We’re going to have to learn to be a lot more efficient with resources

Date : 02 October 2018

Christopher Barnatt www.explainingthefuture.com

Christopher Barnatt (CB) closed the Leading Edge Annual Conference 2018 with his presentation about the future of the food and grocery industry. If you would like to attend next year’s conference register your interest in attending.

CB laid out the global challenges facing future food production and demands for food and groceries, and some of the developments that could contribute to solutions.

He used the metaphor that the future is darkness, impossible to see. People want a searchlight to illuminate what’s to come. It is of course impossible to predict the future with any certainty, but you can imagine likely scenarios, some of which are preferable. In the hope of guiding people towards those preferable outcomes you need to build lighthouses; what he called “attractors” that guide behavior. The narrative is vitally important. He reminded us that America spent 10% of its GDP for ten years to put a man on the moon because they had that lighthouse to aim for, and the narrative to support the journey.

He described the Paris agreement as one such lighthouse. 197 world leaders, including the UK’s, signed up to it. The Agreement is in response to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s unequivocal warning: two degrees of global warming will result in a range of negative consequences. One of the consequences is a reduction in worldwide production of food. The Paris Agreement is an attempt to keep the increase to just two degrees, thus limiting the negative impacts as far as possible. CB explored more reasons why, most likely in the next decade, he believes food will become scarcer and more expensive:

  • To comply with the Paris Agreement we have to reduce usage of cheaper (more CO2 polluting) means of energy production, if energy costs more then everything, including food, will cost more
  • Consumer demand is likely to precede deadlines put in place by the Paris Agreement, i.e. petrol and diesel cars and coal power with no carbon capture will likely decline in use ahead of deadlines due to falls in demand
  • Oil production will peak in the US (the world’s largest oil producer) likely leading to an oil crash
  • The energy return on investment (EROI) is declining even without the Paris Agreement, as easily-accessed energy is exhausted
  • Standards of living are increasing in many countries but there isn’t enough land on our planet to produce the food required for everyone on earth to enjoy the diets we are used to in the developed world
  • Fish stocks are in global decline

This worrying assessment of the future was offset by the second half of the presentation. Despite the many concerns CB predicts for the future, there are reasons to be optimistic. He made the point that the internet, and digital technology, are now integral part of our lives. We will now start to see changes in the physical world as a result.

New production methods

The production of food and groceries are likely to change. The processes and technologies below are controversial, some have a great deal of opposition to them, but CB sees them as having the potential to play a huge part in future production:

  • Dark factories are so called because people are not needed to work in them, hence they don’t need lights. Factories are currently operating in China in which humans only act as overseers for the robotic workforce
  • Synthetic engineering is in its very early stages. This is the process of forming things in the same way that living creatures are made; you don’t need a factory or a farm, only a genetic code to create food in certain forms
  • Genetically engineered food is more widely known, it allows food to be grown faster and with less food; new synthetic salmon can grow to full size in half the time of its non-engineered relatives 
  • Local urban farms that use process like hydroponics, or growing foods vertically rather than on the ground make better use of space and grow food closer to the point of consumption

Artificial intelligence (AI) is changing how we behave

CB told us that AI is a vital part of the changes taking place. We’re witnessing the beginning of cognitive computing. Machine learning will allow computers to predict and anticipate their own needs as well as ours. This will herald the new era of attentive computing. Currently, we all devote time to attending to the needs of computers. They allow us to do many things faster and better, but we must set them precise instructions and then monitor them as they act. The process of giving them instructions is also often dictated by the system we use. CB believes computers will attend to us in the future. They will attend to our needs as we demand, and we will be able to leave them to carry on processes without constant oversight.

Part of this revolution are the new virtual assistants like Google Home and Amazon Echo. These are the “Trojan Horses” of AI. They are accustoming people to attentive computing. For example, asking for information and expecting a machine to not only understand what you want, but also give the best possible answer in response. Even if you don’t have a virtual assistant, you can see this effect in online search engines like Google. While we are used to search engines providing suggested answers, we expected to have to look through at least some of the many responses it gave us. We now often get a suggested answer to our questions, even when we use a keyboard or a phone. Anyone who has used virtual assistants knows that they are far from perfect at present, but they are improving constantly.

Software companies like Google, Amazon, Alibaba and IBM are turning AI into a modular, commodity service. Increasingly we will find tools in our homes that access AI when they need it to perform a task. This isn’t the something coming in the future, it’s a service currently on offer. Digital technology can access AI, as and when it needs it.

Robotics in food

The food industry is the fifth biggest user of robotics worldwide and one of the fastest growth markets for sales of robotics.

Robots have been used in production for some time in a wide range of industries. However, they have been used in structured environments i.e. workspaces designed specifically for them. The design kept humans and machines separated for the safety of the former and to ensure the efficient operation of the latter. This is now changing.

Amazon now has thousands of autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) in their warehouses. These robots are designed to work alongside human workers. It’s very likely that many of us will see robots operating in unstructured environments including our own homes as well as our workplaces, even if we work outside. Precision agriculture uses AMRs to detect the precise place at which resources like pesticides, fertilisers, energy or water are needed. The AMR calculates the precise dosage needed for food to grow. The potential savings in all of those resources are massive.

In short, Christopher predicts the food industry in 2030 will: 

  • involve more local production
  • use less natural meat, instead using genetic and synthetic modification
  • require better logistics
  • use more capital-intensive processes
  • require a growing percentage of income to be spent on food

According to CB we will need to change as a society to adapt to what is likely to come. He believes we need to “demand a bit less but value things more”. He pointed out that “we live in an age where people keep most of their possessions in landfill” thanks to our culture of throwing items away rather than repairing them. He ended on a positive note, “the human species is very good at dealing with adversity”, the best way to prepare for the future is to broaden your perspectives by seeking those of other countries and cultures, and it’s never been easier to do so than today, thanks to modern technology. 

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