Innovations improve prospects of global food security

In part 4 of our climate and environment series, we look at how the world is beginning to incorporate highly innovative agricultural techniques into our existing global food-producing setup, and subsequently managing to step closer towards a fully sustainable future that provides food security for everyone on Earth.

Much like the issue of water security, the daily struggle to supply the world’s population with sufficient food in a healthy, safe and sustainable manner continues to be fraught with difficulty. As countries across the world find them populations growing and moving to cities at an accelerating pace, the question of establishing long-term food security is becoming more pressing each year. 

Addressing the scale of the problem

Food security: Lack of sufficient food to sustain a healthy human existence is a reality still faced by billions of people around the world. After years of progress, food security has become a bigger issue in recent years, as the number of undernourished people went from 784 million in 2015 to 820 million in 2018, with around 2 billion people today lacking the necessary micronutrients for reliable growth, development and disease prevention.

Water wastage of traditional farming techniques: Agriculture is by far the world’s biggest consumer of water, accounting for 70% water usage worldwide. Traditional farming methods and even more modern but still outdated techniques are highly intensive and inefficient in their water use, leading to the depletion of groundwater and aquifers while at the same time contributing to water pollution and soil degradation.

Food safety hazards: The combination of mass agriculture, widely varying food safety regulation standards and a globally interconnected food market that is very complex and highly competitive means that all manner of microbiological, chemical or other food safety hazards remain a persistent and often lethal issue. There are over 600 million cases of foodborne illnesses recorded every year, leading to deaths, long-term debilitation and associated costs of over $100 billion for the world economy.

Growing a stronger system

With water security, food security public health and general ecological sustainability in agriculture all being so closely linked, the importance of overhauling and systematically improving the way we grow our food cannot be overstated. The following are some of the vital innovations that have entered the global agricultural industry, generally on a small but noticeable scale, and may yet pave the way to sustainable farming worldwide.

Soil revivification/reversing desertification: Desertification is caused by the over-use of the land’s resources by humans, usually for agriculture, as well as climatic variations. Fortunately, it is a reversible process, with new techniques emerging across the world. Current projects being undertaken by ICARDA in the Arabian Peninsula include the use of reseeding indigenous range species combined with various water harvesting techniques, alongside controlled grazing. As plant cover grows, the regeneration of the land accelerates, slowing or even reversing the process of desertification.

Draught-resistant seeds: Farming drought-resistant crops is a CSA (Climate-smart Agriculture) method that is gaining ground in regions of the world that are vulnerable to rainfall shortages and a general lack of access to advanced irrigation infrastructure. Zambia is currently undergoing a shift towards the adoption of drought-resistant maize after new studies estimate its usage could increase yields by 38% and reduce the risks of crop failure by 36%

Vertical farming: Though a relative newcomer, the growth of vertical farming is predicted to be explosive, with an estimated growth of the global market from $3 billion in 2018 to $22 billion by 2026. The principle attraction of vertical farming is that it uses only a tiny fraction of the water taken up by conventional agricultural methods. Using the latest methods, a kilogram of vegetables grown on a vertical farm will use between 2-4 litres of water, compared to 60 litres if grown on an average field.

Zero waste farming concepts: Much like the ‘smart city concept’, zero waste farming has a lot of different interpretations and definitions depending on who you ask. However, at its core is the idea of farming in a way that mimics natural ecosystems, creating regenerative loops where waste from one area produces feed, fuel or nutrients for another. For example, excreted waste from livestock provides fertiliser for crops – nothing is wasted and no chemicals (pesticides, herbicides, etc) are added. Today, a leading proponent of zero waste farming, Godfrey Nzamujo, Founder and Director of Songhai, has grown his model from an acre of land in Benin, Africa, to a programme of education and employment that has trained over 7,000 farmer-entrepreneurs and more than 30,000 people across the continent in total. 

Food for thought

Adopting innovative change through the use of both advanced technologies and greater utilisation of natural, ecological agriculture approaches like zero waste farming remains a critical trend for the industry, as it addresses the root imbalances that allow massive food waste and starvation to exist at the same time. By boldly shaping new paths for farming to follow, the use of such innovations will continue to make inroads on these imbalances on both sides of the scale, allowing us to produce the food we need, without wasting what we don’t.