Food plays an essential role in all of our lives. According to the World Food Programme about 815 million people are chronically undernourished. One-third of the global population is malnourished, experiencing either undernourishment or suffering from obesity, diabetes, or other food-related diseases.
Food is not only essential to our individual well-being, but is also linked to several other global grand challenges, including health, prosperity, environment, disaster resilience, water, energy, governance, and more. According to the UN SDGs, 26 percent of the global workforce is employed in agriculture and according to the 2015 McKinsey Global Institute, food and agribusiness are a $5 trillion—and growing—industry. More recently, Plunket Research claimed the industry reached nearly $8 trillion in 2018.
In recent years, a new generation of exponential technologies has emerged to disrupt the food industry from seed to table. In particular, robotic and autonomous farm equipment, including tractors and planting and harvesting equipment, are working in our ﬁelds; robotic dairies are managing livestock; and robotic ﬁsh farms are transforming our oceans. Agriculture itself is also being reinvented through robotics that enable farmers to grow vegetables in urban environments and hostile climates. For example, Iron Ox in California identiﬁes itself as the ﬁrst fully autonomous farm in the world. In an indoor space, its moving autonomous robots can grow 30 acres worth of organic leafy vegetables in just one acre, dramatically reduce water and fertilizer inputs, decrease food waste, and cut food transport costs as it can live directly within communities. Other companies, such as San Francisco’s Plenty and Plenty in Japan, have also created tech-infused indoor vertical farms that use less space and fewer resources.
As we bring technology into farming and livestock, it is changing the game—it can work 24 hours a day as well as customize delivery of water, fertilizer, and light. As we increase our ability to grow food anywhere, anytime, in a decentralized fashion, technology can solve some of our biggest challenges in undernourishment caused by lack of access to food because of political instability, conﬂict, economic instability, or drought.
While biotechnology is historically—and often controversially— known for genetically modifying crops, the new industry of cellular agriculture is now allowing businesses to grow beef, poultry, pork, seafood, dairy products, and more from the cell up in bioreactors; this is similar to how we now grow human organs and tissues using biotechnology. Like decentralized, tech-infused vertical farms, cellular agriculture holds the promise of growing animal and animal- like products anytime and anywhere. Cellular meats will provide a huge beneﬁt to the environment given that agriculture, livestock, and ﬁshing are major contributors to deforestation, over fishing, and pollution. Cellular meats are less controversial from an ethical perspective because they remove concerns about the treatment of animals. Over the last few years, the cellular agriculture and cultured meat industry has grown rapidly. Genetically-modiﬁed, plant-based meat alternatives such as the Impossible Burger have now scaled into national grocery stores, and fast food chains and large players such as Tysons and Cargill have invested in the industry.
Exponential technologies are also disrupting food processing and distribution. New sensors and artiﬁcial intelligence are being used to sort food and inspect it for spoilage, contamination, and authenticity, which reduces food waste and food-borne diseases. Entrepreneurs are building self-driving kitchens and restaurants, complete with robotic cooks, grocery stores without checkers, and food delivery bots. The World Food Programme is using blockchain and iris scanning to more efficiently deliver food coupons to refugees, thereby reducing costs and increasing transparency.
The combination of these technologies will dramatically impact employment, considering that all of these technologies are expected to rapidly scale due to their exponential nature. During this decade,
we may see the end of farming as a profession, which is the largest employer of humans in the world. Given that food has historically been linked to family, culture, and religion, we may reinvent our relationship with food. Ultimately, our relationship to food may serve as a reﬂection of our humanity, and, as we add technology to it, we will also be transforming ourselves and our culture.
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