To feed a world population forecast to hit 9.6 billion by 2050, global food production must increase by 70 per cent. Our food supply chains, including production, transportation, processing and waste are all under significant strain, particularly impacted by climate change that is undermining crop production by 2% per decade. These factors mean that there is increasing worry that we will not be able to sustain and nourish future populations. However, scientists are turning to technologies developed as part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), to ease the burden of the food crisis and shape a new vision in how we feed the world. 

The Internet of Thing (IoT), is the ability to link all forms of device, objects and sensors to one system that allows for smart decisions and significantly increased efficiencies across all manner of processes and systems. It has hugely significant potential to help solve the global food crisis. For example, researchers at IBM are utilising IoT platforms to generate sensor data that is integrated with predictive analytics to deliver precision farming. 

The use of real time sensors can optimise growing, planting and harvesting to facilitate the best yield from farming practices. These sensors register soil moisture, livestock feed levels, crop growth and equipment efficiency the improve overall results of farming. Paul Chang, Global Supply Chain Expert at IBM said of sustainable farming could change how we produce food “to maximize yield, minimize losses, and ensure sustainable practices.” 

A key benefit of an IoT approach is that it does not price less developed countries out of the market. Data that is stored in the cloud can be easily accessed from mobile devices so that everyone has access to the latest technology that can be applied to their own farm, or industry. 

In addition, Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN) providers are deploying their sensors operate over Low Power, Wide Area Networks (LPWAN) that will reduce the costs of deployment and connectivity over long ranges. Will Yapp, vice president of Business Development at Senet, one such provider, recently said “[LPWAN sensors] are ideal for gathering data about local agricultural and environmental conditions supporting IoT applications designed to increase the quality, quantity, sustainability and cost effectiveness of agricultural production”.

Key to generating maximum yields from farming practices to ensure enough food is produced for the population is the ability to leverage weather data.  By making farming decisions based on big data stored in the cloud, producers are able to drive efficiency and ultimately, profitability. According to Carrie Gillespie, Agriculture Lead for The Weather Company, “Ninety percent of all crop losses are due to weather.” The capacity to analyse weather patterns enables the agricultural industry to decide when or how much to irrigate, or when to adapt levels of pesticide and fertilizer. In addition, fusing weather forecasts with silo sensor data, allows producers to predict an anomaly before food is adversely affected.

Ensuring efficiency of the supply chain is also vital to helping ease the global food crisis. Using technology and the resulting data collected from IoT devices means companies are able to improve logistics around transportation and harvesting. Driverless tractors are already in use in Europe and the US, but at John Deere, the agricultural, construction, and heavy equipment manufacturer, they are examining the use of sensors and an IoT network to enable unmanned farms. Indeed, the SPREAD vegetable farm in Japan produces lettuces and although the seeds are planted by hand, robots tend the crops, control the temperature, humidity, light and CO2, and sterilise the water supply for the rest of the growing process.

In addition, farming processes are also becoming more automated. The application of fertiliser used to be incredibly labour-intensive but now, fleets of drones can complete this task, whilst herbicides could be a thing of the past as robotic devices applying a laser, or specific dots of chemicals directly to an affected plant are growing in popularity. Automated weeding, harvesting, sorting and packing are in advanced stages of development across the world while even livestock handling could eventually be automated. Robotic milkers are now affordable to even small-scale producers. 

Reducing waste is possibly the most fundamental part of addressing the global food crisis. The Food and Agricultural Organization of United Nations (FAO) estimates that approximately 1.3 billion tonnes, or one third of the food produced every year is wasted, costing industrialized countries  around $ 680 billion and those in less developed countries US$ 310 billion, every year. 

Insect infestation is just one cause of significant food waste, although it is a very difficult issue to solve. Whilst fumigation is used to try and reduced food waste caused by infestation, it is very difficult to detect whether it has been successful or not. Often, despite treatment the food is still wasted later in the journey. Scientists are therefore developing better fumigation systems, ones that use chemicals such as Phosphine to help save billions of dollars of food every year. It is easy to use, leave no residue or odour leaving the food edible and reducing significant waste in the process. 

Advances in technology are also helping to increase visibility along global supply chain to monitor for infestation or waste at each data point. Advances in nanomaterials enable sensors to become smaller and consume less power, enabling producers to embed them in storage bags or consumer packaging to allow continuous monitoring at every stage. This collected data then allows customers to gain immediate access to a piece of produce’s history, improving accountability, traceability and assurances of ethical practices. 

If we look to the future, we are not far from an entirely new way of producing food. 3D printing offers significant potential; indeed some believe it could; “eliminate inefficiencies across the food market by dramatically reducing food spoilage…while bolstering the consumer’s ability to personalise according to her wants and needs,” as explained by Jordan French, CMO at 3D food printing startup BeeHex. 3D printers allows us to eliminate the steps between production and consumption. Produce such as vegetable or fruit are converted into a powdered micronutrient immediately after harvest, allowing for easy transportation without the risk of decomposition. Once received, the consumer then uses a 3D printer to reassemble the produce into its original form using less energy and creating less waste than transporting goods around the world. 

The key to addressing the issue of the global food crisis is collaboration. Only by investing in research and technology that addresses the key contributors to the food shortage can we begin to reverse the situation. 

Whilst there are many investigating potential solutions, governments need to adopt some of the more developed solutions on a mass scale soon, to feed the additional 2.3 billion people the will join the global population in the next 32 years. 

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