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Donors back tech over aid to feed hungry world

by Kim Harrisberg | @KimHarrisberg | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 27 January 2021 15:21 GMT

A farmer reads a message on a cell phone while working on a rice paddy field outside Hanoi, Vietnam July 3, 2017. REUTERS/Kham

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Humanitarian agencies want to deliver cutting-edge technology to poor farmers to help them adapt to the effects of rising temperatures

By Kim Harrisberg

JOHANNESBURG, Jan 27 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Food donors want to deliver cutting-edge technology to poor farmers in place of aid in a bid to cut waste, preserve precious land - and make themselves redundant.

In a shift they hope to accelerate, the donors say that tech - not handouts - is their best hope of tackling the rising impacts of climate change in a hungry world and preventing any long-term dependency.

"We used to just bring food in, now we are putting billions into local smallholder farmer opportunities to get things moving along," David Beasley, executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme, said in a panel discussion on Wednesday.

Beasley - leading the world's largest humanitarian agency tackling global hunger - said the private sector must help roll out innovations to more farmers and transform a food system that will have to feed 10 billion people by 2050.

Be it tracking cows by computer or spotting signals via satellite to predict climate shocks, panelists said technology was the best chance of feeding the planet without destroying it.

"We are talking about...e-commerce, hydroponics, blockchain technology, satellite imagery... better seeds, better fertilisers," Beasley told the panel, which was organised by the World Economic Forum.

"We need to improve the system, not tear it down," he added.

COVID-19 disrupted an already vulnerable food supply chain, said panelists, leaving some 270 million people on the brink of starvation and 2 billion without safe, nutritious food.

A quarter of greenhouse gas emissions come from the food system and it is the largest single driver of land degradation, deforestation and lost biodiversity, said journalist and moderator Hiroko Kuniya.

But panelists said the pandemic was also an opportunity to rethink and reset: using tech to propel farmers forward as well as fight hunger and climate change at a local level.

Jeffrey Lu Minfang, who runs a Chinese dairy product manufacturer and distributer, said his firm had used technology to reduce cow feed by a quarter and cut CO2 emissions.

It all came down, he said, to tracking cows digitally.

"To know the health situation of each cow, how much the they eat, what they produce...at each key point in the supply chain," said Lu Minfang, who is chief executive officer (CEO) of the China Mengniu Dairy Co. Ltd.

"This is a huge opportunity to generate more positive impact socially and economically," he said.

The World Economic Forum's Food Innovation Hubs aim to fund and support both grassroots and high-end tech solutions for farmers across the globe.

In Zambia, for example, smallholders will get access to a data and analytics platform to learn more about their crop growth and yield, and how to brace for climate-related shocks.

Information systems will be used in Colombia to connect consumers to nutrient-rich foods coming from sustainable farms.

Experts said one type of tech would not fit all farmers.

"There is technological innovation available for all but it needs to be custom for the region," said Geraldine Matchett, co-CEO of Royal DSM NV, a global, science-based company.

"What is missing is collective belief that we can make the change happen fast...if we align all of technologies end to end we can make a difference," said Matchett.


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(Reporting by Kim Harrisberg @KimHarrisberg; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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