Food 5.0: How We Feed the Future

The two-part challenge to the food industry in the 21st Century is to produce food that is both healthier and produced in a more sustainable manner. This challenge has been issued by such diverse authors as food critic Nicola Temple in Best Before and food scientist Julian McClements in Future Foods. I will address the topic of healthiness of future foods in October. This month I will focus on sustainability.

In Food 5.0 Robert D. Saik offers his perspective on what we need to do to feed the world as we move forward into perhaps the greatest food challenge civilization has ever met. In the past I have reviewed books that have seen the issue from a conservation viewpoint such as We Are the Weather and Nourished Planet. I found each of those books unable to meet the mission. Here are my thoughts on Saik’s approach as I respond to his words printed in bold:

tee shirt with the message Biotechnology, The splice of Life
Agriculture 4.0

“We’re among the first generations to be blessed with such peace in our lives—which is something we should be grateful for. Looking ahead at the next thirty years, however, between now and 2050, concerns me.” (p. 13) This book was obviously written before the coronavirus hit our shores. As tough as the virus is currently, the future may be even tougher as we confront global climate change, and it is this challenge that the author addresses. Many people currently deny the devastation the virus is having on populations around the world as they continue to deny the threat of climate change. Saik acknowledges the threat of global climate change and looks for solutions via technology. Through the book he traces the changes in Agriculture from 1.0 Muscle to 2.0 Machine to 3.0 Chemistry to 4.0 Genetic Engineering to 5.0 Convergence.

“Agriculture 5.0, which we are entering today, is the result of technological advances such as smartphones, telecommunication, data management, computing power, GPS, and robotics. Agriculture is embracing technology at a rapid pace, and we are seeing a convergence of all the iterations that came before, together with today’s technological advances.” (pp.37-38) To this child of the 60s, some chapters take on an aura of harmonic convergence through advanced communication technology. Moving from one level of Agriculture to another by leaping over one phase is what these advances in technology will allow societies around the world to accomplish. Welcome to a brave new world where agriculture becomes more efficient and more able to meet the challenges of world hunger that have defeated us in the past.

It seems like we have heard such talk before as the promise of Norman Borlaug was the promise of technology. Unfortunately, technology without direction doesn’t get us where we need to go. Borlaug’s Green Revolution bought us 25 years to control population around the world, but bickering between the wizards who advocated technological solutions and the prophets who saw the answer in conservation wasted that opportunity.

“The machine age replaced horses and oxen with tractors for good reason: it costs far less to convert energy from fuel such as kerosene, or diesel, or gasoline into horsepower, than it does to feed, water, and stable horses and oxen, and to feed and pay farmhands.” (p. 49) In Food 5.0, economics rule, but economic considerations have ruled throughout history and have been responsible for each transition from one version of agriculture to the next. And yet, the machines are still there, just in a different form as we adopt GPS and advances in computational power. Saik stresses the importance of low-till and no-till farming, some older technologies that can enhance crop sustainability. He points out that where technology advances, population growth slows. Where there is a lack of technological skills more manpower is needed leading to greater population growth. Inevitably, technology produces waste, but lack of technology engenders poverty. Society cannot advance without technology, but technology accelerates the pace of life such that we cannot rest with it pushing us inexorably forward.

“Without access to modern crop inputs, farmers would not be able to even come close to sustaining the current world population, let alone look to the challenge of feeding more than nine and a half billion people. A great example of chemistry feeding the world is fertilizer.” (pp. 62-63) We could argue that fertilizer brought us out of the Great Depression, but, can technology bring us out of the economic challenges brought about by CoVID-19? Economic challenges are being handled differently in US than in Europe than in the rest of the world. Has the US found a better way or is it headed to a greater disaster? Chemical supplementation was an integral part of the Borlaug plan. It bought us 30-40 years of greater prosperity and less hunger. But as Jeremy Cherfas suggests “we might have wasted the time that Norman Borlaug and the Green Revolution bought us.” Despite our differences in perspective, I think that Jeremy and I agree on this point if only for different reasons.

“To top it off, EU regulators have decided they will design their regulations around an idea called ‘the precautionary principle.’ The precautionary principle basically says that you can’t sell something or use something unless you can prove it’s safe.” (p. 115) Well, he hit one of my buttons here. Viewing technology through the prism of the precautionary principle means that we must abandon all forms of technology. The internal combustion engine is responsible for air pollution, traffic accidents and fatalities, and global warming. It is definitely not safe. Computers and the internet has brought porn into our living rooms, Russian bots, invective, shaming, and trolling leading to poor self-image and suicide. Also, definitely not safe.  Synthetic fertilizers, antibiotics, vaccines, and ultra-processed food. I could go on, but I won’t.  Proving safety is not possible. Even when there is little evidence to declare something is unsafe, there is always the argument that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

Buick at a gas station with a small white dog leaning out the driver's window
I we had followed the precautionary principle, we would never have permitted the automobile.

Making decisions, making progress, while heading off catastrophe is part of life. Any technology can result in unanticipated consequences. So can the rejection of a technology designed to solve a specific problem, such as designing foods to meet specific nutritional needs of people with inborn metabolic disorders. Unfortunately, such foods are considered ultra-processed. In anything we do there is a need for reason and assessment, something that appears to be missing in our polarized environment today. From 1972 to 1995, the US government had an Office of Technology Assessment to provide guidance to Congress on technological issues. It is very sad that we don’t have such an agency today.

half-gallon carton of 1% fat Organic Valley milk
“Going organic will not solve the problems.”

“There is no one right answer. Genetic engineering will not solve all the problems. Going organic will not solve the problems. Veganism will not solve the problems. Regenerative, agroecological, or any other buzzwords will not solve the problems. Agriculture is hugely complex, and there is no one solution.” (p. 133) We are obsessed with magic bullets. We seek one solution to fit all contingencies, whether it is world food supply, the energy crisis, coronavirus or global climate change. These are bigger problems than one vision can fix. To solve existential problems, we must be able to look at the problem from multiple angles. Developing a simple goal and the breaking it down into manageable objectives is the way scientists like to deal with problems. As stated in a post in May, technology can produce, but humanities need to assess the impact on people.

“The average farm generates an estimated five hundred thousand data points per day, which will grow to four million data points by 2036. Applying AI and data analysis to aggregated field, machine, and environmental data can help improve shared insights between growers and enterprises across the agriculture ecosystem,” (p. 206) Grad students in scientific fields are obsessed with data from collection to analysis to display to interpretation to publication and to defense of their conclusions. Life revolves around data. Data can enlighten. Data can obscure. Greater insight does not necessarily come with more data.  When I was a working food scientist, I viewed with dismay scatter plots and equations that resulted in beautiful diagrams destined to collapse mounds of data into simple relationships. Unfortunately many of these efforts ended up merely as pretty pictures in peer-reviewed publications without ever resulting in actionable information useful in solving problems.

More data doesn’t necessarily mean more clarity. Maybe AI can sort it out, but whenever I ventured into complex datasets, answers to meaningful questions became less certain. When I taught data analysis as part of a course on Food Research and the Scientific Method, I added relevance as an important characteristic of numbers in addition to accuracy and precision. For more on the importance of relevance in measurement see Becoming a Food Scientist. As we deal with large datasets we must avoid the dangers of not understanding what is in the proverbial black box or the nefarious use of data to undesirable ends. It would be nice to have a sustainability index, but who is determining sustainability? Can we trust the numbers or their interpretation? One of the author’s companions in this endeavor is Ray Kurzweil, who is either a genius ahead of his time or a crackpot. Among his provocative books is The Singularity is Near.

Bottom line. Food 5.0 is an important book with an important message for us when we come out of our battle with Mother Nature over the coronavirus to take on the more daunting challenge of global climate change. Science and technology do not provide all the answers in and of themselves, but neither can be ignored. Technical solutions need to be tempered with human consciousness. The Green Revolution bought the world time to solve its energy and hunger problems, but the lack of an emphasis on population control wasted that effort. Is there a way to integrate technology and humanity to approach our coming existential problems? More on that topic next week.

Next week: The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smaller World

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