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How Technology Can Reduce Hunger and Improve Food Security

By Wayan Vota on April 6, 2017

There are 793 million people globally, who are undernourished or food insecure according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Weather, conflict, labor markets, food supply systems, nutrition, livelihoods, and social inclusion combine to hinder their ability to acquire enough food to meet the daily minimum dietary energy requirements.

While this may be shocking in societies where fast food restaurants offer “super sized” meals for cheap, for millions of people, getting enough to eat is a daily struggle.

Thankfully, there are new technologies and tools that policy makers can now use to sense and predict food insecurity months before it happens, allowing farmers and policy makers to increase their adaptive capacity.

Improved Prediction

From satellites circling the earth, to ground-based remote sensors in the oceans, rivers, and farms, we can forecast the drivers of food insecurity with increasingly higher degrees of accuracy.

For example, the agriculture technology firm aWhere has created a global agronomic weather database with 1.6 million ‘virtual weather stations’ that can predict current and future weather events at 9km intervals. aWhere can also highlight “pocket droughts” where small geographical areas might be experiencing severe water access issues, even when the larger region has plenty of rainfall.

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On-the-ground reporting in more than 20 countries through FEWS NET, the US Government’s premier famine early warning system, augments this remote sensing satellite imagery capacity with in-depth understanding of regional political dynamics, local trading markets, and human migration trends.

When human observation is paired with complex algorithms, FEWS NET, in concert with other food insecurity monitoring stakeholders, can routinely predict famine months in advance and sends that information to policy makers around the world so they can react to the situation, before it becomes a crisis.

Improved Information

However, we shouldn’t get too caught up in policy prescriptions, as the true first responders to any crisis are the people themselves. Farmers are already starting to adopt new farming techniques in the award-winning CHAI program developed by FHI 360 and the International Development Centre, Canada (IDRC).

Over 200,000 Ugandan farmers are receiving climate adaptation information in local languages, increasing agricultural productivity in communities vulnerable to climate change. Studies conducted by the CHAI program showed that access to adaptation information improved by up to 48 percent in the CHAI intervention districts, while the effectiveness of adaptation actions increased by up to 33 percent in the intervention areas.

Not every intervention requires farmers to adopt new technologies. In the SAPARM program, developed by Project Concern International, USAID, and Google, in Ethiopia, paper print outs of Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) satellite images of Ethiopia’s cattle grazing areas are given to pastoral clan leaders.

These high-tech, yet easily accessible maps show vegetation density and greenness down to a 10 km2 area, and almost 80% of pastoralists in the intervention community used the maps for migration decision making and more than half said it was their most important source of information. Even better, there was a 47% drop in herd mortality.

Improved Data

There is an explosion on farming data being produced globally, which is now being leveraged by farmers themselves to improve crop yields, and both the FAO and the World Bank share their data as public data. FAO STAT has a plethora of regularly updated global food and agriculture data, including production, trade, prices, food security, emissions, forestry, and the World Bank Datasets feature free and open macro-level data about countries around the globe, which can serve as a baseline for analysis.

At the farmer level, services like Esoko, send market pricing information to farmers on a daily basis in 10 different countries, while tools like the Rice Crop Manager from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), are used by extension agents in five countries to help them better understand the farmer’s needs, and the investments needed to achieve greater rice yields.

IRRI is also investigating the ability to combine satellite data with direct observation of sample target populations to create highly accurate predictions of when and how large the annual rice crop will be on a national level for several rice-growing countries.

Improved Policy

The E-agriculture Strategy Guide, published by the FAO and the International Telecommunication Union can provide a framework for countries in developing their national e-agriculture strategies, which can infuse the entire agriculture value chain with new technologies.

These strategies include an e-agriculture vision, an action plan, and a framework by which results can be monitored and evaluated. Like all strategies and plans, the outcomes of these processes are not static and changes in a country’s strategic context will require a dynamic approach to updating the strategy so that it remains relevant.

Yet improved policy will not come from government alone, nor will policy itself lead to greater food security for farmers and the communities who depend on them. We will need efforts like the University of Maryland’s leadership on Group on Earth Observations’ goal of tying remote sensing platforms into a Global Earth Observation System of Systems so that all nations can prosper from better satellite data, and the Feed the Future Partnering for Innovation initiative to create technology innovations that directly benefit farmers.

Improved Response

Finally, while technology can help us better predict food insecurity, then mitigate and adapt to its effects, there is still a global need to prevent food insecurity to begin with.

Technology can play a supporting role, but effective political leadership is needed to ensure that the economic gains from advances in technology are more widely distributed so that all people, not just the wealthy, have the ability to “super size” their daily dietary energy requirements.

Originally published in Formiche as Algoritmi contro le carestie.

Filed Under: Agriculture
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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks and is the Digital Health Director at IntraHealth International. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of IntraHealth International or other ICTWorks sponsors.
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2 Comments to “How Technology Can Reduce Hunger and Improve Food Security”

  1. ElBonbini are building solutions help with food security forecasting, livelihoods and hunger reduction. Our tech products use precisely the data and systems used by FEWS-Net and national governments, except that they streamline and organize the content and analysis, reducing costs and time-to-delivery.
    We are based in Cape Town in South Africa and we work directly with governments and international organizations.
    To develop and improve these further, we are seeking funding and investment. Where can we apply and are there interested foundations or organizations out there?

  2. Andrew Sideman says:

    Thank you, Wayan, for this interesting and optimistic article.

    I would like to make a correction, however. The Climate Change Adaptation and ICT (CHAI) project was a collaboration among Uganda Chartered HealthNet (UCH), FHI 360, Uganda Ministry of Water and Environment/MWE (Climate Change Department/MWE, National Meteorological Authority and Wetlands Management Department), Makarere University (College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and Department of Zoology), and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC). The project was funded with generous support from IDRC.

    Andrew Sideman
    FHI 360