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The human race numbered 1 billion people in 1804, the U.N. estimates. It took only 218 years since then for our population to multiply eightfold. That exponential growth creates challenges in securing the necessary resources to feed this growing population.
In 2023, in much of the developed world, it may not feel like there is a lack of food or even shortages of certain products or items. Yes, food prices have been steadily rising, but when perusing the shelves of your local supermarket, it’s common to come across sea bass from Chile, avocados from Portugal, shrimp from Indonesia, olives from Greece and mangos from Thailand. This might create a false sense that food products from across the world are plentiful, but in reality, our current consumption rates will reach a tipping point.
With wars and famines triggered by climate-induced natural disasters compounding our exploding population, innovative approaches to mitigating ongoing food shortages and future possible food crisis scenarios are imperative. And entrepreneurs are leveraging tech to tackle that challenge.
Fermenting a food revolution
Extreme-weather conditions disrupted recent harvests across Spain and North Africa, causing severe shortages of many common vegetables in the UK, including tomatoes and peppers. Developing countries like Somalia and North Korea, all too familiar with the horrors of starvation, find themselves amid devastating food shortages. In both countries, it is believed that around half the population suffers from a lack of nourishment.
Food shortages caused by severe weather or other climatic conditions constantly plague poorer countries far worse than richer ones. These nations must look to solutions that are affordable and maximize the preservation of food products. Fermentation, a common practice across nearly every society used for pickling vegetables, producing yogurt and brewing alcoholic beverages, can be used by innovative founders to offer practical and affordable solutions.
Industrial fermentation can expand the millennia-old practice by scaling up and adding new, healthier and tasty food options in an eco-friendly and affordable manner. As a metabolic process producing chemical changes in organic substrates, fermentation in food production refers to the use of microorganisms, including bacteria, yeasts and molds, to bring a desirable change to food or drink.
And with modern tech, fermentation can be used on a near-unlimited number of organic foods and beverages, enabling them to enjoy drastically longer shelf lives. Advanced technology is helping make fermentation even more relevant.
Precision fermentation technology has been leveraged to produce drugs and food additives, but now scientists are developing new alternatives to classic food products. Alternative types of proteins, milk, cheeses, fungi, wheat and dairy products can provide populations with healthier and cheaper versions of familiar foods. Precision fermentation requires 1,700 times less land than the most efficient agricultural means of producing protein, and local communities and entrepreneurs can quickly adopt this technology around the globe to stabilize food supplies.
While fermentation tech will take time to maximize and scale up, agriculture remains the primary outlet to feed humans. The brutal war in Ukraine has disrupted wheat supplies by reducing the country’s output and complicating export efforts. A lesser-known consequence of the war is the disruption of the chemical-based fertilizer market, particularly those that use nitrogen such as Urea, which also harms soil, air and waterways.
To mitigate the lack of nitrogen-based fertilizers caused by Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, biological alternatives can help farmers meet the growing demand. Grace Breeding, an agro-tech startup, has developed organic bio-based fertilizers that have demonstrated the ability to reduce environmental damage while boosting yields on key crops, such as wheat and tomatoes.
AI can play a part, too
From biofertilizers to fermentation and plant-based meats, science and technology are increasingly colliding with food to help develop sustainable practices and products to counter food insecurity without harming the planet.
But finding innovative ways to combat hunger today doesn’t stop there. Mainstream tech, like AI, can also play a role. A new study published in Science Advances demonstrates how machine learning techniques can successfully predict where and when the next food crisis will likely occur. By using deep learning to extract relevant text from a database of over 11 million articles focused on food-insecure nations published between 1980 and 2020, the algorithm was able to improve the accuracy of predictions on food insecurity up to a year in advance.
By better anticipating where and when a food crisis outbreak will happen, humanitarian and relief organizations can efficiently plan, raise funds, delegate resources, and have boots—and food—on the ground earlier, thus drastically reducing the impact of famines.
Innovation alone isn’t enough. It must be supported by private and public sector initiatives along with popular support. But without entrepreneurs capable of leveraging innovative solutions, the challenge at hand would be impossible.