A 2018 Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) report estimates that around the world, over 821 million people are hungry. Almost all sub-regions of Africa and many parts of South America are experiencing an increase in either under-nourishment or severe food insecurity and this situation is set to worsen. The UN expects that by 2050, the world population will reach 9.8 billion people, yet to cater for this number of people, the global food supply must grow by 70%. 

Falling water tables, reducing grain yields, rising temperatures, soil erosion and climate change are all responsible for the difficulty in expanding production fast enough to provide adequate food supplies. As Evan Fraser, author of Empires of Food, says: “For six of the last 11 years the world has consumed more food than it has grown. We do not have any buffer and are running down reserves. Our stocks are very low and if we have dry winters and a poor rice harvest, we could see a major food crisis across the board.”

In 2015, the UN set out a list of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) designed to tackle the biggest challenges. The second SDG ‘Zero Hunger’ incorporates a number of objectives to achieve by 2030 including; access by all to safe, nutritious and sufficient food, doubling agriculture productivity of small-scale food producers and building and maintaining sustainable food production systems. 

To eliminate hunger, investment must be made in sustainable food production systems that boost efficiency at as low cost as possible. However, to make the most impact on global food production, tackling climate change needs to be top of all government agendas. 

As the global temperature rises, increasing pressure is placed on the resources needed to grow and harvest food. Major disaster incidents such as droughts and floods are becoming more commonplace, ruining crops year after year leaving many rural communities struggling to feed their families. 

As well as malnutrition and illness, a lack of food causes socioeconomic problems such as mass migration to cities with already strained infrastructure. Consequently, to allow farmers and their communities to remain in their homes and live prosperous, healthy lives, focus must be placed on innovations that harness the efficient use of agricultural resources to increase productivity and reduce waste. 

One such 4IR-led innovation is ‘Sponsh’, a temperature-sensitive, ‘smart’ textile that produces water from the air without using energy. Using biomimetics to replicate how nature sustains life in dry, coastal areas, during low-temperatures the textile absorbs significant amounts of water from the atmosphere. At high temperatures and when the land beneath it needs it the most, the material becomes hydrophobic, forcing the fibres to automatically contract, repelling the water and squeezing it out like a sponge. 

Similar to how desert spiders use their webs to catch and absorb water from the air, or the Namibian desert beetle has hydrophilic and hydrophobic areas on its skin, this technology is a solution to water shortages that put crops in danger. 

Sponsh is fully off-grid, power-free, affordable and its applications vary widely from crop and tree irrigation to creating drinking water for people and livestock in remote areas.

Water is fundamental to relieving hunger in the developing world. According to the World Health Organisation, 84% of people who don't have access to sufficient water live in rural areas and yet it is these regions where they also live principally through subsistence agriculture. Sometimes, areas that experience a lack of water suffer because of poor water management, but more often it is a relatively simple economic issue that can be addressed through sustainable ideas such as Sponsh. For instance, current research shows that one square metre of Sponsh material can produce up to 1.3 litres of water per day. 

The key to addressing the issue of the global food crisis is collaboration. By fostering knowledge-exchange and allowing free-flow of information on 4IR technologies, particularly to developing countries, all manner of global challenges could be eased or resolved. The Mohammed bin Rashid Initiative for Global Prosperity, a programme run by the Global Manufacturing and Industrialisation Summit (GMIS), is a prime example of ensuring a bottom-up approach to innovation that can change the world. Uniting leading manufacturers, start-ups, entrepreneurs, governments, UN agencies, philanthropists, academia and researchers in a community dedicated to spreading global prosperity through the art of ‘making’ will allow the initiative to identify ideas and solutions that have the potential to positively contribute to global well-being. 

A key part of the initiative is the ‘Global Maker Challenge’, an online open-innovation platform which offers an opportunity for ‘makers’ to tackle real-world problems which affect billions of people across the world. The challenges correspond with the UN’s SDGs and therefore the ‘Zero Hunger’ goal. 

Discovering and utilising new 4IR technology through all manner of initiatives will drive an increase in agricultural production and enhanced coordination among the value chain resulting in more food brought to the market. This is essential if we are to feed the projected 9.7 billion people on earth in 2050. 

By supporting farmers and encouraging them to adopt sustainable agricultural methods through innovations such as Sponsh, food yields will grow, and a higher quality harvest, secured. A better yield will lead to a rise in incomes that can then help nurture local economies and lift the wider community out of poverty. Hunger is a simple problem requiring complex solutions but by putting technology in the hands of those that need help, we can give them the power to change the world. 

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