Fethi Thabet: How The World’s Engineers Can Make Hunger History

As part of our ongoing series that explores the state of the negotiations on the Sustainable Development Goals, we asked Fethi Thabet, Theme Leader of Engineering and Agricultural Sustainability at the World Federation of Engineering Organisations how the engineering community can contribute.

What do the world’s engineers have to do with the Sustainable Development Goals? Plenty! If we are to end hunger by 2030 as goal two asks, the engineering profession is going to play a key role.

This is because reducing the vast amount of food that is wasted after it is harvested is going to be vital to meet global demand for food. According to a recent report by the Copenhagen Consensus and statistics from the United Nations, the amount of food wasted is as high as one third of the world’s food supply. This number is higher in many developing countries.

The world’s engineers can lead the way in improvements in road and railway connections that connect farms to markets, improvements in the storage of grains, fruits, vegetables and meat and improvements in electricity supplies to improve cold storage. This will drastically reduce the percentage of food lost. According to the same report, a total of $239 billion invested over the next 15 years would yield benefits of $3.1 trillion by safeguarding food. This is how it can be done, and where it is already underway.

IMPROVING TRANSPORT

If a farmer is helped to improve yield, this investment is wasted if he or she cannot get the crops to market before they spoil. Better roads and railways will ensure this does not happen. For example, intra-Africa trade barely exists currently – the roads on the continent all lead out to the coast instead of connecting the countries within the continent. The African Union has a Programme for Infrastructure Development that will enable a strong regional market to be built. It is estimated that new transcontinental roads in Africa could generate $250 billion in trade over 15 years and greatly reduce the amount of food wasted.

Esther Nduku in Embu, Kenya, stores clean, dry maize in a metal silo. Photo credit: CIMMYT.

Esther Nduku in Embu, Kenya, stores clean, dry maize in a metal silo.
Photo credit: CIMMYT.

FOOD AND GRAIN STORAGE

Globally over two billion tonnes of cereals, oilseeds, and pulses (collectively referred to as grains) are produced annually for consumption by people and animals. Grains (as well as fruits and vegetables) need adequate storage for a number of reasons. Sometimes the place of consumption is different than the place of production, in other cases the time of production is different than the time of consumption.

However, post-harvest losses for grains range from 1% in some of the developed countries to 50 per cent in some of the less developed countries, due to inadequate storage. By using new technologies, to detect and prevent food waste, it is possible to significantly reduce losses and increase grains available for consumption.

POWERING RURAL COMMUNITIES

Rural electrification offers opportunities to mechanize many farming operations as well as prolonging storage to preserve agricultural production until it can be transported or consumed. Another approach to cut post harvest loss is the implementation of effective storage and refrigeration systems that enable consumers to keep food for longer periods.

Food safety is a big concern, particularly in developing countries where meat and milk can spoil quickly. In India, for example, a new product is being piloted, invented by pioneering engineer Sorin Grama. Called the rapid milk chiller, it is a dome-shaped machine that couples to a thermal energy battery to cool milk from 35°C to 4°C. The rapid milk chiller cools the milk by means of a heat exchange with cold fluid inside the dome. When electrical power is not available, the rapid milk chiller can cool up to 500 liters of milk using only the thermal energy stored in the battery.

IMPROVING IRRIGATION

Farmers also have an increasing responsibility to protect the natural resource base that they rely on. In Tunisia, work is underway to install drip irrigations systems that will help farmers apply the optimum amount of water to wheat. Research has shown that over 30 per cent of farmers were applying too much water, and over 50 per cent of farmers were not applying enough. The engineering and installation of efficient drip irrigation systems have shown promise in not only boosting yields, but also in saving water. 

BUILDING LOCAL CAPACITY

The issues that lead farmers and consumers to waste food are different in each local area, and therefore require local solutions. Large-scale infrastructure challenges cannot be met by a private company coming from outside, as this infrastructure needs to be maintained by local people.

A key step towards realising the engineering solutions that will tackle food waste will be to train local engineers to meet their country’s needs. Historically, young African engineers have been sent to Europe to learn a trade, but return to Africa and their knowledge quickly becomes out-dated. Strong institutions, within developing countries, such as the Institut Nationa Agronomique de Tunisie, must be built.

THE WAY FORWARD

For many developing countries in Africa and Asia, agriculture’s share of the GDP exceeds 50 per cent. Investment in agriculture and the supply chain has direct impact on poverty reduction, another important Sustainable Development Goal.

With the right investments and support, engineers can help improve rural infrastructure, storage capacities and related technologies to significantly reduce post-harvest and other food losses and waste throughout the food supply chain.

The engineering community must step up to take on this surmountable challenge. Our expertise can make the Sustainable Development Goal for ending hunger a reality.