2 Weeks To Davos: Ensuring More Feast Than Famine

David Jonker

17 weeks to Davos. 17 global goals to achieve a sustainable future. 17 blog posts exploring the UN’s vision for humankind. Here is number 2.

Global Goal #2: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture

Achieve zero hunger by 2030 – is it possible? It seems like a big goal, especially as experts estimate food production must grow by 70% to feed 2.2 billion more mouths by 2050.

The answer is yes, it is possible. Though 2.2 billion is a large number, ending hunger is achievable if the world – you and I and every other person on this planet – adopts more sustainable practices.

This won’t be easy, especially with the strains that climate change will bring. Half the extra two billion inhabitants are expected to live in sub-Saharan Africa, precisely where harsh climatic conditions may retard food production most. Famines have become a part of 20th-century history – is there a risk they will return with a vengeance by 2050?

As the planet’s temperature rises, weather patterns change and once-rich farmlands with ideal temperatures and abundant rain can dry up and wither. California, a major supplier of food in the United States, is in its fifth year of drought, draining crucial water tables and making the country’s breadbasket unsustainable as food prices rise. What will happen if this drought continues for another year – or another five?

There is no one, easy answer

Some may hope for a technological cure-all, but ending hunger and counteracting disasters such as droughts are too complex, and there are no easy answers.

Achieving food security depends on a multi-pronged approach. To start, we need to better utilize the food we produce. It’s estimated that upwards of 30% of food is wasted. With limited time to consume perishable foods, better forecasting of demand through the use of Big Data can help deliver product to the right markets.

The market’s consumption patterns also need to change. As much as I love a medium-rare steak, it is resource-intensive to grow, and is out of reach for the entire planet. Countries that are larger consumers of beef can change their habits to help the world. Doing so will improve our health, save significant amounts of water, and free up land for crops at the same time.

Improving land utilization and agricultural output is critical to success. We’ve done it before; we can do it again. The move to a three-crop rotation dramatically increased agricultural yields in northern Europe in the 17th century. In essence, in any given year, farmers planted grain in one field, legumes in another, and left the third fallow. The addition of legumes into the mix ensured that nitrogen levels were restored after growing grain. Output jumped as a result of the new knowledge.

Innovation is key…

Mechanization in the 18th and 19th centuries further improved output by increasing the amount of cultivated land. Before, dependence on manual labor greatly limited the size of farms and farmable land. However, mechanization had little impact on yield per acre, which did not improve until after World War II.

Explosive growth in crop yields, as illustrated by corn, began in the 1950s. A large part of this improvement resulted from the introduction of new plant varieties developed through careful breeding. The creation of new varieties is crucial to meeting future food demand, especially ones resistant to changing weather patterns caused by climate change. Many scientists believe genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are the only way to adapt fast enough, though concerns persist about potential health and environmental consequences.

With arable land shrinking and without widespread adoption of GMOs, our only hope is to better manage crops using precision farming. Combining weather forecasts with data from sensors, aerial photos, and soil properties, precision farming maximizes crop yields while minimizing the application of fertilizer, pesticides, water and other costly resources and their environmental impact. With the help of real-time sensor data, farmers apply the right amount of fertilizer to grow as much food as possible. Optical sensors on tractors can identify weeds and precisely apply herbicides. By better forecasting weather and local market demand, farmers cam optimize harvest times, reduce food waste, minimize environmental costs, and improve their bottom line.

But even more is needed…

New techniques in growing food are showing a lot of promise by rethinking the concept of farming. With 70% of the global population expected to live in urban areas by 2050, growing produce in vertical farms is an innovative and weather independent way to meet local demand. Furthermore, hydroponics gardens are environmentally friendly, cutting greenhouse gas emission without having to transport foods across a global supply chain, and effectively reusing grey and rain water. Recent projects prove these gardens can cost effectively supplement local diets with selected fruits and vegetables.

The food supply chain will face significant pressure over the coming decades as the world’s growing middle class demands more meat and dairy, which is not possible. Unfortunately, when demand cannot meet supply, fraud increases. A multi-billion dollar problem today, suppliers are substituting in cheaper foods and even non-foods in order sell what they cannot supply. While the problem is expected to grow, new DNA testing techniques can identify and remove contaminated foods before they land on the shelves.

Everyone must help

There is no easy way to provide food security, but with careful management across the entire supply chain, and with the help of digital technologies, we can ensure enough food for everyone by 2050. As part of our vision and purpose, SAP is proud to be helping food manufacturers and farmers so that everyone can eat and live better.

This blog is part of our 17 Weeks to Davos series. To learn more about the UN Global Goals and how you can help make the world a better place, view this interactive Web experience from SAP: 17 Global Goals to Achieve a Sustainable Future.



David Jonker

About David Jonker

David Jonker leads the global thought leadership team at SAP, exploring how technology innovation addresses business, economic, and social issues today and tomorrow.