By 2050 it is estimated that the global population will surpass nine billion, with urban populations growing and rural populations declining. Although absolute food production might be sufficient to feed such a growing population, there are substantial gaps among countries in the use of science, technology and innovation in agriculture and food production.
With productive arable land and freshwater resources severely constrained in many parts of world and poor agricultural practices or the consequences of climate change leading to land and marine degradation, it is imperative that we transform our agrifood systems. This will only be possible through widespread application of science, technology and innovation.
Here are just five of the many ways science, technology and innovation can make agrifood systems more resilient and sustainable.
1. Using digital applications in agrifood systems
In the agrifood sector, there have been recent advances, such as mobile technologies, remote-sensing and distributed computing, in the areas of information and communication technologies (ICTs). Narrowing of the “digital divide” has allowed small-scale producers to harness mobile phone networks and internet availability to access information, inputs, markets and finance. Although these technologies are spreading rapidly, they are also evolving rapidly, and poorer communities are struggling to keep up with developments in infrastructure, costs, e-literacy, regulatory frameworks and access to services.
Mobile phone apps have widespread functions in terms of management, monitoring, marketing, finance and decision-support and are increasingly relied on by small-scale producers. In Fiji, for example, a smart phone app is being used to help grow nutritious food and promote healthy eating.
Digital technology, such as artificial intelligence and blockchain, can play an important part in enhancing the sustainability of agrifood systems. By providing training and ensuring access to the newest technology, FAO is helping to ensure that small-scale producers do not miss out on any advances in this fast-evolving domain.
2. Using innovation to reclaim underutilised space for urban agriculture
In 2050, it is estimated that two thirds of the world’s population will live in urban settings. The urban and peri-urban environments represent largely untapped resources in terms of land and water for plant production, agroforestry, livestock keeping and aquaculture. Underutilised space in and around towns can be used to green the environment and produce food, reducing reliance on transported and traded goods, which are becoming increasingly expensive.
An extension of urban production is “vertical agriculture”, which can utilise idle structures, such as old buildings or discarded shipping containers. This type of agriculture makes use of vertical space to produce crops in a controlled environment. It is automated indoor farming using hydroponics, an artificial atmosphere and LED lighting. Production is possible year-round and is independent of the weather, but the set-up is costly and requires a great deal of electricity. Although this relatively sophisticated technology is only currently suited to regions where there is easy access to specialised equipment and the start-up finance, advances in technologies might enable broader uptake soon.
FAO is providing resources to decision-makers to advance urban agriculture and ensure that appropriate technologies are available to all, promoting the conversion of urban areas into green cities.
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3. Reducing distances and enhancing access through the internet
Traditionally, for small-scale rural producers, the further away one was from towns and cities, the more difficult it was to access services.
With the development and spread of digital technologies, such as the internet and mobile phones, some of the problems of distance and limited or costly access can be mitigated. Planning and management are vastly improved by being able to coordinate digitally between producers and buyers, for example, and having access to data sources that can help with decision-making. Mobile technologies cannot completely substitute for physical infrastructure, but they can facilitate access to many services to a far greater extent than was previously possible.
4. Developing irradiated vaccines for animals
Vaccines are vital to control and prevent numerous animal diseases, some of which also threaten human health. Vaccines stimulate an immunological response that helps fight impending disease. Radiation can be used to inactivate pathogenic microorganisms so a vaccinated animal does not develop a disease and is not put at risk through vaccination with a live microorganism, which could inadvertently initiate a disease.
Irradiation technology allows development of safe vaccines for animals because it obviates the need for chemical compounds that are usually used to deactivate microorganisms such as viruses.
A programme of the Joint FAO/International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Centre of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture is supporting staff training and providing supplies and equipment for the Ethiopian National Veterinary Institute (NVI). All technical staff in the NVI’s Research and Development Department have received training by FAO and IAEA. “Whether through short courses or longer fellowships, they have all been exposed to cutting edge science,” said Martha Yami, Director General of the NVI.
Livestock exports, which number over one million cattle per year, are vital to the Ethiopian economy. Such exports would not be possible without nuclear techniques. Irradiated animal vaccines bolster the livestock industry in countries where disease represents a barrier to sustainable production.
5. Upgrading value chains with better technology
Value chains are complex. They provide salaries, profits, tax revenues and consumer supplies. They also involve a broad range of individuals – from producers all the way to consumers.
Their sustainability rests on economic, social and environmental components and any underperforming aspect can impact sustainability at any or all of these levels.
FAO supports sustainable food chain value development, which looks at value chains holistically and connects producers to consumers. FAO also helps key players in value chains identify areas of underperformance and intervene accordingly.
Science, technology and innovation can supply new solutions to the problems facing agrifood systems. Harnessing these, we will be better placed to produce food securely for our future.
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