A report published by the World Economic Forum contends that global food systems are decades behind many other sectors in adoption of technology innovation, particularly in developing countries.
Innovation with a Purpose: The Role of Technology Innovation in Accelerating Food Systems Transformation report identifies 12 technologies whose adoption and popularization can improve food production, lower wastage, and make food systems much more environment friendly by the end of the next decade.
Three of these – alternative proteins, food sensing, and nutrigenetics – will require considerable changes in consumers’ demand patterns.
Alternative proteins are derived from sources with a smaller environmental footprint like insects, plants, aquacultures, and cell cultures. If 10 to 15 percent of animal protein consumption globally can be replaced with alternative proteins by 2030, the report estimates that greenhouse gases’ (GHG) emissions can be reduced by 550-950 megatons, water use by 225-400 cubic meters, and land use by 250-400 million hectares.
Food sensing technologies include near-infrared spectrometers and hyperspectral imaging that use machine learning and image-processing algorithms. The deployment of these technologies at various points in the food chain from farm to market can dramatically improve our ability to check quality, safety, and authenticity of food products. The report estimates that if sensing technologies can reach 30 to 50 percent of consumers in developed markets, food waste can decline by 10-20 million tons globally. These sensing capabilities are currently not available on smartphones, but the report predicts that technological advancements will soon make feature available on phones, enabling consumers to monitor food quality and safety information.
Nutrigenetics technology, based on DNA analyses, can make personalized nutrition possible. The report states that by ascertaining the effect of genetic variations on people’s response to nutrients, nutritionists and doctors will soon be able to individualize health and diet recommendations, leading to healthier and longer life spans. The technology can be particularly useful for overweight population.
There are four technologies identified in the report with beneficial impacts on value-chains in food systems. These include those already widely available but under utilized like mobile services as well as those fast gaining popularity like big data and advanced analytics, Internet of Things (IoT), and blockchain.
The report estimates that food production can be increased by 250-500 million tons and wastage reduced by 20-65 million tons if mobile-enabled services about financial, weather and market information can be expanded to 275-300 million farmers by 2030. This will also have beneficial environmental impact as GHG emissions can be reduced by 50-100 megatons and water use by 40-100 billion cubic meters.
Big data derived from crowdsourcing, cell phone apps, and satellite and radar- and drone-based imaging can enable financial institutions lower transaction costs and reduce insurance-related risks.
The report estimates that use of big data can extend insurance solutions to approximately 200–300 million farmers worldwide. This can generate 40–150 million tons of additional food and $15–70 billion in additional farming income.
The IoT technology, which uses sensors and actuators connected by networks to computing systems, makes it possible to track the trajectory of food products through the supply chain. It can also help control transportation and storage environments for temperature, humidity, and gas levels, in real time. The data generated as a result can allow better matching of demand and supply, and enable consumers to check nutritional and environmental information of food products.
The report highlights that by implementing IoT technology in 50-75 percent of developed countries’ supply chains by 2030, food wastage during distribution can be reduced by 10-50 million tons.
The use of blockchain technology in food systems can make information related to food products more secure, and prevent its censoring or tampering. This can help reduce incidents of fraud and counter illegal production.
The report identifies five more technologies whose adoption and popularization can strengthen food production systems.
The use of Information Technology, automation, robotics and other decision-support technologies can make decision making at farm-level more precise, the report says. Solutions based on these technologies can prevent the need for guess work and make decisions related to inputs, irrigation, livestock management, and fishery operations accurate.
The report says that if these precision agriculture technologies can benefit between 80-150 million farmers with large and midsize farms by 2030, they can help enhance crop production by 100-300 million tons and reduce emissions between 5-20 megatons.
Gene editing technologies can be deployed to produce crops with higher levels of immunity against drought, pests, and disease. These technologies can also enhance nutrition contents of food products. The report estimates that if gene-edited seeds are adopted by 60-100 million farms by 2030, there can be 100-400 million tons more crops produced and 5–20 million fewer tons of wastage annually.
Technologies used to improve microbiome – the environment of microorganisms in and around the roots, in the soil, on the leaves and within the plant itself – can result in healthier crops with higher resistance to droughts, extreme weather, salty soil, and insects.
The report estimates that if 120-150 million farmers are to purchase seeds coated with microbes by 2030, 130-250 million more tons of crops can be produced and 5-20 million fewer tons of wastage every year.
Biological-based crop protection and micronutrients address environmental challenges that arise from use of chemicals and of growing plants in poor quality soil. They include bio-pesticides, crop-enhancement inputs, and micronutrient soil additives. Bio-pesticides help eliminate pests such as weeds, mildew, and insects, and prevent diseases. Crop enhancement inputs improve a plant’s ability to assimilate nutrients, and micronutrients are soil additives designed to increase soil fertility.
If 15-50 million farmers use biologicals and micronutrients by 2030, the report estimates that 10-50 million more tons of crops can be produced, and emission can be reduced by 1-5 megatons.
Off-grid renewable electrification can provide a sustainable alternative for diesel- and petrol-fueled mini-grid and off-grid generation systems. If renewable energy is made accessible for 50-75 percent of farms that lack access to electricity (approximately 100-150 million), food wastage can come down by 10-15 million tons and farmers’ income can increase by $20-100 billion.
The WEF report contends that many of these technologies are still in their nascent stages, and the side effects of their adoption and popularization are not fully known. It recommends further research and collaborative efforts by multilateral bodies, governments, private sector and civil society actors for institutional changes needed for safe adoption of these technologies.