Smart Supply Systems Are Key To Solving Global Food Crisis

30/07/2015 8:16 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
NOAH SEELAM via Getty Images
Indian children eat their mid-day meal at an Government High School in Hyderabad, on January 10, 2012. Levels of under-nutrition in the country were 'unacceptably high' despite impressive GDP growth, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said on January 10, 2012 and added that the problem of malnutrition was a 'national shame'. AFP PHOTO / Noah SEELAM (Photo credit should read NOAH SEELAM/AFP/Getty Images)

There is no doubt that there exists a global food crisis. Across the world, 795 million people suffer from hunger -- defined as a painful sensation from want of food! This pain afflicts more than 525 million people in Asia, 200 million in Sub-Saharan Africa, 37 million in Latin America, the Caribbean and other regions. Women form 60% of these numbers and a child dies every 10 seconds from afflictions related to malnourishment.

What is notable is that this food crisis is most prevalent in producing regions, areas that have a food surplus, not a food shortage. The question is why? Why is it that the producing areas face more hunger?

The answer seems obvious -- lack of logistics connectivity. This means the harvest from the farms is not appropriately delivered to the consumers. This lack of efficient delivery mechanism is a key factor for the gross loss of food, estimated to be 30% of the cereals and 40-50% of the fruits and vegetables produced globally.

"If we are to blindly raise farm production, the input costs will increase, and if we continue to lose large amounts of what is produced, we'd only end up wasting more resources..."

Hence, it becomes most surprising when global pundits propose that the answer to food insecurity, is to produce more, to raise farm-level productivity. Produce more, to continue to waste more? That does not appear to be a long-term or holistic solution.

The answer is to create more effective supply chain systems - logistics bridges between farms and urban demand centres. These bridges are the aggregating, handling and transport systems.

If we are to blindly raise farm production, the input costs will increase, and if we continue to lose large amounts of what is produced, we'd only end up wasting more resources, making the food more unaffordable, the chain more unsustainable. Farm-level productivity as a measure has become outdated and to develop a full solution we need to assess overall productivity.

In many parts of the world, science has helped agriculture to produce more, and the result is a problem of plenty, essentially decoding into a concern of weak supply chains. Food delivered should be the end-result of what is harvested, and this applies to grains as well as the more perishable fruits and vegetables. Food loss ought to be a factor in measuring total productivity. The world needs to shift from traditional measures of farm-level productivity to one of gainful productivity. Food security is readily defined as easy and affordable access to food, and producing larger amounts of food without delivery mechanisms in place will not translate into more access or reach of food.

The problem is more complicated when it comes to perishable foods like fresh fruits and vegetables. In this case, the use of temperature-controlled technologies, or cold-chain is necessary. Yet, it is not cold stores alone that can solve the delivery concern. We need to pre-condition the produce before it can enter the cold-chain conduit. This means back-end pack houses before we start considering the large cold stores. The cold-chain is, today, the only known technology intervention that can sustain delivery of perishable goods. It allows us to cover distances and reach more consumers.

While humankind had its first turning point when it learnt to harness the power of fire, today we have reached our next tipping point. To continue to feed our growing numbers, to sustain our civilisation, we need to learn to harness the power of cold, better than ever.

The global food crisis is best countered by smart food supply systems -- by ensuring the food we produce reaches gainful end-use. This will bring down wastage of natural resources, alleviate food insecurity globally and will also, automatically, feed farm productivity. We need far more attention, more science and development in the delivery mechanism, than the erstwhile focus on only producing more.

The future approach is to build effective conduits to bridge the distance between farms and consumers. It is not merely the science of efficient storage, but scientific delivery of food. Better, safer, faster connectivity is key to the solution.

Excerpts from an address by the author, at debate in the House of Lords, UK.

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