Climate change is threatening food supplies. Here are 3 ways tech can play a role in solutions - Technical.ly Baltimore

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Jan. 3, 2020 7:01 am

Climate change is threatening food supplies. Here are 3 ways tech can play a role in solutions

World Trade Center Institute's latest AGILE session, featuring leaders from Phillips, McCormick and IBM, focused on food scarcity.
Panelists at WTCI’s AGILE session on global food supplies.

Panelists at WTCI's AGILE session on global food supplies.

(Photo by Stephen Babcock)

Thanks to a series of reports issued over the last several years, the alarm is sounding about the threats posed by climate change.

Over the summer, for instance, the United Nations’ International Panel on Climate Change honed in on how the world’s food supply will be affected by a warming planet. The combination of land and water resources being used up, arable land turning to deserts and extreme weather are putting pressure on the world’s ability to feed its people, The New York Times reported.

But in issuing the warning, the panel had a goal of motivating people to action.

At an event held by the World Trade Center Institute (WCTI) last month at Station North’s Parkway Theatre, it was clear that technology can play a role. Bringing together speakers from McCormick, Phillips and IBM, the event was part of WTCI’s AGILE series.

“If we don’t have open minds and we’re not willing to adopt food technology in the future, it’s going to be very tough,” said Brice Phillips, VP of club store sales at Baltimore-founded seafood brand Phillips.

For one, Phillips said, cell-cultured protein (aka lab-grown meat) could be available within five years.

The company is well known for Maryland seafood, but Phillips also sees community with others who are sustained by the seas and oceans: The VP said cooperation will be required to maintain the viability of the sea as a non-land source of protein. For one example, Phillips is a member of the NFI Crab Council with a host of other U.S. seafood companies. The goal is to advocate for crab sustainability, and it takes a collective approach.

“Without a suitable environment, fish and crabs can’t survive and coastal communities can’t survive,” he said.

McCormick also sees challenges as it looks to maintain access to the supply of its products, said Michael Okoroafor, VP of global sustainability at the Hunt Valley-based spice maker. This comes at the level of small farms, and Okoroafor said there is opportunity to introduce technology. At the consumer level, the company is introducing smart packaging — or packaging for spices that is designed to reduce use of plastic and increase recycled materials — that can help reduce food waste.

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For IBM, blockchain has proven to be a valuable tool. The technology is well-known as undergirding cryptocurrency, but there are plenty of other uses cases being explored. Big Blue is using it to trace food across supply chains, said Mark Fisk, a public service blockchain leader at the company.

IBM’s Food Trust is using blockchain to create a record of food system data. Relying on blockchain’s promise to offer increased transparency and permission, it has features that allow for tracking of products such as seafood through the system from where it is caught to when it reaches the eater. This can help companies track inefficiencies, root out waste and ultimately create analytics that inform how things operate best.

“What groups are finding is that instead of taking all that external data, and all that inside data and throwing it into a big data warehouse,” he said, blockchain “can be that trusted source of information that allows me to get that insight.”

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