World leaders see technology, innovation as solution to hunger

The First Lady of Colombia, María Juliana Ruiz Sandoval (third from left), and director of nutrition at the World Food Programme, Lauren Landis (second from the right), are panelists for the session "Innovation and Agroecology: A Path to Sustainability" at CFS 46. (Kim Ossi/PlanetForward.org)

Technology has touched every sector and aspect of humankind, from online maps navigating people to their destination without having to stop to ask directions from strangers to delivery robots bearing food and large packages to people’s doorsteps.

The food sector is no different. The digital invasion in the agricultural industry is underway. However, these “intruders” are bringing positive changes, such as increased crop yields, while addressing the issues of global hunger and malnutrition.

As an example, a malnutrition issue Colombia grappled with was alarmingly low breastfeeding rates — especially low among teenage mothers. The exclusive breastfeeding rates among children under six months was as low as 30% in most regions, according to Zona Cero, which lead to an increased risk of malnutrition and death as a result.

This range of health issues, sometimes conflicting – from diseases to lack of food and malnutrition – would unnerve many leaders. Instead, the First Lady of Colombia, María Juliana Ruiz Sandoval, took on the challenge to address some of the pressing social issues in an innovative manner.

In a session at the Food & Agriculture Organization headquarters in Rome, Sandoval said she believes that innovation is the way these issues should be addressed.

To align themselves to the digital revolution, Colombia’s leaders are using technological tools in capacity-building projects, involving and educating families, and permeating the cultural barriers to explain the importance of nutrition and generate healthy habits among the local and indigenous populations of different regions. Through multi-stakeholder partnerships, leaders were able to get private companies to help in designing applications for food banks. Thanks to artificial intelligence (AI) technologies, these applications were able to locate and identify people who are wrestling with health issues in some form or the other.

In fact, two such initiatives by the World Food Programme (WFP), namely Meza and SCOPE CODA, aim to effectively track the right beneficiaries and make the programs available to them.

Poor data equals poor results, with data being at the bottom of improving individual nutrition.

A diagram by the World Food Programme showing that data is at the bottom of making any progress. (Rohan Agrawal/University of Mississippi) 

There are a lot of information gaps in remote areas, with limited or no access to computers or the internet. Such health clinics relied on paper-based data systems, where the papers were all tallied by hand and transmitted up the hierarchy in person, until it reached the Ministry of Health. However, with the use of Meza, workers in remote clinics can now use their cellphones – provided by the Meza team with the best network infrastructure – to send pictures of log-books, where the data is automatically extracted from the photos using the Optical Character Recognition software.

“Getting the right nutrition to the most vulnerable populations is most important,” Lauren Landis, director of nutrition at WFP, said at a session at the Food and Agriculture Organization headquarters. That is exactly what the WFP is striving hard to achieve.

To further eliminate the paper-and-pen records, the World Food Programme has introduced a cloud-based innovation that gives a personalized smartcard to patients in the remotest of areas. Mobile devices and patient cards allow for improved targeting of beneficiaries in the community. Furthermore, the software works both online and offline to be compatible with areas with little or no connectivity or electricity.

“Technology is the easiest way to really know and understand the problem,” Sandoval said. “It engages youth… complementing their education by building skills for them.”

If the world is set out to meet the 2030 goal of Zero Hunger, youth engagement is paramount.

“There cannot be any progress of any of the SDGs without the involvement of youth,” said Mario Arvelo, chairperson of the Committee on World Food Security. But to involve youth in agriculture, it should be viewed as an honorable trade and not a synonym for poverty.

The minister for food security of the UAE, Mariam bint Mohammed Saeed Hareb Al Mehairi, believes that technology can spearhead development in the agriculture sector and start sustainable food supplies.

“I am not looking for the next farmer, I am looking for the next agri-technologist….,” she said at a special event at the Food and Agriculture Organization headquarters. “We have to make it cool!”

This would help produce and market more nutritious food that minimizes greenhouse emissions and environmental impacts. It also provides easier access for young men and women to climate-resilient technologies.

Greater food insecurity is one of the worst consequences of climate change. In 2018, there were 704 million people facing severe food insecurity, according to Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs, Ph.D., who presented a keynote on World Food Day at the FAO. And that figure is constantly on the rise. Out of that population, Sachs said more than 75% of the people are based in sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia alone. There is a tremendous vulnerability to climate change in these two regions.

Reports from FAO show countries that are poor are food insecure. Sachs pointed out in his keynote that “poverty and hunger are virtually the same phenomena” as the correlation between them shows a very tight fit between income per capita and food insecurity.

With about 25% of greenhouse gases emitted by the agriculture sector, Zitouni Ould-Dada, deputy director of FAO’s Climate Division, says “agriculture affects climate, and climate affects agriculture, which is very sensitive to climate variation.” He believes that making technology the main character, we can prevent post-harvest losses, increase agricultural yields, while also helping small farmers grow more resiliency toward climate change.

For example, large farms in China are using AI tools that use facial recognition to identify the pigs and record their movements. It tells their vital conditions and isolates the unhealthy ones from other pigs to maintain the health of the farm and other animals.

“This really saves the time and effort for human intervention, while understanding our needs better,” Ould-Dada said.

“But making technology accessible is not enough. You need to make it easier for people to use for them to be involved in the ag industry,” Ould-Dada said, while explaining how important it is for people to understand the maintenance of those technologies.

To address this digital divide and many other challenges to digitalization for sustainable development, ministers of more than 74 countries proposed the urgent need for an International Digital Council for Food and Agriculture. In agriculture, sensors, drones, and robots are examples of technologies that provide information on soil moisture, crop growth, and livestock feed levels, while reducing the use of fertilizers, pesticides, feed, and water.

The Internet of Things that interconnects vehicles, robots, and drones makes labor-intensive tasks, such as monitoring, sowing crops, or milking cows more cost-effective. The council would advise governments and enhance the exchange of knowledge and experiences to implement these resources in place, where they are needed the most.

Technology is expanding rapidly and hence, “the time could not be more right to put such a thing in place. If we do it in two years, we would miss out on a lot,” said Theo de Jager, president of the World Farmers Organization. As the agriculture minister of Nicaragua, Edward Francisco Centeno Gadia said, “the best technology is not the most expensive or cheapest, but it is beneficial for family farmers and rural development.”

Digitalization and innovation are tools that can help achieve the 2030 goals that seem evasive.

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