UP EXPERT OPINION: Engineers have a fundamental role to play in ending hunger

Posted on March 04, 2024

Technological advances have literally made food available at our fingertips. With just one click, we can order groceries and meals and have them delivered to our doorstep within minutes. This is because of the time and effort engineers have invested in technology.

It's amazing to think about how much has changed since our ancestors had to focus on hunting and gathering food for survival. Today, engineers have revolutionised our world. The challenge we face now is beyond finding food for today.

The effects of climate change mean that we now need to find ways to secure food and other resources for future generations. Engineers have a critical role to play in collaborating with other stakeholders to develop innovative and sustainable solutions. It's essential to have solutions that consider different perspectives and approaches. A multidisciplinary approach can help us to address the various issues we face and find solutions that work for everyone. 

Today marks World Engineering Day with the theme: "Engineering Solutions for a Sustainable World". The United Nations proclaimed the 4 March as World Engineering Day to raise awareness about the role of engineering in modern life. This is a timely reminder for engineers to collaborate beyond their discipline towards solutions that benefit people and planet.

The importance of collaboration

The pursuit of landing on the moon has led to significant advancements in telecommunications throughout the years. This important milestone was a collaborative effort that involved the hard work of thousands of people, including engineers, scientists and communication experts.

In 2019, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers and industry stakeholders worldwide joined forces to create a vaccine and a system to distribute vaccines promptly across the globe. While the scientists developed the vaccines, engineers designed the mechanisms to mass produce the vaccines and transport them safely. This illustrates and emphasises the importance of collaboration in addressing the world's most pressing needs.

Inclusive food systems are key

Food is central to our daily lives and is influenced by various factors. Political instability can affect food availability, food price increases can influence the type of food we eat, and climate change can control how much revenue farmers can generate from the agriculture sector. Food is interlinked and interacts with many factors – that is why researchers have emphasised the importance of looking at food as a system. This helps to understand the different aspects that influence food security, health, people’s livelihoods and the environment.

Food systems vary significantly due to political instability, weather variability, cultural norms, and religious beliefs. However, because food systems are so intricately interlinked, food systems that exist in one region can affect another region’s systems. For example, in 2022, it was projected that the war in Ukraine could lead to food price increases in South Africa.

Improving how our food systems function requires collaboration across disciplines with a variety of experts and actors. Different perspectives and approaches must be taken into account to ensure that everyone can access enough healthy food without damaging the planet.

Collaborative solutions in action

FSNet-Africa projects are an example of collaborative solutions. FSNet-Africa is a collaborative project aimed at strengthening researchers' capacities to conduct food systems research and translate evidence into implementable policy solutions. The projects involve the expertise of professionals from various fields, including engineers, social scientists, agricultural experts, developmental organisations, policy advocacy groups, and farmers.

One of the projects aims to relieve smallholder farmers from the back-breaking pain they often endure during their agricultural production activities. It evaluates field properties and helps farmers determine the most appropriate machines to use for various functions. This reduces physical labour, supports environmental sustainability and can ultimately increase farmers’ yields and improve their income.

The project also proposes the most financially suitable approaches for farmers to access the machinery they need. Through collaboration with visual artists, this project was summarised into an animated video for effective communication with the appropriate audience.

Another project under FSNet-Africa explores opportunities to use AI (Artificial Intelligence) to provide farmers with the exact fertiliser requirements of their crops across different parts of a farmer's field. During the onset of the Russia-Ukraine war, concern arose about fertiliser supply to the world. This created an amplified need to manage agricultural production resources effectively. This FSNet-Africa project uses drone technologies to provide farmers with information to optimise their farming by ensuring that only the right amount of fertiliser is applied. This ensures that they save money on fertiliser and also do not damage the soil by applying too much fertiliser.

The team collaborated with farmers to design a mobile app that would put critical information on fertiliser application in the farmers’ hands. The system can also be used for irrigation water scheduling and has versatile applicability. This project highlights the importance of solutions created in partnership with stakeholders.

Innovation alone is not enough

The examples above illustrate that engineers have a fundamental role to play in ending hunger. Collaboration can be complex because teams often comprise diverse individuals and experts who must work together to solve problems. However, effective collaboration and teamwork are necessary to develop efficient solutions due to the complexities of food systems and their interactions with society.

While engineering is centred on innovation, creating new things is not enough. The innovation process must be flexible enough to promote collaborative efforts. We must ensure that our innovations are valuable, sustainable, and do not harm the environment or future generations. Therefore, exploring existing resources that promote empathy, co-creation, and efficient solution development is crucial. By building strong relationships and being open to new ideas, we can find solutions that benefit everyone and create a more sustainable future for ourselves and future generations.

By Dr Selorm Dorvlo, a professional engineer specialising in agricultural mechanisation and lectures at the University of Ghana. He is currently an Early Career research fellow at the ARUA Centre of Excellence in Sustainable Food Systems, funded by ARUA-Carnegie Corporation.

- Author Dr Serlom Dlovo

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