How can we secure the future of our food?

The ongoing availability of food is a huge concern globally. Vision takes a look at new innovations and technologies that aim to ease the pressure on agricultural resources

In Ghana, rice is the new black. Surpassing yams, plantains and kenkey (a kind of sourdough dumpling), the white grain has surged in popularity to become the unofficial dish of the West African country.

But though it is easy and simple to prepare, productivity of the grain was low, as local farmers battled with limited access to modern seeds and inputs, and bad rice mills that produced a large percentage of broken grains.

Locals were being outdone by high-quality imports from the Americas and Asia – until Copa Connect came into the mix. Participant farmers receive a package of agricultural inputs, extension services, and training. Post-harvest GADCO (Copa’s parent company) purchases the farmers’ paddy rice, less the cost of inputs, and processes the rice along with produce from the nucleus farm.

The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life

Wendell Berry, Poet

Outgrowers benefit from high-quality processing and value-chain integration, which translate into improved earnings. It is this kind of solution that NGOs are championing in order to guarantee food security. The World Food Summit of 1996 defined food security as existing “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life”, tenants that Yalman Khan and Kunal Wadhwani live by.

The two venture capitalists founded a Dubai-based technology start-up Agricel in 2010 that aims to commercialise the research of Professor Yuichi Mori of Waseda University in Japan and his “soil-less” farming technology.

SKYGEL was a breakthrough discovery by Prof. Yuichi and his team at Waseda University. The polymer is known for its water conservation property, due to the fact that it acts as a sponge and swells to 200 times its volume upon absorbing water. It also keeps feeding water to the plants on being mixed with soil. Unlike commercial products based on SAP (super absorbent polymer), which inhibit plant growth and have neurological toxicities, Skygel enhances the growth and germination of plants and is 100 percent eco-friendly.

sustainability water finite food security
One of the projects at AgDevCo, who own CopaConnect. The firm believes that profitable agriculture with strong links to markets is the best route out of poverty for the majority of Africa's rural poor

Using this technology, Khan and Wadwhani took the idea to the desert, using “film farming” – where plants absorb water and nutrients without leakage – to potentially save up to 90 percent of water used in agriculture.

This kind of innovation is being adopted all over the world, from hydroponics used to grow salads in disused tunnels in London, to a weather-indexed drought insurance service in Zimbabwe, that enabling smallholder farmers to buy insurance for as little as US$0.08 per day.

Ultimately, food security is a collective responsibility: while the farmer must think about how to best make use of what are often limited resources, governments must keep funding agricultural innovations, and consumers must be aware of what food products as they purchase.

As the poet Wendell Berry said: “The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.”