Andrea Pillai, founder of Aider Ventures and author of the newsletter Tech x NonTech, provides her thoughts on technology’s capabilities when it comes to digitally transforming the food industry to help sustainably feed a growing population.
Does any challenge loom larger than the formidable presence of climate change? Its tremendous impact is felt through temperature fluctuations, extreme weather, water scarcity, and soil degradation — notably affecting the critical cultivation stage of food production. The impact is witnessed in everything from crop losses for farmers to surging prices for consumers.
Climate change has created extremes, while humans can thrive only at the centre of balance. Today, we are 8 billion strong, and the rapidly growing concern is that we cannot sustain this multitude. Despite assertions from experts that we can produce enough food to feed 10 billion people, the stark reality persists that we have already failed to bring equal distribution to the existing 8 billion.
On the one hand, logistical limitations in centralised food production contribute to pre-consumption food loss. On the other hand, food wastage due to retail and consumer behaviour is only aggravating the problem. The situation is worrying; a staggering one third of food is wasted at the production stage, adding eight to ten percent to greenhouse gas emissions. The struggle to feed a growing population intensifies with declining agricultural land, resource scarcity, and the socioeconomic impacts of climate change and food waste, leading to volatile prices, food insecurity and unequal distribution.
Ultimately, the global food system is plagued by these two major challenges: a high environmental footprint and a growing number of mouths to feed, creating a ripple effect of challenges.
Addressing the challenges
Addressing the relentless march of global warming requires urgent action to revolutionise our food system. Amidst the formidable challenges this encompasses, the low-hanging fruit is clear: we must tackle food waste immediately, and do it in such a way that the transformative technologies used are both affordable and scalable at a granular level.
To achieve this, prioritising change is paramount. Can we all say with a clear conscience that our deeds always keep in mind the greater good of the planet? Education and awareness, particularly regarding population growth, are the most crucial steps — but to see the future, we must look to the past to guide us through the successful adoption of technology into the traditionally non-tech food industry.
Boundless tech solutions such as precision farming, robotics, data analytics, the internet of things (IoT), blockchain, smart packaging and radio frequency identification (RFID) can help to make operations much more efficient, while improving sustainability, across the entire spectrum of the global food supply chain.
The impact of data
In a world generating a staggering 328.77 million terabytes of data daily, it’s imperative to ensure that this wealth is being harnessed effectively. As data complexity grows, technology advances, offering higher accuracy, deeper insights and enhanced personalisation. The symbiotic relationship between data and technology is undeniable and becomes starkly evident when we examine the impact of crop yield optimisation. Without data, a farmer completely relies on his intuition and historical knowledge, leading to suboptimal decisions on planting, irrigation and harvesting. This perception based approach, with a lack of data, can lead to resource wastage, lower yields and financial losses.
A data driven approach utilising machine learning models and insights from weather stations and sensors results in efficient resource use, higher yields and sustainable farming practices. Picture a global dashboard vividly displaying real-time metrics on the ravaging impact of climate change, including the staggering loss of revenue due to food wastage. Such a visual representation could surely serve as a powerful catalyst, inspiring immediate action.
The transformative capabilities of AI
It’s clear that collaboration is key, between countries and companies but especially between the world of tech and food production. This is where AI becomes a pivotal force to revolutionise traditional production, consumption, and selection in the food sector. The overarching influence of AI in the industry can be encapsulated in one word: personalisation!
Here is an example of how AI can impact gluten-free pasta production:
- Pre-cultivation and cultivation: AI becomes the farmer's ally, aiding in crop selection and employing precision agriculture techniques through meticulous data analysis
- Processing: AI guarantees that only gluten-free grains find their way into pasta production
- Manufacturing: AI steps in to minimise equipment disruptions with predictive maintenance and automation
- Packaging: AI stands guard with smart packaging, preventing cross-contamination and upholding the gluten-free standard
- Logistics and inventory management: real-time data slashes delivery times, bringing supply chain efficiency
- Consumption: AI provides recommendations based on consumer behaviour, promoting the purchase of locally produced gluten-free pasta
The shift from manual to digital is underway and this necessitates a corresponding shift in skills. AI promises an optimal and efficient food production chain, personalised from start to finish. The urgency of this shift is crystal clear — the consequences of inaction on a global scale are imminent. It's not just a technological transformation; it's a responsibility we all bear to personalise this experience, not merely for what we want but for what the planet urgently needs.
Urgent action as a global society
Urgent action is imperative if we want to overhaul our global food system. Widespread awareness, education, and collaboration at every level are the foundational steps to embark on. Policies and regulations prioritising the planet's well-being are crucial, calling upon empathy and fairness in financial practices. Once this groundwork is laid, advancements such as transitioning to renewable energy, adopting sustainable practices, promoting the circular economy, and conserving water can be explored, with technology poised to play a pivotal role.
However, a significant barrier lies in the current unequal distribution of financial resources, favouring less risky, bankable projects which focus on mitigation over adaptation. Despite the existence of technological solutions, their high costs hinder widespread adoption. Bridging this gap requires the creation of affordable solutions accessible on a larger scale, expediting our mitigation endeavours. An apt example is the hay baler, a technology enhancing efficiency which is sadly priced beyond the means of many farmers.
Be part of something bigger, join BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT.
Addressing this challenge calls for re-evaluation of affordable options and innovative financing mechanisms to make impactful technologies more readily adoptable. A model to consider is akin to the First Movers Coalition initiated by the World Economic Forum, where leading companies collaborate to reduce the cost of technologies, facilitating their affordability for widespread adoption and accelerating sector-wide decarbonisation efforts.
In conclusion, the transformation that is required extends beyond individual efforts, demanding collaboration across the entire value chain. Undoubtedly, there are an array of available products and solutions for our mission to safeguard the planet. But what we lack is a collective empathy-driven approach to their implementation. Urgency is not just a call to awareness, but a need for immediate collective and collaborative action.
About the author
Andrea Pillai has a dual passion — exploring innovative culinary techniques and technologies, while helping to reduce our impact on the planet. Andrea’s work brings these together through the newsletter Tech x NonTech and work with a Caribbean fusion restaurant in Lille, France. Here, technology is woven into the fabric of the restaurant to support a journey towards green, efficient and sustainable operations. Andrea is also working to turn the startup resource platform, Aider Ventures, into a venture studio in 2025. This will support food technology and climate technology companies and help to cultivate a cross functional community of experts in these domains.