Lorin Fries Head of Food Systems Collaboration, World Economic Forum LLC
A decade ago, the tech giant Apple released the first iPhone. Picture your life before then. Did you keep your personal calendar in a book? Did you pull the car over and unfold a map when you got lost?
A decade from now, the food we eat today – and the systems behind it – may seem as outdated as a phone without apps. Technology is accelerating change everywhere. The question is not whether it will reshape how we make food, move it and eat it; the question is how.
Imagine opening your fridge in 2030. Maybe that pork came from a single pig cell, grown into “clean meat” in a lab. Perhaps that leftover rice was gene-edited with CRISPR-Cas9 or the lettuce was produced with a personal “food computer” in a city building, through a data recipe. Maybe the sustainability of the palm oil in your margarine was monitored through satellites with advanced imaging power or the woman who grew your eggplants was paid through via blockchain. Perhaps the fridge itself will be “smart”, sending you notifications to eat the cheese before it goes green.
Technology holds extraordinary promise for solving today’s food challenges. But this won’t happen automatically. Without care, such innovation could further divide a deeply unequal world of “haves” and hungry “have nots”.
Both cutting-edge technologies and innovations already up and running could be game-changers on a range of fronts, whether that means farmers’ livelihoods, consumer nutrition or climate change. Scaling up low-tech solutions like solar dryers and cold storage would help farmers to reduce food loss, which can reach as much as 40% of the food produced in many developing regions. In a food system that uses 70% of the world’s fresh water and makes up almost a quarter of global carbon emissions, sustainability can be increased through new approaches, such as drone-enabled artificial intelligence linked to mobile apps, and traditional ones, such as using insects for protein. And in a world where half the population is hungry, overweight or micronutrient deficient, better nutrition might be achieved through pioneering research on the human microbiome or simply by scaling up nutrient fortification.
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Yet technology is not a silver bullet. New approaches will raise new questions, ranging from the implications of new products and services, to who creates and controls them. What might happen to the 800 million people who depend on agriculture to make a living and who are over 60 years old on average, as agriculture becomes more automated? If all of Africa were linked to the cloud, who would control the data?
These questions point to a significant opportunity: to harness the power of technology and innovation to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and their zero hunger aspiration. In this age of new possibilities, we can enable solutions for those who need them most, collaborating with innovators from Mumbai to Nairobi to Buenos Aires, as well as in Silicon Valley. And by working in new ways across business, government and civil society, we can drive innovation towards the world’s toughest problems – including nourishing a growing global population within the boundaries of our small planet.
Under its new Food Security and Agriculture project, “Innovation with a Purpose”, the Forum collaborates to harness the power of technology to create more inclusive, sustainable, efficient and nutritious food systems.