21/06/2013 06:01 BST | Updated 21/06/2013 06:01 BST

Breakthrough Innovation Offers Opportunity to Tackle Global Food Crisis


On June 8, the British Government hosted the G8 Nutrition for Growth Conference in London. The event, a follow-up to the Olympic Hunger conference held by Brazil last year, committed to a bold vision of saving 20 million children from chronic malnutrition by 2020.

The London G8 conference follows speedily upon the release on June 4 of the landmark 'Global Food Security Report' by the UK Parliament's International Development Committee. That hard-hitting study, which noted that the United Kingdom itself is "never more than a few days away from a significant food shortage", highlighted the global dimensions of the food challenge facing both the developed and developing world.

Mainly in the developing world, as UK Prime Minister David Cameron noted at the G8 Malnutrition Conference, there are still one billion people going hungry, one in four children are stunted through chronic malnutrition, and 165million children are so malnourished by the age of two that their minds and bodies will never fully develop. And, with world population forecast to rise from 7.1billion today to 9.3billion by 2050, pressure on food supplies will only intensify in coming decades.

The scale of the problem is hard to comprehend, and is only being exacerbated by global warming. A range of measures are needed, including urgent attempts to reduce food wastage. Even if we reduce waste, however, it is estimated that global food production also needs to be increased by some 30% to 80% to meet the demands of rising populations.

This represents not only a massive humanitarian challenge, but also a security one too. When food shortages occur, as in 2007-2008, price spikes often result which can have a devastating impact, especially on those developing countries that rely heavily on food imports, including parts of South America, North Africa and the Middle East.

It is estimated that the 2007-8 spike in food prices drove 100 million into poverty. This helped encourage to civil unrest in some 28 countries. And, going forward, it is estimated that the price of key staples, including wheat and rice, may double in the next 20 years, threatening disastrous consequences for poor people in particular.

So, how can we spur more production of global food supplies and reduce malnutrition, in an innovative, cost effective way?

The two main continents which have significant capacity for producing additional food are South America and Africa (Europe, North America and much of Asia-Pacific already are producing food at or near peak capacity). The reason why Africa and South America are currently producing below capacity is because of erratic weather (in Africa's case), and the challenge posted by rainforests/biodiversity issues in South America which limit the amount of land there is to grow on.

At Delft University of Technology, we believe it is best to prioritise international efforts on Africa, and, recognising the problems of the continent's erratic weather, are pioneering a technological breakthrough solution -- the Trans-African Hydro-Meteorological Observatory (TAHMO). This will develop a cost-effective network of hydro-meteorological measuring stations to provide better maps of water and weather in Africa.

This scheme is genuinely 'game-changing' because the current African meteorological observation network is very limited. As a result, national governments and regional planners do not have the data to make proper decisions regarding investments in water resources infrastructure. Also the success of several adaptation measures, such as micro-insurance for crops, hinges on the availability of local weather data.

This is a fundamental challenge if the continent's food growing potential is to be optimised in a sustainable way. It is unquestionably the case that harvest predictions and food production would profit from improved understanding of water availability over space and time and an improved ability to predict shifting weather patterns.

Hence, the ambitious TAHMO project we are pioneering which requires the installation of 20,000 measuring stations, each one costing only 500 dollars, at intervals of 30 kilometres. The new weather stations, based upon latest cost-effective technology, will measure all standard meteorological variables (rainfall, radiation, temperature, humidity, wind speed, wind direction). They are also robust (no moving parts) and are now being extensively field tested.

Funding permitting, our ambition is to have 20,000 stations by 2018 located at schools and integrated in the local educational programmes. The data will be combined with models and satellite observations to obtain a much more complete insight in the distribution of water and energy stocks and fluxes in Africa.

The weather stations will also give local people access to climate data on their own region, relevant to their daily lives (including for the education of children); provide climate scientists with a huge new amount of data (recording real time data for them to incorporate in their models); and train a new generation on how to do measurements and on the benefits those measurements have.

Challenging as the project is, the massive potential prizes ahead are increased global food supply and reduced malnutrition; stronger economic growth for Africa, and greater domestic stability, not just in Africa, but also elsewhere too. It is crucial for future generations that we seize the opportunity, and not let it slip through our fingers.