Digital innovation for sustainable development

Digital innovation for sustainable development

September 04, 2020

Digital innovation for sustainable development

A report by the Barilla Foundation takes stock of the pros and cons of new technologies in agriculture. Not only drones, but also big data and the Internet of Things

Not only drones, but also big data and the Internet of Things and a greater emphasis on digitizing information: digital solutions are a fundamental tool for achieving real sustainability in food production. These statements are made in the “Digitising AgriFood: Pathways and Challenges” report produced by the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) and the Barilla Foundation and presented during the International Forum on Food and Nutrition held by the BCFN Foundation in Milan in December 2019.  

As the report states, our planet’s already limited resources are running out at an alarming rate and it is therefore urgent to reverse the trend. We use too much land and fresh water for agriculture, too many pesticides, we waste about a third of our food production and we rely too much on single-crop farming. There are big social inequalities and the paradoxes of modern food systems are becoming increasingly evident, to the point that over 820 million people are currently undernourished, but even more people are at risk of premature death from an unhealthy diet. In this scenario, implementing digital solutions could be part of the solution for achieving greater sustainability.

From farm to fork using digital technology

The fourth of the 10 actions proposed by the experts of the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition (BCFN) Foundation’s Scientific Committee to transform the current approach to food in different respects relates precisely to the digitization of information. More specifically, as reported in the document “The Time to Fix the Global Food System is Now. 10 Actions from Farm to Fork”, the aim must be to “incentivize the best use of technological, digital and space-based solutions by all actors in the food supply chain. Invest in more accessible tracking tools to collect information; create knowledge and data-sharing networks for farmers and producers to facilitate more sustainable choices and innovation; employ data-driven development and testing for more sustainable solutions; and ensure data protection and regulation.” 

These recommendations for action come at a difficult time, marked by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has highlighted numerous weaknesses in current food systems and made it even clearer how we need to take immediate action to create resilient and sustainable systems and accelerate the pace towards the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. In full knowledge that the health of humans, animals and the planet are inextricably linked. 

All-round innovation

Digital technologies are an important tool to overcome food challenges, for example by increasing crops, reducing waste and effectively changing consumption patterns to healthier diets for people and sustainable means for the planet. 

The premise of the report presented during the International Forum in 2019 is that technology includes not only computers and machinery, but also the whole complex system that ranges from the use of big data to the Internet of Things, i.e. the global connection of information systems, machinery and people. 

Artificial intelligence, for example, through personalized nutritional advice and various forms of conviction, could help consumers reconsider the implications of their choices on society and the environment, while the possibility of using drones as a means of transport would consolidate the purchasing power of small farmers. Moreover, thanks to the Internet and the greater digitalization of the sector, farmers could benefit from new forms of cooperation, controlling the relationship between the demand and supply of agricultural products more and more quickly, particularly in order to reduce waste.

All that glitters is not gold

Technology is not free of challenges: most of them require specific skills, network coverage and financial resources, which are lacking in many parts of the world. They also consume energy and contribute to the increase in electronic waste. Small farmers, who might be able to benefit most of all from a digital transformation, in the absence of specific public policies could paradoxically be excluded from the supply chain and enter a circle of economic dependence. While they own the land they cultivate, they would need to rent digital equipment from other large agri-food companies. 

By analyzing best practices, the BCFN Foundation report therefore focuses on strategies to revolutionize agriculture, reduce food waste (minimizing losses) and inform consumers, taking both opportunities and challenges into account

It therefore presented a list of useful recommendations, addressed in this case to policy makers. Ensuring adequate connectivity for everyone, distributing technological resources among all players in the sector, increasing the skills and awareness of farmers and consumers and promoting entrepreneurship, developing skills and facilitating the transfer of technologies are just some of the items on this list that sets a course towards digitalization.

But in order to set forth on a real transformation and guarantee that the right processes are in place at all levels, it is also necessary for Europe to reform the common agricultural policy, creating local organizations and providing financing and non-financial support for the development of solutions that meet local needs. Globally, the European Union should help developing countries overcome connectivity problems while offering integrated technological solutions, reducing inequality and the gender gap.

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