Global leaders warn of the looming food security crisis, which estimates the world will need 70% more food by 2050. A sobering prospect, but wholly inaccurate, says data geek Sara Menker. The tipping point to a widespread food crisis, according to the founder of Gro Intelligence, could occur almost 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.
Countries with calorie deficits can import from regions with calorie surpluses to meet the current requirements. In the future that won’t be possible, Menker says, because the demand for calories will exceed the ability of traditional food-producing regions to expand.
Africa has half of the world’s untapped arable land and she believes it can vastly increase production. Corn yields in sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, are at levels North America achieved 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 India.”
By commercialization she means using data to craft better policies to improve infrastructure, lower transportation costs and reform the banking and insurance industries.
“For the first time ever, the most critical tool for success in agriculture, data and knowledge, is becoming cheaper by the day. 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.”
Menker and Gro Intelligence determined the tipping point for food security through data analysis of crop production, human populations and growing economic prosperity.
Menker was raised in Ethiopia during the famine in the 1980s when food was rationed. By her late 20s, she was a vice president in Morgan Stanley’s commodities group.
While on Wall Street, she became obsessed with finding the tipping point when food supplies struggle to keep up with surging demand.
“I realized how broken the system was, and how very little data was being used to make critical decisions,” she says. In 2014, she launched Gro Intelligence, a technology company providing data to help determine the most efficient way to grow food in 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 help our clients make sense of the fragmented, messy, large world of agricultural data.
Why There Doesn’t Need to be a Global Food Crisis
Hear Sara Menker speak at the Henry C. Gardiner Global Food Systems Lecture Series. The lecture is free and open to the public.
Oct. 8, 2018 at 7 p.m.
Kansas State University, McCain Auditorium
For more information, visit www.k-state.edu/globalfood/lecture-series