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How technology is revolutionising the food industry

(Image credit: Image Credit: Sangeeth88 / Pixabay)

The global population will reach 8.5 billion by 2030, according to the UN. Making sure we can produce and distribute enough food to match the demand is already one of the greatest challenges facing humanity today. To keep up with the ever-increasing needs of society, we need to rethink the way we approach the food industry.

Of course, this change is necessary to tackle hunger, but it’s also about so much more. 

Our existing model of food production is doing terrible damage to the environment. According to the World Bank, food systems account for 70 per cent of freshwater use and consume 30 per cent of the world’s available energy, much of it in fossil fuels. Agriculture accounts for 20-30 per cent of global greenhouse emissions – a bitter irony as climate change threatens to reduce crop yields by 25 per cent or more. Agriculture is also the most significant driver of deforestation, with 13 million hectares lost each year.  This contributes to climate change as well as causing loss of habitat and the resulting fall in biodiversity.

Food production is so intertwined with health, energy consumption, the environment and education that we can’t address challenges in those areas without considering the global food system as well. We simply can’t continue with business as usual.

A solution in the form of agricultural technology

New technology offers some of the most promising solutions to these challenges.

A recent report from the World Economic Forum suggests that the planet’s food systems could look very different by 2030 if sufficient investment in agricultural technology is made now. And some of that investment is already happening. Between 2010 and 2017, $14 billion was invested in 1,000 start-ups related to food systems.

So much more could be achieved with increased investment, such as shrinking the environmental burden of farming and improving crop diversity, so diets are more nutritious, and agriculture is more sustainable. This would help farmers produce more food while increasing their profits, making food distribution safer and more efficient.

Blockchain, AI and machine learning for farming

Some of the future benefits of new technology are already becoming clear:

  • Precision agriculture methods – which make use of machine learning technologies and the Internet of Things – will optimise land and water use for different crops and farming conditions, lowering costs and increasing production while reducing freshwater use.
  • Applying big data analytics to insurance statistics about farming conditions and yields will lower the risks for farmers who want to try new crops and agricultural 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 mislabelling.
  • 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”.

We’re also likely to see new farming methods designed to increase yield and grow food in places unfriendly to traditional agriculture. “Plantscrapers” might tuck vertical farms into urban buildings in a symbiosis where the plants provide food and cleaner air in exchange for human-created heat and fertiliser.

Rethinking the menu

Growing sufficient food for livestock requires a tremendous amount of land which could be more efficiently used for crops. An estimated 75 per cent of the world’s agricultural land is providing food for meat production.

Instead, we could find ourselves eating burgers from beef that was never on the hoof at all but cultured in a lab. The milk we put in our morning coffee might come from genetically modified yeast rather than cows. And to get the necessary protein in our diets, the morning might start with a muffin made from cricket flour.

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.

A time for change

Along with a shift in diet, led by consumers, governments and corporations will need to invest in technology to continue providing for our growing global population.

By investing in AI, blockchain, machine learning and new agricultural models, technology will be able to design a new food supply system. It’ll not only allow us to feed far more of the population but will do so in a more efficient and sustainable way.

The variables are endless. Taking into consideration weather patterns, political considerations, demands for different types of food, availability of loans, and access to markets. It will take time and an element of trial and error to find out what works where.

This will require thinking in new ways. Seeing the potential in un-targeted areas, using tech we already have, to create a whole new global food system.

Yogesh Chauhan, Director of Corporate Sustainability, Tata Consultancy Services (opens in new tab)
Image Credit: Sangeeth88 / Pixabay

Yogesh Chauhan is Director, Corporate Sustainability at TCS UK, where he leads initiatives to ensure the company is a force for good and embeds sustainability across its operations.