Citing global food insecurity as a factor, many agri-tech and farm lobbies in the EU are pushing to change the EU’s Farm to Fork strategy – a controversial plan aimed at accelerating the transition to a sustainable food system and mitigating climate change. It involves pivoting to a more organic farming system by applying agroecological techniques and limiting the use of chemical inputs.
*Agroecology: Applying ecological principles to agricultural practices and systems
Globally, agroecology techniques in farming are gaining momentum, because of its proven ability to restore soils, improve the quality of crops, improve biodiversity and in some cases, increase crop yield. However, transitioning to new techniques takes time and additional resources. During this transition period, there may be a decline in crop productivity and yield. Opponents argue that ‘time is of the essence’, especially during times of global turmoil and food insecurity. A WSJ opinion article makes the point that instead of organic farming, what we need is increased artificial fertilizers, genetic engineering and pest management to manage global food insecurity.
However, calls to ramp up agricultural productivity and food production disregards that the world already produces enough food to feed the global population. In 2020, Maximo Torero, Chief Economist at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), highlighted, “The world produces enough food to feed everyone. So it’s unacceptable that 690 million people are undernourished, 2 billion don’t have regular access to sufficient amounts of safe, nutritious food and 3 billion people cannot afford healthy diets”. The problem is less about how to increase food production but how we can preserve and properly leverage our current produce and agricultural land.
A quarter of our food is wasted
If the world produces enough food, then where does this food go? Approximately ¼ of food that is produced is uneaten. Where food is wasted along the supply chain varies according to country. In developed countries (i.e U.S, U.K), 40% of food waste occurs at the retail and consumption stage, whereas for developing countries (i.e sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia), 40% of food waste occurs at the harvest and post-harvest stage.
In sub-Saharan Africa, post-harvest food loss is estimated to be worth USD 4 billion per year, an amount sufficient to feed at least 48 million people. In China, approximately 50 million tonnes of grain is lost annually, which equates to 10% of the world’s total grain production. Food waste in developing countries is primarily caused by inefficient harvesting techniques, lack of equipment and storage infrastructure during farming.
In comparison, food waste in developed countries occurs during the retail and consumption stage. A large portion of food is discarded because of supermarket retailers’ overly stringent aesthetic requirements or overestimation of demands. Other reasons for food waste at the consumption stage include expired foods, leftovers and unsold food items in food service businesses.
What are the solutions?
Fortunately, solutions are already forthcoming. Innovators are devising solutions to reduce food waste and optimize available food stocks to feed the world’s population.
Many agri-tech companies are employing A.I to digitalise the supply chain. Start-ups such as Trellis, a food systems intelligence company, helps farmers to manage supply and demand, optimise production and reduce risks during unexpected weather events. Simultaneously, agroecology solutions practiced in Namibia lead to a significant increase in maize yield. Companies are also starting to innovate with the by-products of primary crops. For example, Nestle has created a chocolate bar using cocoa pulp as a natural sweetener.
Another reason for agricultural waste is that farmers sometimes mistakenly discard edible crops, believing they are damaged or rotten. Plantix, a Berlin based start-up, uses image recognition technology to help farmers to differentiate good crops from bad crops.
Perishable foods such as tubers, fruits and vegetables, are especially prone to damage and waste during distribution. The foods may be damaged during transportation or a lack of proper storage and cooling facilities. Ghana based company Cheetah is trying to solve this by showing farmers and distributors the most efficient transportation routes to market – thereby reducing risks of food perishing during transportation. Sufresca took on the challenge of extending the shelf life of easily perishable foods. The company designed an edible, natural and water-based coating for fruit and vegetable produce, which it claims can increase the shelf life of the produce whilst reducing plastic.
Finally, at the consumption stage, companies have concocted various technologies, apps and food products to better distribute and upcycle food. US company Winnow Solutions designed A.I software that can help restaurants and commercial kitchens measure food waste to better allocate food and reduce costs. Apps such as Too Good to Go and OLIO are ingeniously redistributing surplus food by selling leftovers from restaurants and cafes to consumers at a discounted rate.
Surplus food has also been used as a raw ingredient by entrepreneurs to create exciting food products. Some local brands include Rubies in the Rubble, a condiments brand that makes chutneys and jams from surplus fruits and vegetables, and Toast Ale, a brand that brews beer using discarded bread from bakeries.
Calls for increased food production and fertiliser use are comprehensible, considering the food shortages and commodity price hikes due to the Ukraine crisis. However, it is necessary to reframe the issue, understanding that reducing food insecurity is not solely about agricultural productivity. It is also about ensuring the optimisation and fair distribution of food that is already available, food which should, if more fairly distributed, be able to feed the 811 billion people who are currently experiencing hunger.