To say that relations between NGOs and agribusiness are strained is nothing short of an understatement. On closer inspection, however, this antagonism is not all that warranted. In recent years, some of the criticism that activists and NGOs routinely levy at the food industry are being addressed by developments in smart agriculture and other technological solutions. Here are just a few examples that show a real paradigm shift is underway.
Toast Ale: A Rev-Ale-utionary beer commits to the struggle against food waste
Let’s start with Toast Ale, one of the winners of the 15th edition of FoodBytes SF 2019, a competition for entrepreneurs that brought together start-ups around three main categories: “agrifood technology, sustainable consumer products and the people’s choice”. Winner of the latter category, Toast Ale turns stocks of unsold bread into brews, offering an elegant solution to food wastage. On the company’s website, there are some clear reminders of the sheer scale of the problem: one-third of the food the world produces each year is wasted: Bread is top of the list of our most wasted household food items. We waste almost 900,000 tonnes of bread every year – around 24 million slices every day. In terms of calories, that’s enough to lift over 26 million people out of hunger. Food waste can be reduced either by redistributing it to the needy or by composting it. Which is where Toast Ale comes in: the company identifies the sources of food “surplus” in bakeries and delivers the bread to brewers. They hope that some 24 million slices of bread could be offset in this way.
Golden Rice: Enriched with Vitamin A, to counter blindness in Bangladesh
Unlike the previous entry on this list, golden rice is not a trendy startup but a textbook case of technological innovation that aims to address some of the same problems NGOs worldwide are grappling with: infant mortality. The World Health Organization estimates that “between 250,000 and 500,000 children with vitamin A deficiency go blind every year, with half of them dying within 12 months of losing their sight.” This appalling statistic led an international consortium to consider the possibility of improving the seed by enriching it with beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A, and making the resulting seed accessible to farmers who grow it locally.
This biotechnology-derived rice has generated a lot of column inches since it hit markets twenty years ago. In 2016, over 109 Nobel Laureates signed a petition calling on Greenpeace to stop their smear campaign against golden rice and asking governments around the world to ignore the Greenpeace campaign. While the controversy surrounding golden rice is not new, Bangladesh made headlines recently when it decided to face down activists’ opprobrium and started cultivating this so-called “miracle seed”. The country was in particular need of an innovation of this kind as vitamin A deficiency hits the population hard and rice is a staple food crop. However, the furious reaction of some NGOs to this innovation begs the question: do they see it as a competitor?
Cropin: Big Data to feed the planet, while protecting the environment
Precision agriculture is on the up and up, but it has an uphill struggle ahead. As Krishna Kumar, the Indian entrepreneur who founded Cropin, points out: “The world population is expected to cross the 10 billion mark by the middle of the century and its combined impact with urbanization and the rise of middle class is bound to create a higher demand of healthy, fairly produced, and sustainable food which would require the current produce to double by that time. In meeting this goal, smart agtech solutions would prove instrumental by optimizing agricultural practices, minimizing waste, developing climate resilience, and providing timely agricultural advisory.” Krishna Kumar had the idea for Cropin during the agrarian crisis that threatened the rural areas of Karnataka in 2010. Local farmers were faced with “a gamut of problems ranging from non-availability of finance, climatic vagaries, soil degradation, pest infestation and diseases, operational inefficiencies, and no predictability of yield”. The solution that Kumar proposed was to offer SaaS services to farmers. It enables data-driven farming through the ‘SmartFarm’ platform, which helps derive real time insight on standing crop and projects across geographies based on local weather information and high-resolution satellite imagery. In short, farmers can optimise the profitability and sustainability of their crops while making a decent income (a sad fact to recall is that in India, suicide amongst farmers is endemic), goals worthy of an NGO which might engage locally to combat poverty, for example.
Telaqua: Optimizing the use of water resources to cope with drought
Our list could not overlook the optimisation of scarce resources. Telaqua is a French company that offers intelligent technology allowing farmers to “control their irrigation remotely, monitor their installations and increase their yields”. Using a smartphone, the farmer can control the irrigation of his plots, manage his schedule and adapt his irrigation depending on soil moisture. As the project founders point out, agriculture accounts for 70% of the world’s water expenditure: “In agriculture, water is a vital and indispensable resource, and there is likely to be an increase in restrictions on the volume of water allocated to this area of activity. Irrigation is vital to meet the needs of many crops (wheat, tomato, soy, melon, etc.). Caught between the scarcity of the resource and the increasing power of intensive agriculture”, the crucial question is “How to develop agriculture and irrigation while saving a scarce resource?”
No doubt we could find thousands of examples to illustrate this otherwise simple idea: technology is needed to solving some of the world’s most burning problems. The more the agrifood industry, the NBTs and precision agriculture develop, the more they will be able to address issues that once were claimed to be the exclusive prerogative of NGOs: fighting waste, caring for the needy, equipping the poorest in society, saving scarce resources.