by Julius WiedemannMar 31, 2022
There are a few things more analogue than food. We eat because we need to and we eat because we also love food. The market makes sure that we fulfil these two needs. Nutrition is a problem and there are two extremes. When it’s scarce, development is complicated because kids need food to be able to learn, and adults needs because they need to work. There’s no stamina without good nutrition. The amount of calories, but not only that, is a metric pursued by governments and institutions that want to make sure that people get fed so that our key indicators for development keep going up. According to the World Health Organization, the UN arm for health studies and policy design, “In 2018, stunting affected an estimated 21.9 per cent or 149 million children under the age of five years, while wasting affected 7.3 per cent or 49 million children under the age of five years. Around 45 per cent of deaths among children under the age of five years are linked to undernutrition.”
On the other hand, there is abundance, and that’s a problem too. The amount of obesity and overweight in the world is creating a huge health problem and taking a toll on development’s key features. Resources that could be invested in education, research and development, and quality of life, are being driven to sort out a problem that only seems to increase. According to One.com, "Americans waste about 141 trillion calories worth of food every day. That adds up to about $165 billion per year — four times the amount of food Africa imports each year.” Another estimation says the world spends about $1 trillion a year treating diseases related to high BMI, meaning obesity and other neighbouring diseases.
But what does that have to do with technology? And what does that have to do with the kind of digital technologies and digital environments that we have built? It all starts with monitoring first. Statistics and its derived simulations have given place to a lot of real data, so that scenarios and mathematical models can be built with a much better approximation as to what the future might hold. From the production of crops to the heartbeats and diets of ordinary citizen, the more we monitor and collect data from, the more we will know about how to solve issues that were dealt with a lot of guessing in the past. Secondly there is more efficiency using digital environments. From QR codes to barcodes, we can now track the source of food and also how much waste has been created, with much more precision. That plays a significant role in how we look ahead at food production, but especially how we transport and keep it. Waste estimations are very dramatic. By some accounts, food waste is between 30 and 40 per cent of everything we produce. In Germany, up to 30 per cent of the food bought in supermarkets gets rotten in the fridge before their packages are open.
Mobile apps can start giving us a lot of ideas as to how we consume food. Imagine how much data is going through all the food delivery applications every day, and how much that has been helping to design everyday menus. If we add the subject of healthy eating, we will soon be able to steer the consumption towards a more sustainable mode. McKinsey and Morgan Stanley estimate the US market for food delivery through apps at about $26 billion in 2020, with over 110 million users. The UK by comparison is it almost $6 billion of revenue with about 24 million users. In the same period Europeans have amounted a consumption of nearly $20 billion with about 150 million users. Market projections are very positive, and there is certainly a lot of efficiency to be gained in the next years, especially with cash burn becoming more restricted and real return on investment being demanded.
But the food tech movement has gone now much beyond delivery apps. And also beyond developing genetically modified crops that can resist plagues. Earlier this month, AppHarvest CEO & Founder, Jonathan Webb, spoke at the 2022 edition of the Caesars Forum in Las Vegas, presenting his vision on “How Tech In Farming Can Build A Resilient Food System”. AppHarvest, based in Kentucky and founded in 2017, has quickly become a reference for its mission to build a network of high-tech, controlled-environment farms that aim to grow non-GMO, chemical-free produce. They have raised $28 million in 2020 and built their 2.76 million-square foot flagship facility, where they have planted their first crop of tomatoes. They have also added two farms in Kentucky, a 60-acre facility for fruits and vegetables and a 15-acre one for leafy greens. They invest heavily on R&D and have partnered with the Dutch government and multiple universities to turn Appalachia into an agtech powerhouse. We usually underestimate the amount of technology that goes into an initiative like that. Sensors and data centres will allow producers to deep dive into microcosms of production as well as looking at global data that helps orient engineers and other professionals to plan from the usage of pesticides to the amount of protection of every type of plant. With the land becoming more expensive for production, efficiency is the only way to keep of with an increase in demand.
We don’t live in a world of static information or static action plans anymore. In order for things to develop we need to listen more, every day, and make sure we jump from update to update, from upgrade to upgrade as seamlessly as possible. We should never forget that. Time has changed and the place for the rules that work across the board for an infinite amount of time is gone. What we have now are principles. These are the ones that can and should stay under scrutiny. Not rules. Rules are there to be changed. Targets are always moving, but the fundamentals are there more often than not to stay. For every bite we give now, we are also consuming a lot of bytes.
Read more from the series Digital Legacies where our columnist Julius Wiedemann investigates the many aspects of digital life.