How technology strengthens the fight against food insecurity

by Ana Lopez

Opinions of contributing entrepreneurs are their own.

The human race counted 1 billion people in 1804, the UN estimates. It just took 218 years since then our population has increased eightfold. That exponential growth creates challenges in securing the necessary resources to feed this growing population.

In 2023, much of the developed world may not feel like there is a lack of food or even a shortage of certain products or items. Yes, food prices have been steadily rising, but if you check the shelves of your local supermarket, it’s common to see sea bass from Chile, avocados from Portugal, shrimp from Indonesia, olives from Greece, and mangoes from Thailand. This could create a false sense that food products from all over the world are in abundance, but in reality our current consumption rates will reach a tipping point.

With wars and famines caused by climate-induced natural disasters exacerbating our exploding population, innovative approaches to mitigating persistent food shortages and future potential food crisis scenarios are imperative. And entrepreneurs are leveraging technology to meet that challenge.

Related: Market forces alone are unlikely to solve the food security problem

Fermenting a food revolution

Extreme weather conditions have disrupted recent harvests Spain and North Africa, causing severe shortages of many common vegetables in the UK, including tomatoes and peppers. Developing countries such as Somalia And North Korea, all too familiar with the horrors of starvation, find themselves in the midst of devastating food shortages. In both countries, about half of the population is believed to suffer from a lack of nutrition.

Food shortages due to bad weather or other climatic conditions constantly plague poorer countries far worse than richer ones. These countries must look for solutions that are affordable and maximize the preservation of food products. Fermentation, a common practice in almost every society used for preserving vegetables, producing yoghurt and brewing alcoholic beverages, can be used by innovative founders to provide practical and affordable solutions.

Industrial fermentation can extend the millennia-old practice by adding and scaling up new, healthier and tastier food options in an environmentally friendly and affordable way. As a metabolic process that causes chemical changes in organic substrates, fermentation in food production refers to the use of microorganisms, including bacteria, yeasts, and molds, to bring about a desired change in food or drink.

And with modern technology, fermentation can be used for an almost unlimited number of organic foods and drinks, extending their shelf life significantly. Advanced technology helps make fermentation even more relevant.

Related: Plant-Powered Future: 8 vegan meat, egg, and dairy trends to watch for in 2022

Precision fermentation technology has been used to produce medicines and food additives, but now scientists are developing new ones alternatives to traditional food products. Alternative types of protein, milk, cheese, fungi, wheat and dairy products can provide the population with healthier and cheaper versions of familiar foods. Precision fermentation required 1,700 times less land than the most efficient agricultural method to produce protein, and local communities and entrepreneurs can quickly deploy this technology around the world to stabilize food supplies.

Biological alternatives

While fermentation technology takes time to maximize and scale up, agriculture remains the main outlet to feed people. Ukraine’s brutal war has disrupted wheat supplies by reducing the country’s production and hampering export efforts. A lesser known consequence of the war is the disruption of the chemical fertilizer marketespecially those that use nitrogen like Ureawhich is also harmful to soil, air and waterways.

To alleviate the lack of nitrogen-based fertilizers following Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, organic alternatives can help farmers meet the growing demand. Grace Breeding, an agrotech startup, has developed organic, bio-based fertilizers that have been shown to reduce environmental damage while increasing yields of key crops, such as wheat and tomatoes.

Related: A year later, the war in Ukraine has a ‘massive impact on the environment’

AI can also play a role

From biofertilizers to fermentation and plant-based meats, science and technology are increasingly colliding with food to help develop sustainable practices and products to address food insecurity without harming the planet.

But finding innovative ways to fight hunger doesn’t stop there. Mainstream technology, such as AI, can also play a role. A new study published in Scientific progress shows how machine learning techniques can successfully predict where and when the next food crisis is likely to occur. By using deep learning to extract relevant text from a database of more than 11 million articles on food insecure countries published between 1980 and 2020, the algorithm was able to improve the accuracy of food insecurity predictions up to a year in advance.

By better anticipating where and when a food crisis will erupt, humanitarian and aid agencies can plan efficiently, raise funds, delegate resources and have boots – and food – on site sooner, dramatically reducing the impact of famines.

Innovation alone is not enough. It should be supported by private and public sector initiatives, along with popular support. But without entrepreneurs capable of exploiting innovative solutions, the challenge would be impossible.

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