From food security to climate change, sustainability technology can solve many of the world’s greatest challenges.
Global food supplies and access to water go hand in hand, with the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reporting that more than 80% of the damage caused by drought affects agriculture. Predictions from organisations like the FAO suggest that by 2025 about 1.8 billion people will be living in regions with absolute water scarcity, making the search for solutions very real.
“Systems thinking that comes from learning computational skills, and skills in other fields of science, are fantastic tools to bring us to a more sustainable world,” says RMIT University environmental engineering student Dianne McGrath.
Dianne (pictured here) is on the board of Open Food Network, a not-for-profit charity that uses open source software to build new food systems to simplify the process of finding, buying and selling local sustainable food. It licenses its sustainability technology to non-profit partners who collaborate through an ecommerce marketplace and logistics platform.
“It’s about ensuring livelihood and bringing the societal benefits of good quality food, while highlighting food as a cultural and community issue,” Dianne says.
Other innovative businesses are taking a tech-led approach to sustainability. The team behind the Yume app have created a sustainability technology platform that allows excess food to be redistributed rather than go to waste. Businesses use the app to manage stock planning and ordering and, if they find themselves with too much food, they can sell it for a reduced price.
The FAO estimates one-third of all food produced is not eaten. Dianne’s research aims to examine how food is wasted from “paddock to plate”, while championing “awareness, commitment, resource and change”.
“Technology is a fantastic tool in the evolving sharing economy,” she says. As part of her PhD, she cofounded Watch My Waste, which utilises an app and web platform that lets businesses in Australia’s hospitality sector record how much food they throw away. As the first national review of hospitality food waste, Watch My Waste has the chance to dramatically reduce the 1.4 million tonnes that Foodwise estimates is thrown away by the Australian food industry every year.
From code to plate
Computer science can also help ensure a stable food supply through innovative manufacturing methods. There is potential for programming, using technology like 3D printing, to be used to re-engineer how food is produced on a mass scale to meet our changing needs.
The World Bank estimates that meat production alone will need to increase by 85% between 2000 and 2030 to meet demand. But current research suggests that up to a third of the world’s protein could come from other sources such as pea, rice, soy and algae by 2054.
From analysing data to implementing rigorous control processes, computer science and sustainability technology is enabling food technologists to rise to the challenge of creating healthy and delicious plant-based proteins and meat substitutes.
Not long ago, Microsoft founder Bill Gates linked the worlds of food and computer science by investing in two plant-based protein start-ups, declaring such proteins to be the “future of food”.
– Rachael Oku
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Science (Environmental Studies/Computer Science), Victoria University of Wellington