Global leaders have warned of a looming food security crisis for nearly a decade, estimating that by 2050 the world will need to produce 70% more food. A sobering prospect, but wholly inaccurate, says data geek Sara Menker.
The tipping point to a widespread food crisis, according to the Ethiopian-born founder of Gro Intelligence, could occur nearly a quarter-century earlier—by 2027.
“Unless we can commit to some type of structural (agricultural) change,” Menker says, surging demand will surpass the agricultural system’s global capacity to produce food, creating a 214-trillion-calorie shortage. When that happens, “people could starve and governments may fall.” The crisis can be avoided, she believes, if action begins now using the right tools.
Illustration: Lori Hays
Menker’s early years were spent with her family in Ethiopia during the 1980s famine where food was rationed by the communist government. Those experiences propelled her to begin an unlikely journey that now sees her delivering speeches around the globe about solving world hunger. She earned degrees in economics and African Studies at Mount Holyoke College and the London School of Economics, then she earned an MBA from Columbia University. By her late 20s, Menker
was a vice president in Morgan Stanley’s commodities group, where she specialized in risk management and trading commodities.
While on Wall Street, Menker says she became obsessed with figuring out the tipping point at which food supplies struggle to keep up with
“I realized how broken the system was, and how very little data was being used to make critical decisions,” she says. That’s why, in 2014, she left Wall Street to launch Gro Intelligence, a technology company to bridge the information gap in agriculture by providing data to help farmers and others in the agricultural industry determine the most efficient way to grow food in different regions around the world.
“The world lacked an actionable guide on how we can avoid a food crisis,” she says. “Everyone talks about the importance of big data, often without a tangible way of getting good information. What we do at Gro is make big data analysis possible because we are helping our clients make sense of the fragmented, messy, large world of agricultural data.”
The potential impact of such data use is huge, she says. “Not only can we support our clients to spend more time on analysis and far less on data procurement, but by bringing all this data together and making sense of all, we can also help tackle major issues around forecasting crop yields and food security on a global scale.”
Data analysis of crop production, human populations and rising economic prosperity in many countries is the basis of how Menker and Gro Intelligence calculated the tipping point for food security. Previous estimates for a food crisis were based on mass, such as tons of meat and grain. Gro Intelligence’s analysis focuses on calories—the nutritional value of food.
“We discovered that the world will be short 214 trillion calories by 2027,” she says. “An alternative way to think about this is in Big Macs, which have 563 calories. That means the world will be short 379 billion Big Macs in 2027, more than McDonald’s has ever produced.”
We Can't Rely Only On Transportation
Until now, countries with calorie deficits could meet their requirements by importing from regions with calorie surpluses. In the near future that won’t be possible, Menker says, because the demand for calories will exceed the ability of traditional food producing regions to expand. Calorie exporting regions include North America, South America and Europe, but those regions already farm nearly all of the available arable land, so their potential for increasing food production is limited.
Much of the production growth from the three traditional food exporting regions will come from South America, at the cost of deforestation in the Amazon. The solution to the looming food crisis, Menker says, lies in India and Africa.
By 2023, more than half of the world’s population will reside in Africa, India and China, but Africa also has half of the world’s untapped arable land. Hindering Africa’s production, Menker says, is the fact “less than 1% of outstanding commercial bank loans actually go to the (African) agricultural sector.”
She also believes Africa can increase production exponentially. Corn yields in sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, are at levels achieved in North America in the 1940s.
“We don’t have 70 years to figure this out,” Menker says. “We need to reform and commercialize the agriculture industries in Africa and in India.”
By commercialization she means using data to craft better policies to improve infrastructure, lower transportation costs and to reform the banking and insurance industries.
“Commercialization is about taking agriculture from too risky an endeavor, to one where fortunes can be made,” Menker says. “But, commercialization is also confronting the fact that we can no longer place the burden of growth on small-scale farmers alone. We must accept the fact that commercial farms present certain economies of scale that even small-scale farmers can leverage.”
Advocating for the creation of a model of small-scale farming enterprises alongside commercial agriculture, Menker believes the marriage of the two is possible due to the increased use of technology.
“For the first time ever, the most critical tool for success in agriculture—data and knowledge—is becoming cheaper by the day,” she says. “Very soon, it won’t matter how much money you have or how big you are, everyone will have access to data to make optimal decisions and maximize probability of success.”