Analysis

Discover the technology conquering hunger

28th May 2021
Alex Lynn

Every year technology gets more impressive, and is able to do increasingly incredible things. AI has defeated the Go world champion, cars get closer to self-driving every year, and our phones now talk to our houses. Yet despite this, some of the most basic and fundamental crises facing our world haven’t been solved, chief among them: hunger.

You would certainly think that if we edit the genome of living organisms, then we can also solve world hunger. However, as the population of the world continues to boom, the problem is only becoming more pronounced; half the world starves, while the other half wastes 1.3 billion tonnes of food every year.

The 28th May is world hunger day, so we have taken a look at the tech that is fighting to end hunger everywhere.  

Vertical farming

Vertical farming is a quickly developing market, which has made it possible for crops to be produced every day of the year, no matter the season. This is done by growing the crops indoors, in artificial and fully controlled environments, where the plants are stacked in layers to maximise the amount of usable space – they don’t even need soil.

In vertical farming, technology controls all of the key elements of growing crops: climate, lighting, irrigation and fertigation. By having these elements enabled by technology instead of chance, yields can be consistent and considerably more lucrative than traditional methods of farming.

The plants fostered in these environments need far less human intervention than crops grown in a field, do not require the use of pesticides, and are not beholden to the weather. LED lighting is one element of the technology enabling this new way of farming, with LEDs being created that can cycle through different light wavelengths to give the crops the best possible conditions for growing.

As the global population grows, making sure everyone, everywhere, has enough food could be a problem that gets worse rather than better. Vertical farming offers a way for urban and non-arable land to be utilised to produce food, which will not only mean that considerably more food can be produced (and in a smaller area) but that it will be viable for food to be produced locally.

Gene editing in crops

This is a breakthrough that has already been made, but is currently restricted in many places – including the EU, and currently the UK as well. But as science advances, it is possible the restrictions will be lifted to a certain degree in certain places.

Genome editing is the highly complicated and rather scientifically impressive practice of splicing DNA to create a sequence including more desirable traits and omitting less undesirable ones. It is not all that far from how John Hammond brought back dinosaurs in Jurassic Park – but don’t worry, using genome editing to combine the DNA of two different specifies is under a near-total ban.

However, if the restrictions are loosened around genome editing as far as crops are concerned, it could help to solve world hunger, instead of having to rely on the slow process of selective breeding to promote positive traits, and many scientists have described it as simply a way of speeding up a natural process. These edited crops could help provide better yields, bigger and more nutritional crops, and even new crops entirely – after all if you go back far enough, cabbage, kale, broccoli and cauliflower were all the same plant.

However, gene editing is an exceptionally thorny issue, sitting so closely to genetic modification. Some people are adverse to consuming edited crops, and many animal welfare groups have (likely well-founded) concerns over gene editing in livestock, and what that could mean for the quality of life of the animals.

Printed food

Despite sounding like something that belongs in Star Trek, the technology to print food does actually exist. Currently, not all food can be printed, only foods that are – or can be rendered – soft enough to move through the syringe-like printhead of a 3D food printer; foods like jelly, sauces, cheese, mashed potato and chocolate.

However, we have been powdering food for a long time, and to add additional nutrients, powdered ingredients can be included to thicken liquids and create a broader variety of printable food. Some printers come with recipes programmed in, and the printers can customise almost everything about the meal; from size and shape to colour and texture.

That is all extremely cool, but how is it useful to ending world hunger? The answer is insects. Most people in the west aren’t particularly amenable to the idea of adding insects to the diet, however, insects are a much more sustainable way for us to get the protein that we need. In the case of 3D printing food, a protein rich flour can be made from insects, added to the food in the printer, and printed out in a form that neither looks nor tastes like an insect, while delivering a high amount of protein.

Cultured meat

Along a similar vein to printed food – and indeed bioprinting meat is something being researched today – is lab-grown meat.

It is completely impossible to farm enough livestock to feed everyone on the planet, and the population is growing. Vertical farming cannot be adapted to livestock, and it would be inhumane to try, and even gene editing of livestock seems like a slippery slope to head down. Cultured meat might be the only solution to the meat-demand of such an overpopulated planet, especially considering how devastating for the environment livestock farming is.

The process of growing meat uses in vitro cell cultures from animals, and is produced using tissue engineering techniques that were originally developed for applications in the medical field. Since the development of this technology, it has gained a lot of interest in the market, and there are now numerous companies and non-profit organisations conducting research in cultured meat, with the hope of making it commercially available as soon as possible.

Currently, lab-grown meat is extremely expensive, but as the technology refines and advances, it should become more viable as an option, which could be revolutionary. A source of meat that doesn’t involve the farming of livestock is far more environmentally friendly – which is of increasing concern – and can be potentially produced at a much higher volume.

Agriculture 4.0

The latest agricultural revolution – known as Agriculture 4.0 – is helping to make farming more productive and efficient, utilising technologies such as the IoT, AI, and precision agriculture to try and meet the demands of a larger population and climate change.

AI and the IoT is helping to bring farming into the 21st century through networks of sensors and computers, helping to automate processes such as planting and ploughing. This means that farmers should be able to cover more ground without needing extra man power or time, as robots will do the heavy lifting; however it will make reskilling important. 

Big data is also helping to connect the agricultural industry, it is helping farmers to measure and control variables such as soil pH, seeding rates and spreads, and distribution of pesticides. With this information, farmers can more easily optimise their crops and harvesting, to make sure to reap the best yield possible.

Increasingly the advances of agriculture 4.0 are being taken on by smaller farming operations, and even family farms, although it is not yet seeing great penetration in the farms outside of the first world, which produce a huge amount of the world’s food supply – 70% of the world’s food is farmed by around 500 million small-scale farmers.

Social media

If we have learned anything this century, it should probably be not to underestimate the power of social media. While not being as obvious a solution to world hunger as some of the other technologies here, social media may prove itself to be quietly vital to feeding the world.

Until recently, those 500 million farmers that produce most of the world’s food have all been working in relative isolation, by nature of being small scale. However, as the world connects, so can they. Social enterprises are beginning to crop up with the goal of helping these farmers reach each other, digital networks that are allowing these farmers to reach out in their own languages, to other small scale farmers, to seek solutions to any problems that might be having, from tackling crop blights, to selling their crops.

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