Food and technology — looking back and looking forward

I had 3 questions as I pondered the history and future of food —

1. How much progress have we made and what role has technology played?
2. What do we need to do better?
3. How should we think about what lies ahead at the intersection of food and technology?

So, let’s get started.
1. How much progress have we made and what role has technology played?

A few years back, the Washington State University Magazine released a powerful graph with data on the percentage of annual income spent on food (it is organized around a world map) as well as the percentage of children suffering from malnutrition. This is based on 2008 data.

The most obvious insight from this graph is that developed nations spend less than 20% of their income on food with barely any malnutrition (likely a result of low food costs). Developing nations, on the other hand, spend ~40% of their income on food. Consequently, a large proportion of children under 5 years of age suffer from malnutrition.

This raised two more questions — 
1. What have the consequences of the rise in population been — especially in developing countries?
2. How have we performed in producing enough food for all of humankind?

Thanks to the wonderful team at “Our World in Data,” we have a ton of good data that helps us dig deep.

Two charts do a good job demonstrating the rise in population. The first beautifully illustrates the amount of time it took for the world population to double.

And, the second shows that the population growth rate has been inversely proportional to the country’s level of development.

This is problematic because the country’s level of development is a proxy for its technology development. And, this technology development, in turn, is indicative of its ability maximize food yield.

Globally, we’ve done a fantastic job maximizing land yield. We have, in effect, been able to feed a MUCH larger population using the same amount of land we used in 1960.

But, these gains have clearly accrued to the more developed countries.

This is evident when we look at the share of the labor force employed in agriculture (light = smaller percentage employed).

As you might expect, this is driven by the value added per worker (darker = more value added).

When we combine these data points, we get this rather busy chart that shows that the richer countries get, the more they adopt agricultural technology and, thus, the more agricultural value is extracted per worker. This is expected.

We can then piece together the other half of the story. As countries extract more agricultural value, food gets cheaper. That, in turn, helps reduce the amount of malnutrition in the country.

How has this happened? In part because we use herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides to improve yield.

We’ve also gotten better at understanding plant biology and breeding and using technology to keep breeding the most productive species.

Regardless of level of development, we’ve been doing an increasingly better job at meeting the needs of the global population. Even in developing countries where food is expensive and where malnutrition is high, the state of affairs continues to get better.

I am, without question, simplifying a complex topic. But, the point here is to give ourselves an overview. If there was a report card, I’d give ourselves a good score on our ability to meet global food needs. So, that leads us to what we need to better. And, while we’ve done a good job at achieving these goals, there’s much left to be desired in the way we’ve done it.

2. What do we need to do better?
Before we answer this, we first need to bust an important myth — the answer here isn’t to go “organic.” There are 3 powerful myths around organically farmed food that we need to bust -

  • Organic farms don’t use pesticides. This is false. Pesticides are classified organic based on their origin. So, pesticides derived from natural sources are considered okay. The logic here is similar to claiming opium is better than soylent because the latter is made in a lab. The top organic fungicides are Copper and Sulfur — both of which are very harmful. And, to top it all, organic farms use 2x more pesticides, on average, because natural pesticides are less effective than synthetic ones.
  • Organic food is healthier. No evidence whatsoever. Likely more pesticide filled than normal produce per above point.
  • Organic farming is better for the environment. Until our yields on organic farms match non-organic farms (which is unlikely due to the ineffectiveness of the chemicals involved), this will not be true.

(A must read article — thanks ScientificAmerican.com — on this topic is listed below)

The area where we’ve done a horrible job is our treatment of animals. In his best-selling book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari does a great job making his case. Here are 3 powerful excerpts.

Today, farmyard animals are often mass-produced in factory like facilities. Their bodies are shaped by scientists in accordance with industrial needs and chickens and cows and pigs and so forth pass their entire lives as parts of some giant production line. The length and quality and conditions of their existence are determined by the profits and losses of business corporations that own them. Even when the industry takes care to keep these animals alive and reasonably healthy and well-fed, the industry has no intrinsic interest in the social and psychological needs of the animals except when these have a direct impact on production.

This treatment of animals is not caused by hatred of animals, just as the Atlantic slave trade did not result from hatred towards Africans. The modern animal industry is not motivated by animosity; it is fuelled mainly by greed coupled with indifference. Not caring about the fate of, of these creatures. Most people who produce and consume eggs and milk and meat today in the world rarely stop to think about where this is coming from, about the fate of the chickens and the cows and the pigs, whose flesh and emissions they are eating. Those who do think about such things often argue that such animals are simply machines. That they have no world of sensations and emotions, and they’re not capable of suffering. What is really ironic is that the same scientific disciplines that are used in order to shape our milk machines and egg machines, have over the last few decades demonstrated, beyond reasonable doubt, that mammals and birds do have a complex sensory and emotional system.

Industrial agriculture raises a lot of ethical, moral dilemmas. What cannot be ignored is the immense contribution it made to human productivity. Altogether billions of farm-yard animals today live as part of some kind of mechanized assembly line and about 10 billion animals are slaughtered each year by industrial agriculture in order to support our economy and our affluent lifestyle. These industrial methods of agriculture, of raising animals, are one of the things that led to a very sharp increase in the productivity of agriculture and in human food reserves together with the mechanization of plant cultivation, of the cultivation of wheat and potatoes and rice and corn and so forth. Industrial animal husbandry has been the basis for the entire modern social economic order. Before the industrialization of agriculture most of the food that was produced by farmers was used feeding the farmers and farmyard animals. Only a small percentage of the food was available to feed teachers and priests and bureaucrats and workers in the cities. Consequently, in almost all previous societies peasants comprised more than 90% of the population, and this was true until the early 20th century. Only following the industrialization of agriculture was possible for a smaller and smaller number of farmers to produce more and more food to feed people in the cities.

All of this definitely hit home as I am guilty of being the indifferent meat eater that Harari talks about. Luckily, the work of animal activists has been making things better. I have been fortunate to be able to access and afford free range meat — but, that’s not an option for a large portion of the world’s population.

All this leads to the question — what is the future going to look like? Will we have opportunities to right our wrongs?

3. How should we think about what lies ahead at the intersection of food and technology?
When we look at the advances in food production technology, a lot of the improvement was in the “hardware” equivalent. We saw better tractors, better chemicals, etc. Going forward, we’re going to continue to see such improvements in hardware. But, my sense is that the biggest change is going to be driven by the equivalent of “software.” The biggest advancements are going to be driven by scientists writing code in labs.

I think there are 3 broad areas to look at when we think about the kind of advances in the future. Innovations that — 
i) Produce healthier food
ii) Improve land yield in both horizontal and vertical farms
iii) Improve treatment of animals via lab produced meat

So, let’s take a quick look at each of the three.

i) Produce healthier food in the lab.
The charts we started this note with focused on malnutrition. The flip side of those charts is looking at the prevalence of obesity.

Obesity, sadly, is an epidemic. And, I’m not going to be able to do justice to that in a few short paragraphs.

But, I think this is an interesting place to think about the kind of food technology that Soylent is pioneering. In an interesting article on Ars Technica, Chris Hutchinson pondered the potential impact of soylent. In doing so, he found that it isn’t clear if Soylent is inherently good or bad. But, it does seem to be a way for folks who’re addicted to unhealthy food to fight their addiction. In his words —

Much like how Soylent can be altered by adding additional flavoring, its customers are shaping its market and purpose with their intentions. International orders are slated to begin at some point in the next few months, which will open things up to non-domestic customers, but the “Soylent revolution” won’t be a giant beige tidal wave that wipes all cooking and social interaction off the table. It sounds like it has the possibility of helping some unhealthy folks start a journey toward less-unhealthy living — after all, even if it turns out Soylent isn’t really all that great for you, it’s almost certainly better than a Whopper and fries — and it will also unquestionably make Rob Rhinehart and some of the Rosa Labs people (and their VC backers) a whole hell of a lot of money.

But don’t sell your knives and forks just yet. Real food isn’t going anywhere. Even though I’m Soylent-ing it for at least a bit on most days, I’m not at all giving up on my garlic chicken recipe. I don’t have to. On the other hand, if it helps pull my buddy Matt and other despairing, unhealthy folks back from the self-described cliffs they feel they’re standing over, then Rob Rhinehart has truly done something good.

ii) Improve land yield
I would break down innovations here into two kinds — 
a) Horizontal farming innovations. These are innovations that improve efficiency of traditional farms. I think there are 2 awesome technology applications that can dramatically lift farm yield and productivity —

Drones: Drones are an absolute game changer for large farms. A squadron (?) of drones can provide real time updates of the soil, improve planting, crop spraying, crop monitoring, irrigation and general health assessment.

AI: We are still in the early days here. But, imagine being able to analyze all the data you receive via drone video using AI. This is an example where the combination will have a compound effect. In an earlier AI focused edition, I had shared an example of this from Blue River Technologies. This Sunnyvale based company developed technology to detect and spray the right amount of water on a “per leaf” basis.

Blue River Technology was acquired by John Deere for $305M just last week. There’s massive value to be built here.

b) Vertical farming innovations.
While there’s plenty of exciting innovations in horizontal farming (and deservedly so), I am bullish about vertical farming. This is an image of a vertical farm from “Plenty” — which has investments from Softbank, Eric Schmidt and Jeff Bezos.

Benefits of vertical farming are many fold — ~530x yield compared to a horizontal field, and reportedly with no pesticides.

Infarm promises to spread vertical farming with live, 365 day farming even within supermarkets. Taking inspiration from the Japanese (who pioneered indoor vertical farming), Infarm sells refrigerator like units to grocery stores and supermarkets. These units have a matrix of sensors that ensure plant growth is optimized.

Vertical farming hasn’t taken off as yet due to higher costs. But, I think the tide might be turning.

iii) Improve treatment of animals
I expect more of us will be eating lab produced meat in 20 years than animal farm meat. Yes, we’ll likely still have animal farms — most of which will be free range. But, I expect lab produced meat to be the norm. One of the investors in lab meat start-up, Memphis Meats, put it well — “Instead of using animals as pieces of technology to convert plants into proteins to make things that we like to eat, drink and wear, we can just use biology to make those things directly.”

Memphis Meats has already synthesized beef, chicken and duck in their labs. The challenge right now is to be able to do this at scale. This technology isn’t just about a more humane way forward. It is also MUCH better for the environment. Studies show that clean meat could potentially be produced with 96 percent less greenhouse gas emissions, 45 percent less energy, 99 percent less land use and 96 percent less water use than meat made through animal agriculture.

In a remarkably prescient note, Winston Churchill predicted this 85 years ago -

It has taken us a while. But, I’m optimistic we’ll get there soon.


Links for additional reading


This is an edition of a bi-weekly technology newsletter called Notes by Ada. If you like this and would like free weekly notes via email, please just subscribe here.