Save Our Food Systems: WFP Innovations that Solve Systemic Problems From Seed To Plate

By Gulia Rakhimova

Our world of 7.6 billion people produces enough food to feed 10 billion; one-third of it goes to waste every year. Still, despite the perceived abundance of food, nearly 700 million people — almost half of China’s population — will go to bed hungry tonight.

These two paradoxical trends exist because food systems — the path that food travels from field to our plates— are not meeting the needs of all people.

We have seen that some food systems can easily be disrupted by climate shocks, COVID-19 and violent conflict. But even in stable environments, people struggle to get food because of geographic isolation, socioeconomic inequalities, or weak commercial markets.

Millions of lives are at stake, and millions more may continue marching towards hunger if we don’t innovatively rethink our food systems.

A food system is a complex network of resources, people and activities that are involved in producing food, transforming it, and making sure it reaches hungry people. Photo: WFP/David Fernandez.

Let’s take a look at three deeply-rooted and related systemic problems and how the World Food Programme (WFP) works on solving them: the Bad Year or Lean Season, the Last Mile, and the Good Year.

The Bad Year: Growing green in the harshest conditions

The Bad Year or Lean Season is the first systemic problem. When crops fail due to heat waves or locust infestations, or during the lean seasons between harvests, food supplies are scarce and agricultural incomes plummet. Low-income families often cut back on meals to stretch out food supplies, sometimes for periods spanning months or even years. This leaves them chronically food insecure with meagre diets lacking in critical nutrients.

Low-income families often cut back on meals to stretch out food supplies

WFP’s H2Grow hydroponics project is putting nutritious food on the plates of many such families. Food can grow in even the harshest conditions — deep in the Sahara desert — because the technique uses 90 percent less water, 75 percent less space and zero soil. Its impact is far-reaching, enabling vulnerable communities to provide for themselves during the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 9 countries where H2Grow operates, people grow vegetables and animal fodder in non-fertile, arid and urban areas with limited space.

Similarly, Groasis employs Ecological Water Saving (Growboxx) technology to grow fruit trees and plants in simple boxes. Now food grows even in the degraded, arid lands in Algeria, Chad and Colombia.

Overcoming the “bad year” systemic problem thus entails building more nutritious and resilient food systems; streamlining climate-smart agriculture, mechanization, satellite imaging and other technology-driven solutions; and training people in novel agri-methods.

The Last Mile: Getting food to the farthest reaches

Besieged towns, flood zones, remote villages — the vast majority of the hungry poor are geographically, economically and politically isolated. This makes them highly vulnerable and hard to reach by conventional food systems. Even when food is available, transportation and other costs make it too expensive. Essentially, this second systemic problem is about reaching the “last mile.”

The vast majority of the hungry poor are geographically, economically and politically isolated

WFP is effectively deploying technology and innovation to face these limitations, responding faster to immediate needs and relieving barriers for the farthest behind.

In 2017, WFP was among a few organizations able to deliver relief supplies to 100,000 people besieged in Syria through its first-ever high-altitude airdrops. An amphibious all-terrain truck called ‘the SHERP’ is another innovative mode of transport that delivers up to 1.2 tonnes of food to the most difficult last mile; dangerous locations like disaster areas, disease outbreaks, and conflict zones.

Air deliveries can reach some of the most cut-off places on earth with innovative parachutes which ensure a soft landing of cargo. Photo: WFP/Tomson Phiri.

Disruptive technologies can shorten the last mile in ways unimaginable before the digital era.

Leveraging Somalia’s affordable mobile network, WFP Somalia developed the e-Shop: an online food ordering and delivery system available on Android, iOS and USSD. Food insecure families in Somalia can redeem their WFP cash assistance from authorized WFP retailers who connect with delivery services to bring the food to their homes.

Likewise, the EMPACT programme is harnessing the digital economy by connecting marginalized youth to online work opportunities. These innovations create transparency across supply and demand, stimulate the local economy and, coupled with emergency solutions, build safer and more inclusive food systems even under COVID-19 physical distancing practices.

WFP Somalia designed, implemented and scaled up e-Shop to promote price transparency and competition; make nutritious food more accessible and affordable; reduce exposure to COVID-19 in the food assistance and retail process; and stimulate the market for local food suppliers, retailers and delivery agents. Photo: WFP/Ismail Taxta.

The Good Year: Preserving every single grain

The Good Year is the third systemic problem and is the most paradoxical one because it relates to a desirable outcome — the abundance of food.

Food systems in famine-stricken countries are typically unable to absorb food surpluses because of limited storage, transport and financial capacity or unexpected shocks like COVID-19, which paralyze the supply and value chains. Unable to properly store bumper harvest or transport it from surplus to deficit markets, farmers sell it at an unfavourably low price at harvest time.

Unpurchased food is wasted and spoiled; food quality drops; farmers lose income; and food prices soar when supplies become scarce again. This supply/demand market volatility all leads to increased food insecurity.

Food systems in famine-stricken countries are typically unable to absorb food surpluses

New business models and digital solutions like the Farm to Market Alliance (FtMA) increase the markets’ ability to absorb the surplus food. Farmers find buyers and agree on the sales volumes in advance, so they can confidently plan their harvest and maintain a stable income. Taking this model further, FtMA launched the Farm2GO app where farmers can market their produce at competitive prices.

When demand is unpredictable, WFP’s fully-fledged Post-Harvest Loss Reduction programme trains farmers in using improved grains and air- and watertight storage equipment so they can store bumper crops until market prices improve. The programme has trained over 100,000 farmers, achieving a 98 percent decrease in post-harvest losses to date.

A simple text message can save livelihoods: a farmer reads a text message update on maize prices to choose the most optimal time to sell his produce. Photo: WFP/Badre Bahaji.

Another solution that prevents food spoilage is GrainMate, a graduate of WFP’s innovation bootcamp in Silicon Valley, which offers a simple and affordable technology to control the moisture level in grains before storage.

Transforming food systems for the future

Three things are clear. First, people are less likely to succumb to food shocks caused by war, pandemics and climate shocks where there are well-functioning food systems.

Second, food assistance delivered, facilitated, and supported by WFP can help countries curb systemic problems and improve the performance of the global food system.

And third, innovation is a crucial part of WFP’s life-saving and life-changing work, which can radically transform our food systems and lift millions of people out of hunger and poverty for good.

The WFP Innovation Accelerator sources, supports and scales high-potential solutions to end hunger worldwide. We provide WFP staff, entrepreneurs, start-ups, companies and non-governmental organizations with access to funding, mentorship, hands-on support and WFP operations.

Find out more about us: http://innovation.wfp.org. Subscribe to our e-newsletter. Follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn, and watch our videos on YouTube.

Sourcing, supporting and scaling high-impact innovations to disrupt hunger.