The Future of Feeding the World

The UN projects that the world population will hit 8.5 billion in 2030, an increase of 16 percent in just 15 years — and some 795 million people are already going hungry each day. Making sure we can produce and distribute enough food to sustain everyone is one of the greatest challenges humanity faces. That’s why it’s urgent that we rethink how the world’s population feeds itself.

A Menu of Challenges

A child handicapped by the effects of a poor diet isn’t likely to complete an advanced degree. A community surviving on subsistence farming can’t spare its brightest minds for innovation. A country relying on dirty energy for inefficient farming isn’t fighting climate change or becoming a regional or global economic powerhouse. However, while the challenges of food production affect some individuals, social groups, or countries more than others, they touch everyone. Indeed, they’re so intertwined with health, energy consumption, the environment, and education levels that we can’t address challenges in those areas without considering the global food system as well. Consider these facts:

  • Malnutrition is the largest contributor to disease in the world.
  • Nearly one in four children worldwide are malnourished, contributing to reduced school performance and impaired brain development.
  • Food systems account for 70 percent of freshwater use and consume 30 percent of the world’s available energy, much of it in fossil fuels.
  • Food systems account for 20-30 percent of global greenhouse emissions, even as climate change threatens to reduce crop yields by 25 percent or more.
  • Agriculture is the most significant driver of deforestation, which rose 51 percent from 2015 to 2016.

Tomorrow’s Blue Plate Specials

Addressing these challenges won’t be easy, but investment in new technologies that will help is beginning to ramp up, with $14 billion invested in 1,000 startups related to food systems between 2010 and 2017. (By comparison, investors poured $145 billion into 18,000 healthcare startups in the same timeframe.) If the trend continues, a recent report from the World Economic Forum suggests that the planet’s food systems could look very different by 2030. By applying technology innovations, we could shrink the environmental burden of farming, improve crop diversity so diets are more nutritious and agriculture is more sustainable, help farmers produce more food while increasing their profits, and make food distribution more safe and efficient. Here are a few examples:

  • Using the Internet of Things (IoT) and machine learning technologies, precision agriculture methods will optimize land and water use for different crops and farming conditions, lowering costs and increasing production while reducing freshwater use.
  • Applying Big Data analytics to insurance statistics about farming conditions and yields will lower the risks for farmers to try new crops and methods.
  • Sensor-enabled food transportation will reduce wasted food by letting companies in the food supply chain adjust temperature, humidity, and other transportation conditions in real time.
  • Sensors and blockchain technology will improve supply chain transparency, further reducing food waste and loss while preventing tampering, counterfeiting, and mislabeling.
  • Advanced batteries and other off-grid ways to generate and store renewable energy will make farming equipment both more environmentally friendly and less expensive to operate while letting farmers sell excess electricity back to the grid as an additional “crop.”

These digital transformations of the global food ecosystem are either already here or well on their way. Looking a bit farther into the future, we may see even more disruptive changes.

For one thing, some experts are suggesting it’s time we seriously rethink our entire diet — limiting or even eliminating some familiar foods, creating more sustainable versions of others, and starting to eat things that not everyone currently considers edible. For example, there’s a growing body of evidence that human population won’t be able to sustain the environmental footprint of large-scale cattle production, which requires enormous amounts of land, water, and crops for feed while emitting significant levels of greenhouse gases. We could find ourselves eating far less beef, or none at all — or we could start eating burgers from beef that was never on the hoof at all, but cultured in a lab. The milk we put in our morning coffee might come not from cows, but from genetically modified yeast. And to get more protein in our diets, we might start our mornings with muffins made from cricket flour.

Don’t cringe. New technologies will make sure that tomorrow’s plant-derived, cultured, and engineered foods are every bit as nutritious — and tasty — as the ones we already enjoy, while reducing the environmental damage caused by animal agriculture. Indeed, influential investors like Richard Branson and Bill Gates are betting millions on it.

We’re also likely to see new farming methods designed to increase yield and grow food in places unfriendly to traditional agriculture. “Plantscrapers” might tuck vertical farms into urban residential and business buildings in a symbiosis where the plants provide food and cleaner air in exchange for human-created heat and fertilizer. AI-optimized bacteria selected by machine learning algorithms for their ability to make the greatest impact on food crops could make plants hardier and more productive. We could pollinate crops with bees that have been genetically engineered to resist disease — or tiny autonomous “RoboBees,” if we can’t bring bees back from Colony Collapse Disorder.

This Meal Won’t Make Itself

Technology alone, of course, isn’t enough to ensure a well-fed future for everyone. Changing a global system will take time, and every change has implications, from the question of who controls which data to the issue of what other jobs might be available for people who no longer need to spend their time farming.

Rethinking the global food system requires us to envision, plan for, and execute on multiple possible futures without knowing for sure which will come to pass or how unexpected events might redirect us. What’s more, the challenges of food insecurity are so complex and interrelated that solving them will be difficult if all we do is work forward from what’s happening today.

It makes more sense to come up with alternative versions of the future, then work backward to determine what might create each of these different possible outcomes. What are the variables involved, such as weather patterns, political considerations, demands for different types of food, availability of loans, and access to markets? What possible futures could those variables enable? If we change nothing, which of these futures is the most likely? And finally, which future is the most desirable, and what steps must we take to make sure it comes to pass?

In the end, feeding 8.5 billion people by 2030 is as much a matter of mindset as it is of technology. To get there, we need to shift our ingrained assumptions about how the global food system works, how we make sure everyone has enough to eat, and most of all, why it matters. That demands that we expand our options beyond what we already understand and start thinking about what we haven’t tried yet.

More Food for Thought

None of the world’s challenges exist in isolation, but the need to feed the hungry impacts more other challenges than most. Consider these statistics:

  • Agriculture is the world’s largest employer. In less developed countries, it employs around 60 percent of workers, many of whom might otherwise enter other industries and increase economic development.
  • Women make up 43 percent of agricultural labor but have disproportionately low access to resources like land, technology, and markets, which traps them in poverty and prevents them from participating fully in the global economy.
  • Seven out of ten people in the world live in a country where inequality has risen over the last 30 years. As inequality rises, so does food insecurity, which in turn creates and exacerbates conflicts from food riots to mass migration of refugees.

The better we get at tackling the problem of global hunger and food insecurity, the better our chances of addressing other pressing issues, too.

Dan Wellers is the global lead of Digital Futures at SAP. Michael Rander is the global research director of Future of Work at SAP.

This story originally appeared on the Digitalist.