HuaweiUsing agritech to build sustainability and resilience into the world’s food supply

Using agritech to build sustainability and resilience into the world’s food supply

How tech and data-driven innovation can mitigate the impact of climate change on food security

The Covid-19 pandemic and the effects of climate change have highlighted the vulnerability of the world’s food supply. With the climate predicted to become increasingly more hostile as the world’s population rises, food security is an issue that requires urgent action. But how best can science respond to the problem?

At a round table hosted by Times Higher Education in partnership with Huawei, experts spoke of the need for stronger international collaboration between researchers, governments and industry. Technological innovation is crucial, but there needs to be a broader global framework for developing pioneering practices that support sustainable food systems.

Tom Oliver, professor of applied ecology at the University of Reading, cautioned against framing the issue of food security too narrowly. “It is not just a technological problem,” he said. “In fact, technology can in some cases, can actually be harmful…The maximisation of yields [is prioritised] at the expense of other outcomes such as water quality, biodiversity, and climate. We need a critical science approach where we think of those different outcomes and bring in different disciplines.”

Lenny Koh, senior chair professor of operations management at the University of Sheffield’s Management School, agreed, advocating a holistic approach to advancing a global framework to build a more sustainable food system. “It is a global phenomenon, so we need to look at the production, supply chain and consumption,” she said. “It is not just about how food is being transported and grown, but also how it impacts on human health, and how we are managing increasingly digitised systems.”

Developing the technology itself will require data insights from agricultural practices, climate and water consumption. At present, researchers have a surfeit of data, but this requires careful analysis before being translated into practical interventions. Drones, 5G connectivity, big data, artificial intelligence and blockchain could all make agriculture more efficient and sustainable, yet it remains a difficult industry to reform. Selling the benefits of data-driven farming methods to an atomised industry, in which many businesses are smallholdings, poses a significant challenge.

Addressing the difficulties that researchers are having in turning data into knowledge, Professor Richard Tiffin, chief scientific officer in agrimetrics at the University of Reading, said that building an integrated data marketplace for the agrifood sector could bridge the gap between science and practice in agriculture.

“What we are doing in agrimetrics is very much trying to bring together the wealth of data that is being collected by the agrifood sector,” he said. “We are integrating data from multiple different sources – the traditional sources, soil data, cropping data, observation data – and also we are now embarking on creating farm data accounts, where we are able to access the data that individual farmers are capturing.”

If such data-driven approaches are going to be rolled out globally, buy-in among farmers will be critical. “We talk a lot about technology,” said Jorge E. Hernandez, director of studies for the business analytics and big data master's programme at the University of Liverpool. “We talk a lot about big data, analytics or artificial intelligence. At a theoretical level, they work very nicely, however, you go to a farmer, or when you go to any community who has to use it, they don’t see the value, or sometimes it is very complicated to use.”

This is where global companies such as Huawei can help, by supporting researchers and establishing a framework for applying technological solutions across the food supply chain. “With our technologies, and with our connections with governments and other corporations across the world, I am sure we can do something,” said Matthew Jackson, Huawei’s head of academic relations. “It is [about] getting that momentum, and that right idea, and moving forward.”

“Having Huawei play a role within our UK academic communities, in terms of how we can be working together in order to address these global challenges is really eye-opening and something that is really good to learn [from],” said Koh. “There is no doubt that technology is going to play a critical role going forward in order to ensure food security.”

The panel:

  • Amir Esfahani, associate professor in robotics, Lincoln Institute for Agri-Food Technology, University of Lincoln
  • Jorge E. Hernandez, director of studies for the business analytics and big data master’s programme, University of Liverpool
  • Matthew Jackson, head of academic relations, Huawei
  • Lenny Koh, senior chair professor of operations management, Management School, University of Sheffield
  • Alistair Lawrence, special projects editor, Times Higher Education (chair)
  • Tom Oliver, professor of applied ecology, University of Reading
  • Tony Pridmore, professor of computer science, University of Nottingham
  • Richard Tiffin, chief scientific officer in agrimetrics, University of Reading
  • Sergei Turitsyn, director, Institute of Photonic Technologies, Aston University

Find out more about Huawei and higher education.

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