The Future of Food & Technology

By Caleb Phillips of fallingfruit.org

Part of the barnraiser.us ‘Future of Food’ Series for Food Day on October 24


What does the future of Food & Technology look like? Where is innovation happening? And what conversations are we not having that we should be?

To me, the future of food means feeding more people —- about 9 billion of them by 2050, and most of them in cities. It means coping with the effects of climate change, particularly shifting agricultural regions. Areas that were formerly rain-fed may no longer be, while arid regions may be getting new rain [1,2]. As a nation, we produce an amazing amount of food now. In large part this output is due to technology—-we’re riding high on the technological wins of the green agricultural movement: synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and modern irrigation. Never before have we been able to produce so much food with so little labor, and so cheaply. The labor we do use is largely mechanized, making use of unbelievable custom, industrial equipment which automates many common agricultural tasks. Yet, even with all of this, there are problems.

While our food system is efficient with respect to labor, it is wasteful with respect to other resources. We use water and fuel heavily, we fail to rebuild the tilth of the soil, and we throw away nearly half of the food we produce [3,4,5]. It is clear this system will not continue to scale.

It may be that this time technology isn’t the solution at all. And, if we’re going to suppose that technology can be part of the solution there needs to be some substantial care with how it is applied. As we know now, there can be long term effects to the broad application of not well understood technologies. Consumer technologies can make headway in terms of education and mobilization, but larger structural changes are needed to ensure our food system can scale and find new efficiencies while mitigating negative externalities.

I believe, as do many others, that to create a reasonable future for our food system we need to do the following. We must reduce our consumption and treat our food and the resources used to produce it with more respect. We need to use less water, compost more and recreate tilth in our soil. We need to produce food as near to its point of consumption as possible, and stop allowing half of our food to rot in landfills and fields.

While we’re doing that, we can invest in renewable sources of energy. We can build a wealth of research around sustainable farming technologies and efficient irrigation systems. And finally, create a political and economic system that favors the reintroduction of labor into our agricultural system.

Maybe there’s no flashy technology to save the day—-just hard work and simple respect for our planet and its resources. If we can manage that, we can feed more people better food, and the future will be beautiful and bountiful.


Dr. Caleb Phillips is a scientist, technologist, and food waste activist. He is the co-founder of three 501(c)3 nonprofits: Falling Fruit (http://fallingfruit.org), a massive collaborative online urban foraging map, Boulder Food Rescue (http://boulderfoodrescue.org), sustainable just-in-time food rescue in Boulder, Colorado, and the Food Rescue Alliance (http://foodrescueallienace.org), an incubator for sustainable food rescue programs. He spends his days at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden Colorado and at the University of Colorado, Boulder Computer Science Department, where he does research on large scale data systems, modeling, and optimization.

[1] Food Security: The Challenge of Feeding 9 Billion People H. Charles J. Godfray, John R. Beddington, Ian R. Crute, Lawrence Haddad, David Lawrence, James F. Muir, Jules Pretty, Sherman Robinson, Sandy M. Thomas, and Camilla Toulmin. Science 12 February 2010: 327 (5967), 812–818.Published online 28 January 2010

[2] The 9 Billion People Question. The Economist. Feb 24th 2011. http://www.economist.com/node/18200618

[3] Energy Use in the U. S. Food System. John S. Steinhart and Carol E. Steinhart. Science 19 April 1974: 184 (4134), 307–316.

[4] Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill. Dana Gunders. National Resources Defense Council. Issue Paper. August 2012 IP:12–06-B

[5] On-Farm Assessment of Soil Quality in California’s Central Valley. Andrews, Susan S., Mitchell, Jeffrey P., Mancinelli, Roberto, Karlen, Douglas L., Hartz, Timothy K., Horwath, William R., Pettygrove, G. Stuart, Scow, Kate M., Munk, Daniel S.. Agron. J. 2002. 94:12–23.


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