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A Revolutionary, New Way to Prevent Malnourishment in Diseased Children: The Internet of Things

Introduction

World hunger—and the malnutrition that accompanies it—affects nearly 800 million people worldwide (“The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2015”). One in nine individuals must endure starvation and its calamitous effects: malnutrition, irreversible brain damage, and eventual poverty (“Affect of Hunger: The Brain”); in fact, the situation has become so dire that an innocent person’s life is taken every ten seconds (Wharton). Thus, the question must be posed: what exactly is to blame for such widespread hardship? It turns out that an equally ruinous dilemma—food loss—is to blame for the complications brought about by world hunger. Said to account for the wastage of one-third of all food produced (Stuart), food loss currently weighs in at 1.3 billion tons—enough to feed the entire United States of America ten times over (Stuart). Moreover, the waste arising from food loss—also the cause of 45% of all childhood deaths (Black et al.)—is said to generate 3.3 billion tons of greenhouse gases and occupy 1.4 billion hectares of land: 28% of earth’s agricultural capacity (Stuart). As such, it is necessary that the predicaments brought about by food loss be eradicated; furthermore, given the climate surrounding food loss, it is evident that current food waste prevention practices are quickly becoming futile. Thus the time has come for a newer approach that may better combat the ills posed by food loss; one up-and-coming approach incorporates a recent technological advancement known as The Internet of Things (IoT). As MIT-based technology experts Gershon Dublon and Joseph A. Paradiso put it, once “protocols that enable devices and applications to exchange data” are instituted, “sensors in anything can be made available to any application.” The promise of a future in which sensors operate with unbridled access to each others’ data—as Dublon and Paradiso have described—chronicles the mystique of IoT, a mystique where smartphones will be connected to refrigerators, thermometers to air conditioners, and food to the millions of people who necessitate it. Thus the question presents itself: can world hunger be remedied by sensors operating under IoT? IoT offers a promising strategy to significantly reduce food loss by tracking food waste as it travels through the Food Supply Chain (FSC); the purpose of this paper is to explore the venues by which this may be made possible.

Do We Even Need IoT?

Before a discussion regarding the plausibility of IoT in ameliorating world hunger is to be had, discourse of the extent to which world hunger exists must be had as such conversation will allow one to gauge the need for the worldwide implementation of IoT.

Given the current conditions of several impoverished, wide-ranging countries, it is evident that world hunger is a pressing matter; but is the issue urgent enough to command succor from IoT? Food experts from Euronews claim that, as time goes on, global hunger will only worsen (“Global Hunger Getting Worse”). In fact, food production levels are currently nowhere near the levels required to sustain life on earth (Sundmaeker et al.). Furthermore, due to increasing birth rates and rapid population growth, the ecological footprint—the amount of resources required by one human to sustain their own life—is at an all-time high while our current food production levels remain stagnant (Sundmaeker et al.). With insufficient food production alongside an increasing ecological footprint, it is unlikely that food will be evenly distributed among the world’s countries to account for the severe deficit of food in impoverished countries and the surplus of food in developed countries.

In contrast, analysts of undernourishment on the other side of the world hunger spectrum contend that world hunger is in fact not being exacerbated; rather, it is being ameliorated—annually. These analysts assert that hunger will continue to diminish as long as current hunger prevention methods do not cease; as Steve Hansch of World Hunger Notes claims, it seems fair to “forecast an average 1.6 percent decrease each year in the number of hungry people.” Furthermore, these analysts estimate that current food production levels ensure that the population will always possess a surplus of food—as FAO, a department of the internationally acclaimed United Nations and the foremost authority on food in the entire world, puts it, “Abundance, not scarcity, best describes the world’s food supply… the world produces around 50 percent more food for each of us today” (“The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2015”). A lessening world hunger quandary coupled with an ever present surplus of food not only contributes to mitigating hunger but also suggests that IoT may not be necessary in combating such widespread starvation.

However—although the percentage of undernourished people around the world decreased from 18.6% to 10.9% from 1992 to 2015 (“The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2015”)—a full 7.7%—the most recent reports have indicated that hunger is back on the rise. As of 2016, the percentage of undernourished people is 11%—0.1% up from 2015, summing up to nearly 38 million new people encapsulated by starvation (“World Hunger Again on the Rise”). With such a predicament at hand—where world hunger heightens without bound—it is only right that a new technique be adopted to fight undernourishment: enlisting the aid of IoT in eradicating food waste. 

How IoT Will Reduce Food Waste along the FSC

Now that it has been established that there exists a legitimate need for IoT in reducing food loss, a discussion encompassing how one may go about implementing IoT into the FSC for the purpose of curtailing food waste may be had.

As more traditional methods—like vertical farming, reducing poverty, and attempting to lower the world population—have ceased to aid in eliminating world hunger (Cereseto), it is up to technology to speed up the rate at which world hunger will dwindle. The FSC—the journey which all food must undertake, originating at the farm and ending at the consumer—is the site of a remarkable amount of food waste. Commencing at the farm, proceeding onto the factory, then to delivery, and concluding at the consumer, food takes a rather long path while traveling from farmer to consumer; on such a long path, several destinations exist where food loss may readily occur (National Research Council).

Farmers tend not to be adept in predicting weather patterns and making informed decisions regarding when they ought to plant and harvest food (Fountas et al.). In fact, 7% of planted fields in the U.S. aren’t harvested each year (Lipton et al.). In order to resolve such a complication, an IoT-based solution ought to be incorporated: smart farming (Sundmaeker et al.). Smart farming refers to the very precise tracking of livestock, crops, and land in order to manage food efficiently; for instance, farmers may utilize satellite data in determining where and where not to plow their fields and spray pesticides to maximize labor efficiency and prevent crop damage. However, farmers may not necessarily be adroit in using such technology; moreover, widespread access to and deployment of smart farming have yet to occur.

The next destination, the factory, is the area in which all processing and packaging of the harvest occurs; this also happens to be the place in which a staggering 39% of all food loss along the FSC is generated (Gunders). The IoT-based solution for the factory is known as intelligent packaging (Realini and Marcos); intelligent packaging harnesses both biosensors and chemical sensors for the purpose of monitoring a variety of components, namely: pH, temperature, ethylene, etc. By closely observing the quality of food in factories, it can alert other IoT-connected devices—like a thermostat—and adjust the outside temperature spontaneously to be in accordance with the internal temperature of the food.

At the third destination, delivery, the two main causes of food waste are a lack of temperature regulation and negligence in handling produce. In fact, it is estimated that 35% of all perishable cargo is lost during transport (Scheer)—where 30% of said cargo is squandered due to insufficient temperature regulation (Scheer) and 5% is wasted to reckless transport processes (Scheer). The intelligent container (Lang) is the IoT solution that ought to be adopted at the delivery stage; a container that actively monitors temperature, humidity, and gas content, the intelligent container is able to determine an object’s shelf-life based on the quantity of ethylene[3] it emits. With such information, the intelligent container will connect to the GPS of the truck it is in via IoT and indicate that a reroute to the nearest store would be ideal if produce in the truck were to begin to emit excessive amounts of ethylene, a sign of a shortening shelf-life.

Lastly, the consumer—the final destination for all food—wastes an immense amount of food; a family of four is estimated to waste between $1350 and $2275 worth of food annually (Clean Metrics). The IoT-based solution to fight food waste in the household is known as the intelligent garbage system (Hong); it would force users to actively monitor the amount of food waste that enters their garbage by punishing users for the amount of trash they place into the garbage with a per-pound fee. By carefully monitoring every step of the FSC, it is very much possible to utilize IoT-based technology to effectively reduce the amount of food waste generated.

Drawbacks of IoT

The promises of IoT are virtually limitless; it would be largely beneficial to humanity if IoT were to be utilized for the purpose of mitigating world hunger. However—although IoT demonstrates considerable promise, it is not exactly problem-free. Critics of IoT cite two main drawbacks of IoT: privacy and accessibility (Rose et al.). Although IoT data along any one part of the FSC is relatively harmless, data collected over prolonged periods of time—even along the FSC—can be utilized to “paint a detailed portrait about the people interacting with them” (Rose et al.) in a phenomenon known as IoT data discrimination (Rose et al.). IoT data discrimination can either be used for benefit or malice; thus the question presents itself: ought we to censor the data with which IoT is trusted?

Mitigating the Drawbacks of IoT

As can be deduced, concerns of privacy and security within IoT command serious attention—for instance, weighty legal discussions regard the extent to which our right to privacy ought to be upheld. As such, it is imperative that private information within IoT be regulated with a viable security system. Technology experts Dublon and Paradiso stress the need for enacting “safeguards into technology” by enabling sensors to “respond to context and a person’s preferences”. Nan-Wei Gong built a “wireless beacon informing nearby sensor devices of its user’s personal privacy preferences” (Dublon and Paradiso); such a solution effectively ensures that one’s information is not provided to others against one’s own will. However—Dublon and Paradiso recognize that “[a]ny solution will have to… receive and honor such [privacy] requests” and  that both “technical and legal challenges” will present themselves. One such challenge is that it is somewhat difficult to create sensors that will abide by stringent privacy standards—as IoT can only operate efficiently with some degree of openness among users. Issues concerning intellectual property and IoT along with intercountry IoT data transfer—where different countries may uphold conflicting privacy standards—are also prone to present themselves. If food waste is able to be better curbed—especially with the latest security measures—then factories that process food will no longer have to work longer hours in order to make up for lost food, preventing excessive greenhouse gas production. However, if IoT were to be widely adopted, there would arise an overbearance on technology which would yield a loss of jobs. Ultimately, the drawbacks of IoT have been underscored by the question that has been on all of America’s mind since the dawn of technology: to what extent ought our privacy to be protected from innovative, unprecedented devices—like IoT?

Accessibility happens to be IoT’s other primary issue; in places where IoT may not be available, non-technological measures may be adopted so that food waste will still be curbed—although it will be considerably slower. For instance, awareness concerning food waste may be raised by encouraging individuals to donate food (Patterson). Measures such as land grabbing—a practice in third world countries where innocent farmers are stripped of their land—ought to be prevented (Von Braun et al.). In addition, the issue of the rapidly rising world population should be addressed so that the world populace can be better suited to the amount of food present; by educating people about contraception, we may effectively curb population growth rates (Patterson). However, contraception is still is not used widely enough to effectively lower birth rates or accessible to many communities (Creanga et al.). Additionally, it would be difficult to motivate individuals to take action and act on behalf of charitable causes to provide for the unprivileged (Knutsson et al.). Furthermore, the dominance of sweatshop labor and foreign industries compared to domestic farmers in third world countries devalues the farming industry (Rodrik). Due to such a dilemma, it seems unlikely that farmers will attain recognition enough to be able to harvest on a large scale and ramp up food production while mitigating the consequences of food loss. Ultimately—although non-technological solutions can be successfully deployed, they will not be able to diminish food waste and remedy world hunger at the rate IoT will be able to. 

Conclusion

Through the successful implementation of IoT-based technology, world hunger can and will be alleviated. By tracking food as it travels along the FSC, reduction of food loss will occur and result in better management of food—particularly concerning the distribution of food to impoverished, third-world countries to save the lives of innocent, undernourished children. Currently employed methods—to lighten the load of world hunger—have failed in lightening the load to a significant extent; with 24 years and only 7.7% of the world population no longer undernourished, it is time for change. The dynamic capabilities—and the potential to change the world as we know it—is what will allow IoT to rid the world of the rampant hunger that plagues it.

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Edited by: Shreya Singireddy