Sarah B., our May spotlighted writer, typically covers global food system and security, veterans issues, and health in the developing world subjects when writing for Verblio (formerly BlogMutt). She also writes about art, creativity, technical disruptions in the small business, and the startup world. Sarah is a veteran, a retired Naval Officer, an artist, and a small business owner.
This 1,873-word article would be an example of a blog post for a food science startup or small business, or an NGO working on food security issues, such as regional food banks or humanitarian organizations.
The global population is estimated to grow to 9.8 billion by 2050, and 11.2 billion by 2100, from the current levels of 7.6 billion. The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs does these projections to assist agencies working on issues of sustainable development throughout the world. Each estimated projection, as new data becomes available, moves the population bar higher. With specific goals for sustainable development throughout the world, issues such as health and education, poverty and hunger, equality, and opportunity are being addressed through various global and national agencies, as well as NGOs and small, community-based, non-profit agencies. Many working in the sustainable development field have come to a full-stop with these population numbers for food systmems. The question being asked now are how will we find enough food and water for everyone living on earth?
Current Food Systems
Our current food system for agriculture, food production, and distribution will not produce enough food for everyone if the systems remain the same. We are also using so much water for agriculture that there will not be enough fresh water for the new, rapidly growing population. Activists, scientists, development specialists, environmentalists are working together to find solutions that can be pilot-tested and trialed before the situation gets to red-line status. Work is focusing on three areas: agriculture, food waste, and food insecurity.
What is the intersection of agriculture and food security? Consider Africa and the LDCs—the least developed countries—for both challenges and solutions. Twenty-six African countries are expected to double their populations by 2050. The infrastructure to support agriculture, such as transportation, storage, and shipping, is limited. The majority of the rural population are smallholder subsistence farmers, who produce more than 80% of the food crops for the continent. Women contribute the majority of the labor to grow food in Africa and encounter significant social and cultural disparities in access to markets, access to financial services, and other institutional barriers.
Solutions for a Food System
Solutions both large and small are at work and being developed for food systems. For many farmers and others who produce seasonal income, the lack of ability to pay for labor during the growing season meant they had to sell their crops at rock-bottom prices to brokers, who would front them labor and seed money until the crop came in. This system kept farmers from being able to make any improvements to the land or infrastructure of the farm, and contributed to the severe levels of rural poverty.
Financial and communication technologies have brought microfinance institutions (MFIs) into the rural areas with little transportation and communication infrastructure. With seasonal or agricultural loans, farmers can pay for seed, amendments, and labor, sell their crop at market prices, and then pay back the small capital loans. Through the MFI’s efforts to bring financial inclusion to the unbanked and excluded, issues of identity, access to savings and insurance, establishment of a credit history, and other benefits of financial inclusion accrue. These efforts have been assisted by the new communication technologies, which allow MFI loan services staff to communicate regularly, and allow those with new financial access to pay bills and do other financial business through their phones and digital wallets.
Sponsorships for a Food System
MFIs are also sponsoring cooperative development on a larger scale. Many rural farmers had to depend on the few transportation options available to get their crops to market. For commodity crops, the condition of the crop depends a great deal not just on growing and processing, but on transportation and storage. For crops that travel to the large shipping ports, the control over quality has not been in the hands of the farmers. Agricultural cooperatives have been working to improve access to transportation and to give farmers back control over transportation and storage infrastructure by allowing the group purchase or lease of trucks.
On a smaller, but still critically important level, a number of NGOs and universities have brought safe crop storage to the smallholder farmer. Storing crops, including cereal crops and seeds for the next season’s planting, has been a challenge in many parts of rural Africa. The post-harvest loss of these food resources is estimated at nearly a third of produced food lost to inadequate storage and transportation. From a self-build silo to various climate controlled storage options, think tanks and NGOs are working to bring solutions to smallholder farmers in Africa. Even small solutions can have a significant impact. The IRRI Super Bag is a simple solution to the problem of cereal storage and the degradation of stored cereals and seeds, including other products such as coffee. The inner lining bag is hermetically sealed to allow decreased moisture levels and decreased oxygen levels during storage—both of which contribute significantly to the long life of the stored crops and seeds.
On a global scale, the system of commodity markets keeps farmers at the bottom of the power spectrum. Global commodities are usually not essential food crops, and market prices and other factors are usually beyond the control of individual farmers. Communication technologies that have allowed the development of education programs and cooperative work have given farmers in some regions the potential for improvement.
New Food Systems
Grow Ahead successfully crowdfunded a farmer-to-farmer training program in Nicaragua. This program was designed to teach coffee farmers the newest techniques and knowledge to combat the effects of climate change on their coffee crop. The Norandino Cooperative in Peru was one of the participants in the program. Norandino has more than 5,500 families associated with the cooperative, and they work to find alternate markets for organic and free trade commodity farmers, such as coffee growers, sugar cane, and cocoa farmers. One of the benefits of the communication technologies that allowed group meetings and education programs across regions was a translation program that allowed members who spoke different languages to participate. The power of farmer cooperatives, such as Norandino and others being developed in the commodity-growing regions, is that infrastructure that used to be out of the control of farmers, such as transportation, storage, and markets, is now given back to the farmers. And they are using the power of crowdsourced information to grow their market share.
On the other side of the world, community agencies and nonprofits are grappling with a conundrum: how can the richest nation on the earth have so many people hungry? We throw away so much food, and yet there is significant food insecurity in America. Surely there is a way for these two issues to intersect?
In the developing world, lack of storage and transportation leads to food waste. In the developed world, we also have significant food loss from fresh produce that is grown with many resources—water, labor, seed, soil amendments—and then goes bad and is thrown away before being eaten. This ‘Ugly Produce Syndrome’ means the off-center apples and the lumpy potatoes end up in the bottom of the bin, going bad. Grocery stores can donate produce to food banks and other food distribution centers, but produce that is going old has a short turnaround time, and food safety rules are strict in order to prevent food-borne illness. In addition, labor and other farm costs are very high, and with depressed crop prices, farmers sometimes have to let a harvest fall off the trees, unpicked, because the cost of picking, packing, and shipping will not be covered by the sale of the food.
Nonprofit Making Changes to the Food System
A number of community-based nonprofit agencies are addressing where these problems intersect by trying to change food waste into access for people who are food insecure. Food Shift in San Francisco can be seen as a model for agencies addressing the issues of food waste, food insecurity, jobs training, and other opportunities to build resilient communities. Food Shift has developed collaborative relationships with a number of agencies who support their mission. They rescue food about to be thrown away or wasted from farmer’s markets, restaurants, grocery stores. They have a community kitchen which trains people in food service work, and they prepare food for the shelters and other community feeding programs. Some of the other programs at work in cities include food runners, volunteer groups who rescue food and produce about to be thrown away and deliver it to shelters and community soup kitchens; an ugly vegetable home delivery service; several apps and community boards and platforms that allow restaurants to list when they have food remaining at the end of a service, and will sell it at a discount; second harvest groups who glean and otherwise save smaller amounts of produce left in fields after the machines have finished with the harvest.
Copia is an example of a platform that is allowing food businesses to address both food waste and food insecurity in an efficient and time sensitive way. The app allows businesses to schedule a driver to pick up their surplus food, and they can follow its distribution to the end user. Business issues such as tax documentation are handled by the app.
The challenge many of these nonprofit groups face is the same issue farmers in Africa’s face. How to store food safely and in an economical way? For prepared foods, such as restaurant stock at the end of a shift, a simple system of getting the food to people who are hungry comes against the challenge of doing it safely, and in a timely manner so the food is still good and safe to eat. For fresh produce, again the issue is proper storage and preparation. Food Shift is bringing rescued produce directly to their community kitchen, so it can be prepared and served. Copia is allowing food businesses to tap into an integrated platform that covers distribution to an end user. Many food banks have commercial kitchens, so they can take large amounts of donated produce and prepare soups or jams. But the majority of produce going old still ends up in landfills. Most nonprofits working on issues of food security need to be able to preserve food safely. What new technologies are being developed that can prolong the life and quality of fresh produce?
New Technology to Develop a Better Food System
Hazel Technologies in Chicago has developed a package insert for fresh fruit. The small sachet, about the size of a sugar packet, is designed for farm-based packaging operations when the fruit has to be shipped over a distance. The small sachet, called FruitBrite or BerryBrite, releases an anti-fungal and ethylene inhibitor. Rather than spraying produce with anti-fungal and antimicrobial sprays, in an attempt to ward off decay, this sachet, being in a sealed package, emits very tiny amounts of the chemicals that reduce rapid ripening. Bluapple uses similar ethylene inhibition, in a little blue apple that sits in the fridge and keeps produce fresher. Edipeel was developed by a California food waste startup. The product uses a post-harvest surface barrier made from plant products that reduces the oxidation and microbial colonization on the surface of fruits and veggies, increasing their lifespan.
In addition to these food technologies, communication technologies in America and the EU have allowed groups to bring their message to both businesses and the consumer. The successes of the Coalition of Immokolee Workers, the international farm worker’s advocacy group that has brought the Fair Food movement into the global spotlight, in unprecedented in bringing about changes in the farm and a food system in America.