World Food Program Director David Beasley speakting at a conference.

WFP Director David Beasley was able to announce some good news as well. Despite widespread fears, the USA had not reduced its budget for the World Food Programme.
Photo: Kerstin Müller

Searching a new global food system

How can nine billion people be fed in 2050 without destroying the planet? And how can new technologies help achieve this both on the producer and the consumer side? These issues were at the centre of the third World Food Convention, organised by the daily “Tagesspiegel” in Berlin/Germany early in May 2019.

Just like any other serious relief organisation, the World Food Programme (WFP) seeks to become superfluous one day, although achieving this appears to be slipping further into the future again at the moment. Over the last two years, the number of people suffering hunger has once again started to rise, reaching a present 815 million people, around 124 million of whom are on the brink of starvation, as WFP Director David Beasley cautioned in Berlin early in May, the chief reason being man-made conflict. “Today, 80 per cent of WFP expenditure goes into in conflict areas. Money that is lacking in true development, money that is wasted because of war,” Beasley noted. At the World Food Convention (WFC), organised by the Berliner daily “Tagesspiegel” for the third time, he discussed options to feed the growing world population sustainably with numerous representatives from politics, business, science and civil society. In addition to the question of what had caused the current developments, the debate above all focused on the opportunities offered by data-driven solutions for sustainable agriculture and how food losses and food waste should be handled.

Open conflicts and hidden wars

Beasley reminded the meeting that people in conflict areas often had no choice but to leave their home, and stressed the fact that a one per cent increase in hunger led to a two per cent increase in migration. Long-term solutions were called for to fight the root causes of hunger. This could only be successful if a comprehensive approach was pursued in international cooperation – the development-humanitarian-peace nexus.

Anyone referring to combating the root causes of flight should not only have the war situations in Syria or Yemen, Somalia or South Sudan in mind. Joachim von Braun, Director of the Center for Development Research (ZEF) at the University of Bonn, Germany, noted that beyond the known conflicts, a “hidden war” was raging – the conflict between herders and farmers. In Nigeria, this conflict had claimed the lives of around 10,000 people over the past few years. The reason was a lack of land, and – more fundamentally – climate change, a phenomenon that “is haunting us at global level”, as von Braun put it. And this phenomenon was man-made, fired for example by the felling of the Brazilian rainforests, which could largely be traced back to Western consumption patterns.

Promoting fair supply chains

The approximately 700 participants agreed that we were capable of feeding the world today and would be in 2050, too. However, this was only possible with a fundamental change in the existing food system. Joachim von Braun called for the setting up of an international panel on food, nutrition and agriculture. According to German Development Minister Gerd Müller, it was above all necessary to address the global supply chains. Given the recently published United Nations biodiversity report, he called for exclusively importing certified palm oil and soy to the European Union in order to put an end to overexploiting nature. Internationally operating corporations had to be obliged to ensure living wages and the observance of human rights. In a nutshell, a social and ecological turnaround was needed in globalisation – preferably voluntarily, but also by law if that was not possible. Müller cited the example of the “green button” label initiated by the Partnership for Sustainable Textiles and set to be launched this summer. It is meant to help consumers to spot sustainably produced textiles and thus enhance demand for these products. So far, it has only found favour with around half of Germany’s textile retailers. “What is simply despicable is when businesses tell me, in times of digitisation, that traceability is not practicable,” Müller remarked in Berlin.

Innovations and technology transfer for food sovereignty

But coming back to agriculture, what do innovations have to look like to help produce and distribute enough food for a growing world population and – even better – achieve food sovereignty in the Global South? Disease-resistant, high-yielding seed is certainly one important factor. Nicolaus von Wirén, Head of the Department of Physiology and Cell Biology of the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK) in Gatersleben/Germany, called for grasping the opportunities offered by new breeding methods. Conventional breeding would continue to exist in the future, but in today’s conditions in particular, it was often too slow. “Biological innovations such as genome editing could help to faster adapt local varieties to changes in agricultural conditions,” von Wirén maintained. In combining these biological innovations with technical innovations such as precision farming, the plant specialist saw a huge potential for more resource efficiency in agriculture.

German Agricultural Minister Julia Klöckner stressed the opportunities offered by digitisation: tailored application of seed on schedule with the aid of weather apps and sub-area-specific yield forecasts, an optimised use of pesticides and fertilisers through precision farming, traceability and transparency in production for commerce and the consumer,  knowledge exchange und decision support for farms, determining the right time to sell products thanks to access to market prices … “Digitalisation can only help smallholders if they really receive localised data,” noted Mathias Mogge, Secretary General of Deutsche Welthungerhilfe. It was also important to involve farmers in testing the respective technologies, with special attention being given to gender dynamics. Experience gathered by Welthungerhilfe, for example, had shown that women used smartphones very differently from men – an important insight when it came to designing apps.

The question of digital literacy and ownership

As a rule, governments and businesses are very keen to gather data and keep them. So what about digital literacy and ownership? In Kenya, 90 per cent of the population had access to the Internet and 56 per cent access to social media, said Winnie Kamau, President of the Association of Freelance Journalists in Kenya. There could be no mention of a general lack of digital literacy in her country, Kamau claimed, adding that it was absolutely commonplace, for example, for people to pay for their milk cartons via their mobile phone. “People may be able to use the technology, but they are not aware of what happens to their data,” Mogge noted, somewhat dampening the young journalist’s enthusiasm.

Engel Hessel, Commissioner for Digitization at the German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture, was convinced that as far as data-driven agriculture was concerned, data ownership had to remain with the farmer. “He is the one who has to be allowed to decide who uses the raw data.” Alexandre Teillet, Europe commercial business lead for The Climate Corporation, called for a strong regulative system around data to protect society. However, at the level of practical application, there was still too great a lack of connectivity and standardisation of data. The aim had to be to use data to help create value on the farm and enable farmers to produce more with less – for example in order to bridge the huge gap between actual and feasible yields on farms.

Designing a new food system – easier said than done

“Our food system was not designed to avoid waste, but to produce as much as possible,” Pete Pearson, Senior Director Food Loss and Waste at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), stressed, summing up the chief weakness of food production in the Global North. But a system of this kind cannot be changed quite as easily as some of the participants may have wished in Berlin. For example, Pearson suggested passing on the consumption patterns of consumers – which have remained an estimated 80 per cent unchanged – to commerce and the producers in order to enable them to produce goods and supply the market correspondingly. But would consumers also accept standing in front of empty shelves in supermarkets every now and then? And won’t awareness campaigns only reach those consumers who are already leading a “conscious” life style? Moreover, would proposals for a food taxation resembling that of fossil fuels not put a disproportionately high burden on the poorer groups of the population?

Food loss as an ISO criterion?

Robert von Otterdijk, Agro-Industry Officer at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) was convinced that there could be no “zero waste” anyway. But much had already been achieved since the respective campaigns in 2011.  Von Otterdijk suggested adopting “food waste” as an ISO certification standard. Industry had already accepted many aspects in the ISO context. With view to his area of expertise, he pointed out that avoiding food losses in the Global South also always meant investing. “We have to make sure that smallholders can really afford such investments, for example to improve storage conditions, when we recommend measures here,” the FAO expert maintained. Moreover, it was important to view the entire food chain.

Pioneers’ pitch: Smart solutions for a more sustainable agrifood chain

Five young entrepreneurs presented examples of innovations along the agrifood chain at the “pioneers’s pitch”:

- SeedForward GmbH biological seed dressing helps to protect plants from diseases and pests, reduce fertiliser use, enhance root growth and ultimately stabilise yield; it is equally suitable for conventional and organic farming. (in German)

- The ‘plant doctor’ app developed by Peat GmbH helps farmers spot and treat plant diseases and nutrient deficits in a minimum of time via a community of scientists, farmers and plant experts; according to company founder Simone Strey, the app is now available in 16 languages and has at least 800,000 users, mainly in India.

- Mohamed Jimale, a former nomad from Somalia, sees camels as the future of milk production in his region. Via his crowd-investment online platform Agrikaab, he is establishing farms in East Africa. The five projects implemented so far have created jobs for 20 young people and include camel farms as well as greenhouses in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu.

- Mimica Touch is a food expiry label that provides real-time information about the condition of food. The label is for example applied to milk cartons. If it goes bumpy when touched, the consumer will know that the milk has spoiled.

- HigherSteaks are working on the development of alternative protein sources. Company founder Benjamina Bollag hopes to be able enter the market with her method of growing meat with cell cultures in two or three years’ time.

Silvia Richter, editor, Rural 21

Further reading:

Rural 21, issue no. 1/2019: "The nexus"

Rural 21, issue no. 4/2017: "Climate change"

Rural 21, issue no. 2/2017: "Digitisation – game changer for rural Africa?"

Website of the Partnership for Sustainable Textiles

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