Across the globe today, there are still so many challenges to be tackled when it comes to food security. With the Earth’s population expected to triple in less than a century, married with the ongoing struggle to feed the current population as hunger continues to bring suffering to over 795 million people across the globe, there is an increasing urgency for innovation across the agricultural sector. Not only do we need to improve the availability of food across the globe, we also need to broaden the diversity of crops we produce if we are to ensure sustainability as per a recent study by the University of Maryland.
The increase in consumer demand in Western cultures for foods such as coffee, citrus fruit and avocados has resulted in the alteration of the natural cycle of the environment in which they are produced. Trends in consumer behaviour and western dietary preferences are now having a dramatic impact on global food security. Growing a monoculture of crops that require the same fertilisation patterns is detrimental to the delicate balance of our global food cycle. Insects and pollinators must be able to have access to their source of nutrition all year round if they are to play their vital role in our food cycle.
The threat of an agricultural crisis is very much a reality across the globe. Crippling costs, poor weather conditions and disease outbreaks have hit landscapes, farmers and businesses hard over the years and the potential impacts could be tenfold. These issues are not only prevalent in the world’s more vulnerable regions, but also in the most developed nations. With other major obstacles including climate change, land degradation and loss of agricultural land, it is already making it difficult to maintain our current food production. There needs to be a bigger focus on crop management if we are to achieve zero hunger by 2030 as per the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.
According to the 2018 Food Security Index, the world has lost 70 per cent of its traditional food diversity since the 1900s. Now we are mass producing 12 key crops at the expense of smaller but more nutritious crops (fruits, vegetables, legumes - see the August issue of Geographical for a deeper look at the state of the world’s seed crops) that used to be part of our daily diets. This also contributes to the eco balance of the food system that is becoming increasingly problematic, not only in terms of environment, but also as a disruption to our overall nutritional balance as consumers.
The University of Maryland research has shown the need for more crop diversity and pollinator-friendly methods of farming as a means of restoring a balance to the ecosystems where produce is grown. It is therefore essential that farmers and those who control the process of agriculture impose practices that can work with the environment. All this can only be recognised and actioned if we have the relevant data and information released by the stakeholders to identify the patterns – supermarket demands, consumption patterns, food origins, carbon footprints, agricultural output and the environmental reaction.
This is where open data comes into play. It can enable us to truly democratise the information and help re-shape our perceptions and actions when we understand the impact. Consumers would also be made aware of their choices and the impact they create. As for farming practices, when farmers have access to the same data, it would help them identify, develop and alter their farming and production patterns for the better, including the environmental and nutritional impact, monitoring water supplies, anticipating changes in the weather, and ensuring crop diversity. Such open information will also prove useful to sharing crucial information across country borders so that people the world over can learn best practices from each other and increase efficiency.
Avocados for example, are a popular trend in Western society due to their increasingly recognised health benefits. But mass production and farming of this fruit is bringing detriment to the environment as a result of trying to meet the high demand. The mass farming of avocados in regions such as Mexico has resulted in land degradation, as avocado plantations absorb huge amounts of irrigation water, putting pressure on local water reserves. It takes an estimated 272 litres of water to grow around half a kilogram of avocados (about two or three medium-sized), making them one of the highest water-dependent crops across the globe. The mass plantation of avocados also depletes soil and strips it of its natural minerals, leaving it vulnerable to diseases. This increases the need for the use of pesticides which are also harmful to the environment.
The environmental impacts of mass avocado plantation are similar to the impacts of other foods which are now becoming more like commodities due to the skyrocketing consumer demand in the west. Palm oil, soy milk, coffee and fruits such as bananas are also popular commodities that are significantly damaging to the environment. Between 1995 and 2015, demand for palm oil increased exponentially due to the increasing recognition of its versatile qualities, making it an incredibly popular ingredient in everyday soaps and shampoos, baked goods, frying oils and cosmetic products. Today, three billion people worldwide are consuming an average of 8kg of palm oil a year and the footprint of production as a result of this mass consumption is causing severe detriment to the environment on a global scale.
Due to such high demands for palm oil products, plantations across the globe now account for ten per cent of global cropland to date. Forest fires purposefully set to clear space for these plantations are causing mass devastation not only by the destruction of the habitats of endangered animals, such as orang-utans, Sumatran tigers and Sumatran rhinos in Indonesia and Malaysia, but are also vastly increasing the levels of greenhouse gas emissions. Today, plantations are the top source of emissions polluting the environment in Indonesia, inhabited by 261 million people.
The increase in deforestation and destruction of natural habitats as a means of providing more land to grow crops, is causing further detriment by driving endangered species to extinction. Sustainable farming practices are now critical to conserving the Earth’s limited available resources and its precious wildlife. With the correct approach and implementation methods in place, open data can provide much-needed insight into making farming processes more sustainable, while also having a high economic and social return on investment for countries across the globe, in all stages of development.
There is the urgency to support global efforts to make agricultural and nutrition relevant data available, accessible, and usable for unrestricted use worldwide, by building high-level policy and public and private institutional support for open data. Through the collaborative efforts of governments, private and public sector organisations, open data will empower farmers and food companies from across the world to use this data to transform production and in time, address and tackle world hunger. The need for forward planning in this space has never been more pressing – remember the world needs to feed nearly ten billion people by 2050. We need to be smart, calculative and intelligent in our agricultural practices, and the sector badly needs artificial intelligence and data driven smart farming to be efficient.
However, it is not solely the increased access to data that will ensure crops are sustainably and ethically produced. Western society needs to address the treatment of food as fashion trends and aim to consume local produce. Importing foreign produce to meet the growing demand for the exotic is is leading to the unprecedented strain and demand on farmers and the Earth’s natural resources.
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