giving us any results so I wanted to put forward 3 provocative ideas.

One of the things that we have to do is to restore the degraded lands and make them productive. So what would happen if we actually asked the fossil fuel companies who have to bring down their emissions to additionally finance the reforestation and restoration of degraded lands?

What would happen if restaurants in 15 years from now would follow the same policy that they’re following on smoking? If you want to smoke in a restaurant you go outside. 15 years from now, if you want to eat meat in the restaurant you also need to go outside. Very provocative idea, but smoking and meat are both bad for our health, so why don’t we do it with meat?

Speaking of food waste, why don’t we ask the fertilizer companies to take a look at the food waste and create organic fertilizer out of it?

Richard Shirreff: I look at these challenges from the perspective of confluence, security, stability and prosperity. At the moment we have the world’s largest humanitarian disaster in South Yemen as a consequence of conflict. Conflict often leads to starvation, therefore security ensures stability and ultimately prosperity. This highlights the importance of international organisations like the United Nations, the European Union and NATO. It is only through international effort that fragile states that are unable to feed their own populations can be stabilized.

Robert Opp: There are 821 million people affected by hunger right now. So before we even talk about 9 billion people in 2050, we’ve got to take care of this problem. The good news is that we actually produce enough food globally to feed all those people. However, we have a major distribution problem. Food waste is not exclusively a problem of overconsumption, it is even a bigger issue in the developing world where up to 40% of food can be wasted by the time it gets to market because of inadequate post-harvest storage and inefficiencies in the supply chain.

There are a lot of things that we can do in the area of production. There has been an agricultural revolution in the developed world over the last 10 years with precision farming enabled by GPS, artificial intelligence-powered systems and satellite imagery. We can find ways to bring those business models to nearly 2 billion people living in small farmer households.

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I also think we can improve the efficiency of food systems, markets, supply chain. There are people talking about having drones pick up food from the farmers and take it to a market so that we avoid the problems of the inefficient infrastructure. There are all sorts of things we can do around digital marketplaces, like linking small farmers to buyers digitally, and we are experimenting with that right now at the World Food Programme.

So much of the water that is used by people goes on agriculture. Do we have a water problem as well and how can we innovate our way out of that?

Robert Opp: Scarcity of water in certain spaces is a major problem of course. There are vertical farming and other water-efficient farming techniques. We were experimenting with hydroponics, using it in a very space-constrained environment of refugee camps.

But then there is the issue of water in terms of our oceans. We need to apply the same kind of thinking that I’ve just talked about with agriculture to the aquatic value chain. It is important to collect data, as we can build solutions and business models out of the data sources that are coming our way.

I see this coming with the ubiquitousness of satellite images, drones that are able to take assessment images and low-cost sensors that can be put in the ground or water.

Christiana Figueres: Climate change is disrupting the previously stable hydrological cycle in the world and in particular hydrological cycle in the regions. The agricultural belts around the planet have started shifting as they are not getting the same level of precipitation as they used to. So we need to develop seeds and plants that are more resistant to drought so that we can continue cultivating food in the current areas.

We also need to expect a shift in the geography of food production and plan for it ahead of time. In April Johannesburg was about to run out of water because they had 3 years of drought. Being prepared for that kind of disruption in the hydrological cycle is going to be absolutely critical.

What technology do you think is absolutely vital that we harness in the next few years?

Robert Opp: We can build insurance or microinsurance programs and products to help farmers survive the drought cycles. The World Bank and the United Nations with Amazon, Google, and Microsoft are working on a famine action mechanism to predict famine and take action on early stage. This is going to save us a lot of food and money later on.

Richard Shirreff: The key is agility and quick decision making. We should not only collect data but funnel it into a single source of truth. In other words, technology needs to give us an opportunity to make sense of the data that we collect.

Christiana Figueres: Our problems come from resource inefficiency. All the technologies that can help us make food production much more efficient between supply and demand, transport and distribution are actually that technologies that we need as soon as possible.

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