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Making tomorrow’s food system both resilient and sustainable

The global challenge of our age – in particular for the agrifood sector – is to resolve two, potentially competing, objectives.

By Olivier de Matos
Director General, CropLife Europe

A sustainable food system, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), is one “that delivers food security and nutrition for all in such a way that the economic, social and environmental bases to generate food security and nutrition for future generations are not compromised”.

By this definition, the system must be profitable, have broad-based benefits for society and a positive or neutral impact on the natural environment.

But at the same time, to meet the nutritional needs of a global population set to reach 9.1 billion by 2050, food production will need to increase by at least 70%. And the natural resources required to do this are finite and under increasing pressure.

An underlying challenge of the two above is that of ensuring our future food system is resilient, in other words when confronted by disasters or crises it has the ability and capacity to withstand damage and recover rapidly.

Of course there is no easy glib solution. But there are a number of major initiatives, which can and are already being taken, to tackle these multi-faceted challenges head-on.

Tackling food waste

An obvious starting point is to reduce food waste throughout the system. According to the FAO, nearly a third of food produced for human consumption is wasted each year. This amounts to 1.3 billion tonnes of food wasted. This is not just a major loss of food, but also of the resources used to produce it (water, soil nutrients, transportation energy, labour).

One third of this food is wasted during the farming and post-harvest handling; another fifth by consumers; and almost half in the food’s processing and manufacturing.

Food waste on a farm starts with crop yield. Every plant that dies before being harvested is wasted food. Once the crops are grown, however, regulatory processes, market demand and even consumer preferences pressure farmers to grow nearly perfect produce, which isn’t always realistic. In addition, low market prices and/or high labour costs often make it uneconomical for farmers to harvest all they produce.

Damaged or disfigured foods are also common contributors to food waste. Most retailers, restaurants and consumers prefer foods that are completely unblemished. Farmers and retailers must work together to educate buyers on how ‘ugly produce’ offer the same nutritional value as visually appealing food. However, a significant portion of food waste can be managed through agricultural innovations and farmer ingenuity.

Sometimes, the only way a grower can avoid the unexpected impacts of weather, disease and other risks is to overproduce. But calculating these risks isn’t a science and the resulting oversupply is food wasted. However, as predictive data models, long-term investments and reliable trade agreements continue to improve, managing growers’ risks becomes easier.

Tapping into innovative technologies

All farmers contend with the weather. It impacts not only the way our food is grown, but also the way it is harvested. Farmers must navigate an ever-evolving landscape of changing weather patterns, environmental conditions, consumer demands, regulatory requirements and countless other factors. The right tools make all the difference.

Agricultural innovations such as drought-tolerant seed varieties, or new farming practices such as multi-cropping, farmers can manage the challenges Mother Nature throws at them.

Digital agriculture is another element in farmers’ toolbox that can help. By providing additional insight into what’s happening in their fields allows them to understand pest pressure, soil quality and countless other factors to make their decision making easier. Data helps in making best decisions for their farm, their operation and ultimately the planet.

Labour issues are another challenge, with a population movement from the countryside to higher-paid employment in the city. Much of our produce still depends on hand harvesting. But new AI-driven robotic technologies – indeed new digital and precision technologies at every stage of the farming process, from planting to disease and pest protection to harvesting – can mitigate changing employment patterns, as well as improve crop yields.

The agri-food sector is looking to integrate other innovations, which are increasingly seen in other sectors, with the aim of making food systems more efficient. These innovations include big data, the Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI) and blockchain.

In the long term, advances in digital technology and connectivity might present the most robust solution to the recovery and transformation of the food system. We must strive to connect people, ideas, and resources through digital technology in order to build a resilient future.

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