A 2014 National Geographic article, “One-Third of Food Is Lost or Wasted,” reported that 3.5 billion acres of land, an area larger than Canada, was plowed in 2007 to grow food, support livestock and dairy production that was never consumed. As for water waste, nearly 70 percent is consumed by agriculture, more than twice that of industry at 23 percent, and municipal use bottoms out at 8 percent.
As UNEP’s Nick Nuttall acknowledged in the piece: "Food waste is a stupid problem. But people love stupid problems because they know they can do something about it."
Enter the Internet of Things (IoT) — sustainability’s new BFF. IoT is adding a layer of infrastructure — metrics for enhanced efficiency — that may provide a solution to the ongoing depletion of clean water and fresh food as the global population continues to grow.
The core issue is not simply adequate food production — it’s the proper use of what’s produced and the efficient use of resources put against it. Improper use of our food and water wealth is an increasing challenge to our future.
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However, that kind of systemic inefficiency and waste can now be harnessed through the application of the IoT, and startups in the fecund space include Stringify, co-founded by David Evans, also CTO, and previously Chief Futurist of Cisco.
Sustainable Brands spoke with Evans about the increased use of smart tech to bring about the necessary efficiency in food production.
How are these connected sensor networks improving the monitoring of food production and operations?
David Evans: Never since the plow has a more powerful tool emerged for food producers — from monitoring environmental conditions, to water usage, to pesticides and fertilizer, and even food spoilage. In short, it’s a simple matter of: You can’t manage what you can’t measure. IoT provides the tools to more effectively measure, and therefore more efficiently manage, food production.
One of the side benefits of IoT is the massive amount of data that is generated — especially with low-cost, more accurate and abundant sensors. This data coupled with big data and analytics will provide greater insight into more efficient food production. The ability to correlate local food production to environmental conditions (even around the world) will drive greater insight and efficiencies.
Sensor networks, of course, do not stop in the field — they extend to the trucks that haul the food, to the warehouses, stores and even homes. Over time this will create a closed-loop system that will help food producers understand when, where, and how to produce food most effectively.
Do tech breakthroughs that disrupt an industry adequately educate the next generation of users — particularly in the sustainability arena?
Evans: Not only do they educate the next generation of users, the next generation of users expects them. With few exceptions users want lower prices; better, healthier food; more sustainable practices. In the coming years, global climate change will significantly amplify the expectations from users as it relates to food. There will be pressure from, and expectations of, users/consumers that food is produced sustainably.
What about the obvious drawbacks of ever-greater reliance on the IoT and a computer-connected ecosystem — for food safety and beyond?
Evans: One could make the same argument about plumbing systems, electricity, pesticides, etc. Yes, there is a reliance, but these are simple tools that facilitate greater efficiency. Without these tools we will simply not be able to feed our planet. It is important that we use these tools intelligently and responsibly.
Do you think the IoT can help us produce enough food to feed the global population?
Evans: I believe so. This is not a matter of enough food — it’s a matter of efficiency. Today we throw away about a 1/3 of our food — not in the field, but food that was already processed and destined for consumption. If we could produce food more efficiently in local areas (perhaps through the utilization of vertical farms, etc), and know when to use it before it goes bad (through the use of low-cost sensors), we would have less waste.
In many ways, food production has not significantly changed for the last 10,000 years. True, we are more efficient and have introduced sophisticated genetic modifications, and created greater yield, but we still grow in huge fields/farms, over-water, over-fertilize, and typically have one or two harvests a year. With new approaches such as vertical farming, we can reduce energy by 85 percent, use a tenth the amount of water, and harvest dozens of times a year.
Some estimates are that food production will have to double within the next 50 years to meet the requirements of a growing population. Challenged by climate change, water shortages and greater urbanization, radical approaches will need to be explored. One of these approaches is lab-made meat. Companies such as Modern Meadow, backed by Peter Thiel, are already investing in these areas. In the next couple of decades it will not be unusual to go to a supermarket to buy meat that was grown entirely from scratch.