The Future of Feeding the World
By Dan Wellers, Fawn Fitter, Michael Rander | 8 min read
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 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.
None of the world’s challenges exist in isolation, but the need to feed the hungry is unique in its impact on the entire global economy. For example, agriculture is the world’s largest employer, and in less developed countries it accounts for approximately 60% of the labor force, many of whom might otherwise enter other industries and increase economic development. Economic inequality has risen over the last 30 years for 70% of the global population. In developing countries, the COVID-19 pandemic increases the risk that economic inequality will rise, as will food insecurity, even after the spread of disease subsides.
Consider these other ways that food drives the future of the economy – and the world:
- Malnutrition is the largest contributor to disease in the world.
- One in three children worldwide are malnourished, contributing to reduced school performance and impaired brain development.
- Agriculture accounts for approximately 70% of freshwater use globally.
- Food systems account for 25% of global greenhouse emissions, even as climate change threatens to significantly reduce crop yields.
- Agriculture is the most significant driver of deforestation, which rose 51% from 2015 to 2016 and leveled off at near-record highs during 2017 and 2018.
The better we get at tackling the problem of global hunger and food insecurity, the better our chances of addressing other pressing issues, too.
Addressing these challenges won’t be easy, but 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.
Technology innovations on the menu
Someone new to food systems and technological advances in agriculture could be forgiven for assuming that, for example, farming is slow to adopt digital technologies. Or that serious agriculture must consume vast swaths of wide-open spaces.
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In fact, the reality is different.
Digital is already optimizing field production through the use of tiny sensors in fields that can monitor the chemical composition of the soil. Meanwhile, drones are saving water and fertilizer by alerting farmers to individual plants that are under stress and need help.
Digital is making an ever-bigger difference in the developing world, where inexpensive mobile phones give even the poorest subsistence farmers in countries like Nepal, Cameroon, and Sri Lanka access to sophisticated new apps and data that let them make better planting decisions and track the weather. The new intel could help produce as much as 550 million additional tons of food by 2030.
Meanwhile, installing sensors and Big Data analysis along the agricultural logistical pathway could preserve some of the food production that is lost or spoiled each year (1.3 billion tons worth) while reducing fraud (horsemeat masquerading as beef, anyone?) and the risk of pathogen-infested food that causes disease.
Finding more arable land
Though 36% of the world’s land is considered suitable for agriculture, only about 11% is actually being farmed today. However, that other 25% is seriously overrated. Why? Because clearing new land is expensive and time consuming, and much of it, such as the South American rainforest, is of poor quality – not to mention the negative effects on the climate.
We are increasingly using technology to grow food in places unfriendly to traditional agriculture. “Plantscrapers” are urban residential and commercial buildings that stuff plants into every conceivable crevice, providing food and cleaner air in exchange for human-created heat and fertilizer. Or you could use that old semitrailer you’ve had hanging around the backyard to start your own vegetable farm. Not into DIY truck hydroponics? Innovative startups are setting up shop to get you going (trailer not included).
There are additional ways that technology is helping to better feed the world:
- The Internet of Things (IoT) and machine learning technologies used with precision agriculture methods will optimize land and water use for different crops and farming conditions, lowering costs and increasing production while reducing freshwater use.
- Big Data analytics applied 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.
Changing what we eat
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 growing evidence that the 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. Already, planet and animal rights-conscious consumers, as well as people who just like good food, are gobbling up burgers that are cultured in a lab rather than slaughtered in an abattoir. 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. In addition to plantscrapers, other innovations are happening, including in the fields of biotech and mechanical engineering. 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.
Multiple food scenarios
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 and 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 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 we expand our options beyond what we already understand and start thinking about what we haven’t tried yet.
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