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Can Artificial Intelligence secure global nutrition sustainabilty?

May 31, 2017
topic:Food Security
tags:#Artificial intelligence, #Michelle Obama, #sustainabilty
located:Sierra Leone
by:Kolawole Talabi
In many parts of the world, millions of children go to bed hungry. Yet in advanced countries, inconceivable amounts of edible food are thrown away. Worse still, the alarming rates of childhood obesity have driven powerful voices to act in recent times.

Such irony shows that the world needs urgent, innovative solutions to strike a balance between feeding itself and maintaining a healthy lifestyle for its growing population.

After enduring two flights on which I had been served meagre amounts of cheap pastries, I eagerly awaited my first proper meal of the day at the Freetown Swiss Spirit Hotel, one of the few holiday sanctuaries in a city still scared by the troubles of past conflict. I had travelled to Sierra Leone to join a group of environmentalists on a Greenpeace ship tour to document incidents of overfishing in West Africa. I pointedly reasoned this meal might be my last on terra firma as I prepared to go onboard the Esperanza for the next two weeks.

The waiter looked on patiently as I leafed through the menu. I ordered Chinese; mixed vegetables fried rice with shrimps as entrée and a side of French fries with Heinz Tomato Ketchup. Bon appétit!

I was really hungry.

But when the waiter returned fifteen minutes later, I couldn’t contain my shock at the size of the portions. The table looked like an Everest of grains swamped by a prairie of potatoes. “This is too much,” I managed to say.

“That’s how we serve our meals,” the waiter muttered as he poured my drink, his protruding belly alluding to gastronomic generosity of the four-star Swiss Spirit.

Everyone should consume at least 1,800 calories in a day to ensure our bodies have enough energy to survive, the Italy-based Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says. But on an average, a Swiss child is likely to eat about twice as much as her pen pal in Sierra Leone at the school cafeteria, and possibly, much more at dinner with her family. Economic inequality isn’t just a statistical reference; it assumes far-reaching implications for individuals across global climes. In other words, money makes you fat!

Michelle Obama knew this very well. As US First Lady, she committed herself to helping American children eat good food before they return home from school. Her pet project had solid plans to reduce childhood obesity.

But these are Trump times.

Waist size or Waste size?

At my table in the hotel, I had decided to eat half the entrée and half the sides since the helpings were more than I really wanted but as I forked and knifed through the sumptuous cuisine, I lost every sense of control and gorged heartily on the toothsome bounties. My gluttonous behaviour that evening is firmly backed by science. In 2010, the Nutrition Evidence Library of the US Department of Agriculture reviewed published research that indicated a strong link between the food choices people make and the environment in which they live.

In the same year, Michelle Obama too announced that her daughters, Malia and Sasha, then preteens, had gained considerable weight since her family became occupants of the White House. The Obamas hadn’t even spent two full years in America’s most famous address! Although millions of American families lack access to the Executive Mansion at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC, nonetheless their strong fraternity with fast-food chains and downtown restaurants is just as worrisome.

As an urban professional, I suffer a similar fate in faraway ‘underdeveloped’ Africa too because the lifestyle of upwardly mobile Africans is relatively comparable to that of the middle class in rich countries. I eat out regularly and I hardly exercise. Had I known of the hotel’s ginormous serving sizes beforehand ― on the menu at least, I’d have ordered only the entrée or chosen a much lighter side dish. But then, how much chance does a bowl of Caesar’s salad have when the option of salted French fries are readily available?

In school, children are taught that a potato is a vegetable as is the lettuce. In society, some vegetables are more equal than others. It all begins on the farm: It takes a little more time ― say five to fifteen days ― to grow a Romaine, the kind of lettuce that is used mostly in Caesar’s salad than a potato. What is more, the average yield per hectare of potato far exceeds that of its leafy cousin. Potatoes keep well too under a range of conditions whereas lettuce demands constant cooling without which they go bad.

In the kitchen ― domestic or industrial, making Caesar’s salad requires extras; time, effort and ingredients. A standard Caesar’s has about 10 ingredients. Chips, aka French fries, are lone rangers! And they’re less fussy too. Invariably, the economics of getting a salad to the table of the average consumer always trumps that of the ‘humble’ potato, whether in Kansas or Kaduna. These are small matters that have large effects, cumulatively. The odds are rigged: but big agribusinesses are not to blame entirely.

International organisations such as the United Nations are complicit in this bias against healthier foods. In the 56-year history of the international year observances, no citrus fruits or leafy vegetables have ever been accorded this significant designation. But the ‘humble’ potato shared 365 days with other global concerns when 2008 was declared the International Year of the Potato. Only three other crops have been so honoured: rice, quinoa and pulses. Does such special recognition have any impact? Well, let the numbers speak for themselves!

In the six years preceding 2008, the average global productivity of the tomato and potato rose by 4% and 0.7% respectively. Six years later ― after the International Year of the Potato, the world output of the potato had risen much further by 2.45% while that of the tomato had dropped to 3% on an average. When powerful people decide that something is important, either through their words or actions, eventually the world pays attention.

Psychology also played a role in my decision to clean up my plate. It seems our brains are wired to pinch us when we waste things. A survey conducted in the United States showed that 77% of respondents felt guilty about throwing food away. “There remains a strong ethic against waste of any type,” co-author of the study Brian Roe, McCormick Professor of Agricultural Marketing and Policy at The Ohio State University noted in an email. “This manifests for food waste as well.”

That evening my waist lost a big battle as I didn’t want to waste my food. This hotel dining experience however focuses on me, the consumer but what the other party, producers and also the third party, retailers?

The Other Party, the Third Party

The Heinz Tomato Ketchup that graced my French fries came in a plastic bottle ― one of the hallmarks of the industrialisation of food in the 21st century. The bottle had been slapped with the usual “Grown, Not Made” labelling, a signature message meant to assure consumers of the quality Heinz serves. As ironic as that message is ― since most crops are grown anyway ― perhaps Kraft Heinz and other food giants with fancy marketing slogans should commit themselves to growing less but making more food as a means of reducing waste.

In 2014, the global production of tomato was in excess of 170 million tonnes. The top three producers: China, India and the United States accounted for half of the world’s output. In India alone, almost 20 million tonnes of tomatoes are produced each year. However, less than 1% of this output is destined for processing whereas Kraft Heinz uses more than 2 million tonnes of tomatoes annually for its Heinz Tomato Ketchup which are exclusively grown in the EU and the US. In short words, India grows more but makes less tomato.

This is a recipe that ensures the tomato ends in the landfill.

The lack of processing capacity is mostly responsible for postharvest losses in less developed countries since farmers, usually smallholders, don’t have access to the technical resources that reduce spoilage. Most of the waste in the global tomato value chain therefore occurs in sub-Saharan Africa. In Nigeria, huge quantities of tomatoes go bad during haulage due to the use of poor tools ― the raffia basket in this case. A project of the Rockefeller Foundation is helping to reduce waste by replacing these raffia baskets with plastic crates.

Brian Roe however believes similar measures that reduce waste from the producer’s end may not necessarily translate to significant savings in the long term. “In fact, we have undertaken some theoretical modelling where improvements made early in the food chain [by] farmers leaving less produce in the field or processors wasting less food in the factory are not fully ‘converted’ to permanent reductions in food waste because these products still must not be wasted by the consumer.”

“In fact, less waste by farmers and processors will likely mean more food and cheaper prices,” he continued. “And what do consumers do with cheap food? They are more likely to waste it!”

Professor Roe wants more emphasis to be placed on changing the habits of consumers but how plausible is such approach in the face of decades of wastage bolstered by culture?

La Tomatina is a Spanish festival held annually in August and it is marketed as the ‘world’s biggest food fight.’ Regardless of the number of tourists it draws in every year, this festival is an example of reckless cultural practices that encourage food waste by the public. What is more, tourists pay to gain access to the festival grounds in a sleepy town called Bunol. It is estimated that about 140 tonnes of tomatoes are wasted during this jamboree that lasts an hour. In 2013, the global per capital consumption of tomato stood at 0.02 tonnes.

Should La Tomatina be banned? Certainly, if the EU administration is serious about halving its food waste by 2030. India has outlawed a similar jamboree in the past. Of course, such a move will not significantly reduce waste, but it will send a powerful message that food items are not sporting materials to be played with. This is the kind of change in behaviour that Professor Roe advocates. The onus to limit waste therefore lies with consumers: the buck, or in the case of food, the buckwheat stops with us.

Nuts and Bots

My dinner was served on a piece of China and of course, the glossy porcelain had been made in China. I’m not sure where the cutlery came from but I wouldn’t be surprised if they had been imported from Shanghai too! But those lovely dinnerware are the descendants of ancient Chinese cutlery of which the chopsticks is chief. Besides their usefulness as culinary tools, the cultural significance of cutlery across the world cannot be overemphasized and this intrinsic value can be leveraged to change the eating habits of people.

Again, studies done mainly in the US have shown that people tend to eat more when served large portions and as a corollary, waste more food. Large-sized plates or dishes simply encourage overeating as was the case at the hotel. Standard portions are key to getting people to eat just enough but the problem with this is: standards vary from country to country. Overcoming this challenge will require more than creating guidelines hence the need to deploy cutting-edge technology in the fight against overeating and the attendant hefty leftovers.

3D printing has already been used for making pizza and chocolate but its potentials far exceeds its early application as food replicators. Future uses might include turning food scraps into delicious recipes for pets. The menu at the Swiss Spirit came on printed paper but some restaurants in my hometown, Ibadan are now embracing technology by uploading their menus on iPads, showing real serving sizes. This is the way to go. In sharp contrast to the Swiss Spirit, meals on board the Greenpeace ship were both earth- and heart-friendly. Green peas commanded more gravitas at dinner than French fries. And food waste was very minimal too.

Is this the future of fine dining?

Let’s imagine it’s the year 2030 and I’ve got on my wrist a wearable device that matches my culinary preferences and calorie requirements per meal or a mobile app that allows me to ‘tableshare’ my meals within a registered community the same way commuters use Uber for mobility. Algorithms for gastronomy. Bytes for bites. It’s not impossible that in the nearest future households will have the technology that connects their kitchen seamlessly with grocers in a way that improves global food supply chains.

Maybe tomorrow’s cutlery will be powered by computer programming: spoons that lock up after you’ve had your daily recommended intake of ice cream. Forks that deliver a bolt of electricity to the teeth after a specified number of trips to the mouth during dinner. Contractible plates that reduce portion sizes in relation to the body mass index of its users. As extreme as these foreseeable technologies might seem, ‘YouTensils’ that put your health at the heart of the eating experience might not be a bad idea after all.

I asked Professor Brian Roe if artificial intelligence might solve the world’s food waste problem. He affirms that reducing food waste holds the potential for a triple win: less hunger, better environment, and greater profits.  However, he cautions that we must be very careful since emerging great ideas for reducing food waste don’t work at cross purposes. It is therefore important that we identify paths that can work together to secure these tremendous benefits

“If AI could be wielded to help consumers better plan their shopping trips, assess when food truly goes bad versus the package merely being past date, and coordinate supply chains, then yes, this could be promising.”

Article written by:
Kolawole Talabi
Kolawole Talabi
Sierra Leone
Let’s imagine it’s the year 2030 and I’ve got on my wrist a wearable device that matches my culinary preferences and calorie requirements per meal or a mobile app that allows me to ‘tableshare’ my meals within a registered community the same way commuters use Uber for mobility. Algorithms for gastronomy. Bytes for bites.
Maybe tomorrow’s cutlery will be powered by computer programming: spoons that lock up after you’ve had your daily recommended intake of ice cream.
“If AI could be wielded to help consumers better plan their shopping trips, assess when food truly goes bad versus the package merely being past date, and coordinate supply chains, then yes, this could be promising.”
Global production of tomatoes and potatoes.
Global production of tomatoes and potatoes.
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