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BusinessDay: Technology can help us beat the hunger pandemic

By Johan Steyn, 17 May 2022

Oliver, age nine, is a resident of the parish workhouse, where the boys receive “three meals of thin gruel each day, an onion twice a week, and half a roll on Sundays”. In his second novel, Charles Dickens describes the horrid conditions of orphans in London in the late nineteenth century.

Food shortages and perpetual hunger is a pandemic that has largely gone forgotten during the Covid-19 years. According to the UN’s World Food Programme, 811-million people about the world are going hungry. It’s estimated that 44-million people in 38 countries are on the brink of starvation. A global human catastrophe will inevitably occur if these numbers continue to rise at the same rate as they have for the past few years.

In 2021, the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report estimates that 21% of the population in Africa suffers from malnutrition, more than double that of any other region. An Ipsos study also found that more than 40% of South Africans of all ages were suffering from chronic food insecurity.

The world’s population is expected to reach about 10-billion by 2050, and scientists believe that to keep up with the rising demand for food, farmers would need to produce 69% more calories than they did in 2006.

There are many factors that will affect the future of food security. One is certainly climate change and better utilisation of the limited resources available. The other is war, and we are seeing increased global hunger as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the “breadbasket of Europe”.

The other factor at play here — and hopefully on the positive side of the story — is technological innovation. Artificial intelligence (AI) is transforming the world at a quick and accelerating rate, bringing great opportunities but also societal and economic challenges. Following the global health pandemic, the adoption of some technologies that have existed for more than a decade increased dramatically.

A new legion of purpose-driven entrepreneurs has entered the AI arena, and “AI for Good” is emerging as one of the most potent instruments for achieving the sustainable development goals of the UN and improving livelihoods about the world.

AI is now used in agriculture to evaluate data points to identify disease and insect outbreaks, as well as to uncover the potential to increase yields, remove waste, and reduce pollution. It is projected that AI-enabled operations generate about 20 times more food per acre than conventional farms while consuming 90% less water. Some are at the forefront of vertical indoor farming, employing computer vision and AI algorithms to optimise nutrient inputs and boost harvests in real-time.

Accomplishing the UN sustainable development goals will require bold government policies, corporate commitments, and individual engagement. We will need to employ every tool at our disposal, and as AI becomes more powerful every day, we should encourage more inventors and entrepreneurs to develop novel applications for this technology to address our most pressing social issues.

It is possible to create a better future for our children through the responsible use of the vast array of new smart technologies. We need better regulation without stifling innovation.

There is enough brainpower in our country to ensure that in the future, no child will have to ask, as the young Oliver Twist did: “Please, sir, I want some more.”


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