From field to market to kitchen: smarter food for smarter cities

(A US Department of Agriculture inspector examines a shipment of imported frozen meat in New Orleans in 2013. Photo by Anson Eaglin)

One of the biggest challenges associated with the rapid urbanisation of the world’s population is working out how to feed billions of extra citizens. I’m spending an increasing amount of my time understanding how technology can help us to do that.

It’s well known that the populations of many of the world’s developing nations – and some of those that are still under-developed – are rapidly migrating from rural areas to cities. In China, for example, hundreds of millions of people are moving from the countryside to cities, leaving behind a lifestyle based on extended family living and agriculture for employment in business and a more modern lifestyle.

The definitions of “urban areas” used in many countries undergoing urbanisation include a criterion that less than 50% of employment and economic activity is based on agriculture (the appendices to the 2007 revision of the UN World Urbanisation Prospects summarise such criteria from around the world). Cities import their food.

In the developed countries of the Western world, this criterion is missing from most definitions of cities, which focus instead on the size and density of population. In the West, the transformation of economic activity away from agriculture took place during the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th Centuries.

Urbanisation and the industrialisation of food

The food that is now supplied to Western cities is produced through a heavily industrialised process. But whilst the food supply chain had to scale dramatically to feed the rapidly growing cities of the Industrial Revolution, the processes it used, particularly in growing food and creating meals from it, did not industrialise – i.e. reduce their dependence on human labour – until much later.

As described by Population Matters, industrialisation took place after the Second World War when the countries involved took measures to improve their food security after struggling to feed themselves during the War whilst international shipping routes were disrupted. Ironically, this has now resulted in a supply chain that’s even more internationalised than before as the companies that operate it have adopted globalisation as a business strategy over the last two decades.

This industrial model has led to dramatic increases in the quantity of food produced and distributed around the world, as the industry group the Global Harvest Initiative describes. But whether it is the only way, or the best way, to provide food to cities at the scale required over the next few decades is the subject of much debate and disagreement.

(Irrigation enables agriculture in the arid environment of Al Jawf, Libya. Photo by Future Atlas)

One of the critical voices is Philip Lymbery, the Chief Executive of Compassion in World Farming, who argues passionately in “Farmageddon” that the industrial model of food production and distribution is extremely inefficient and risks long-term damage to the planet.

Lymbery questions whether the industrial system is sustainable financially – it depends on vast subsidy programmes in Europe  and the United States; and he questions its social benefits – industrial farms are highly automated and operate in formalised international supply chains, so they do not always provide significant food or employment in the communities in which they are based.

He is also critical of the industrial system’s environmental impact. In order to optimise food production globally for financial efficiency and scale, single-use industrial farms have replaced the mixed-use, rotational agricultural systems that replenish nutrients in soil  and that support insect species that are crucial to the pollination of plants. They also create vast quantities of animal waste that causes pollution because in the single-use industrial system there are no local fields in need of manure to fertilise crops.

And the challenges associated with feeding the growing populations of the worlds’ cities are not only to do with long-term sustainability. They are also a significant cause of ill-health and social unrest today.

Intensity, efficiency and responsibility

Our current food systems fail to feed nearly 1 billion people properly, let alone the 2 billion rise in global population expected by 2050. We already use 60% of the world’s fresh water to produce food – if we try to increase food production without changing the way that water is used, then we’ll simply run out of it, with dire consequences. In fact, as the world’s climate changes over the next few decades, less fresh water will be available to grow food. As a consequence of this and other effects of climate change, the UK supermarket ASDA reported recently that 95% of their fresh food supply is already exposed to climate risk.

The supply chains that provide food to cities are vulnerable to disruption – in the 2000 strike by the drivers who deliver fuel to petrol stations in the UK, some city supermarkets came within hours of running out of food completely; and disruptions to food supply have already caused alarming social unrest across the world.

These challenges will intensify as the world’s population grows, and as the middle classes double in size to 5 billion people, dramatically increasing demand for meat – and hence demand for food for the animals which produce it. Overall, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that we will need to produce 70% more food than today by 2050.

insect delicacies

(Insect delicacies for sale in Phnom Penh’s central market. The United Nations suggested last year that more of us should join the 2 billion people who include insects in their diet – a nutritious and environmentally efficient source of food)

But increasing the amount of food available to feed people doesn’t necessarily mean growing more food, either by further intensifying existing industrial approaches or by adopting new techniques such as vertical farming or hydroponics. In fact, a more recent report issued by the United Nations and partner agencies cautioned that it was unlikely that the necessary increase in available food would be achieved through yield increases alone. Instead, it recommended reducing food loss, waste, and “excessive demand” for animal products.

There are many ways we might grow, distribute and use food more efficiently. We currently waste about 30% of the food we produce: some through food that rots before it reaches our shops or dinner tables, some through unpopularity (such as bread crusts or fruit and vegetables that aren’t the “right” shape and colour), and some because we simply buy more than we need to eat. If those inefficiencies were corrected, we are already producing enough food to feed 11billion people, let alone the 9 billion population predicted for the Earth by 2050.

I think that technology has some exciting roles to play in how we respond to those challenges.

Smarter food in the field: data for free, predicting the future and open source beekeeping

New technologies give us a great opportunity to monitor, measure and assess the agricultural process and the environment in which it takes place.

The SenSprout sensor can measure and transmit the moisture content of soil; it is made simply by printing an electronic circuit design onto paper using commercially-available ink containing silver nano-particles; and it powers itself using ambient radio waves. We can use sensors like SenSprout to understand and respond to the natural environment, using technology to augment the traditional knowledge of farmers.

By combining data from sensors such as SenSprout and local weather monitoring stations with national and international forecasts, my colleagues in IBM Research are investigating how advanced weather prediction technology can enable approaches to agriculture that are more efficient and precise in their use of water. A trial project in Flint River, Georgia is allowing farmers to apply exactly the right amount of water at the right time to their crops, and no more.

Such approaches improve our knowledge of the natural environment, but they do not control it. Nature is wild, the world is uncertain, and farmers’ livelihoods will always be exposed to risk from changing weather patterns and market conditions. The value of technology is in helping us to sense and respond to those changes. “Pasture Scout“, for example, does that by using social media to connect farmers in need of pasture to graze their cattle with other farmers with land of the right sort that is currently underused.

These possibilities are not limited to industrial agriculture or to developed countries. For example, the Kilimo Salama scheme adds resilience to the traditional practises of subsistence farmers by using remote weather monitoring and mobile phone payment schemes to provide affordable insurance for their crops.

Technology is also helping us to understand and respond to the environmental impact of the agricultural practises that have developed in previous decades: as urban beekeepers seek to replace lost natural habitats for bees, the Open Source Beehive project is using technology to help them identify the factors leading to the “colony collapse disorder” phenomenon that threatens the world’s bee population.

Smarter food in the marketplace: local food, the sharing economy and soil to fork traceability

The emergence of the internet as a platform for enabling sales, marketing and logistics over the last decade has enabled small and micro-businesses to reach markets across the world that were previously accessible only to much larger organisations with international sales and distribution networks. The proliferation of local food and urban farming initiatives shows that this transformation is changing the food industry too, where online marketplaces such as Big Barn and FoodTrade make it easier for consumers to buy locally produced food, and for producers to sell it.

This is not to say that vast industrial supply-chains will disappear overnight to be replaced by local food networks: they clearly won’t. But just as large-scale film and video production has adapted to co-exist and compete with millions of small-scale, “long-tail” video producers, so too the food industry will adjust. The need for co-existence and competition with new entrants should lead to improvements in efficiency and impact – the supermarket Tesco’s “Buying Club” shows how one large food retailer is already using these ideas to provide benefits that include environmental efficiences to its smaller suppliers.

(A Pescheria in Bari, Puglia photographed by Vito Palmi)

One challenge is that food – unlike music and video – is a fundamentally physical commodity: exchanging it between producers and consumers requires transport and logistics. The adoption by the food industry of “sharing economy” approaches – business models that use social media and analytics to create peer-to-peer transactions, and that replace bulk movement patterns by thousands of smaller interactions between individuals – will be dependent on our ability to create innovative distribution systems to support them. Zaycon Foods operate one such system, using online technology to allow consumers to collectively negotiate prices for food that they then collect from farmers at regular local events.

Rather than replacing existing markets and supply chains, one role that technology is already playing is to give food producers better insight into their behaviour. M-farm links farmers in Kenya to potential buyers for their produce, and provides them with real-time information about prices; and the University of Bari in Puglia, Italy operates a similar fish-market pricing information service that makes it easier for local fisherman to identify the best buyers and prices for their daily catch.

Whatever processes are involved in getting food from where it’s produced to where it’s consumed, there’s an increasing awareness of the need to track those movements so that we know what we’re buying and eating, both to prevent scandals such as last year’s discovery of horsemeat in UK food labelled as containing beef; and so that consumers can make buying decisions based on accurate information about the source and quality of food. The “eSporing” (“eTraceability”) initiative between food distributors and the Norwegian government explored these approaches following a breakout of E-Coli in 2006.

As sensors become more capable and less expensive, we’ll be able to add more data and insight into this process. Soil quality can be measured using sensors such as SenSprout; plant health could be measured by similar sensors or by video analytics using infra-red data. The gadgets that many of us use whilst exercising to measure our physical activity and use of calories could be used to assess the degree to which animals are able to exercise. And scientists at the University of the West of England in Bristol have developed a quick, cheap sensor that can detect harmful bacteria and the residues of antibiotics in food. (The overuse of antibiotics in food production has harmful side effects, and in particular is leading some bacteria that cause dangerous diseases in humans to develop resistance to treatment).

This advice from the Mayo Clinic in the United States gives one example of the link between the provenance of food and its health qualities, explaining that beef from cows fed on grass can have lower levels of fat and higher levels of beneficial “omega-3 fatty acids” than what they call “conventional beef” – beef from cows fed on grain delivered in lorries. (They appear to have forgotten the “convention” established by several millennia of evolution and thousands of years of animal husbandry that cows eat grass).

(Baltic Apple Pie – a recipe created by IBM’s Watson computer)

All of this information contributes to describing both the taste and health characteristics of food; and when it’s available, we’ll have the opportunity to make more informed choices about what we put on our tables.

Smarter food in the kitchen: cooking, blogging and cognitive computing

One of the reasons that the industrial farming system is so wasteful is that it is optimised to supply Western diets that include an unhealthy amount of meat; and to do so at an unrealistically low price for consumers. Enormous quantities of fish and plants – especially soya beans – that could be eaten by people as components of healthy diets are instead fed to industrially-farmed animals to produce this cheap meat. As a consequence, in the developed world many of us are eating more meat than is healthy for us. (Some of the arguments on this topic were debated by the UK’s Guardian newspaper last year).

But whilst eating less meat and more fish and vegetables is a simple idea, putting it into practise is a complex cultural challenge.

A recent report found that “a third of UK adults struggle to afford healthy food“. But the underlying cause is not economic: it is a lack of familiarity with the cooking and food preparation techniques that turn cheap ingredients into healthy, tasty food; and a cultural preference for red meat and packaged meals. The Sustainable Food School that is under development in Birmingham is one example of an initiative intending to address those challenges through education and awareness.

Engagement through traditional and social media also has an influence. The celebrity chefs that have campaigned for a shift in our diets towards more sustainably sourced fish and the schoolgirl who  provoked a national debate concerning the standard and health of school meals simply by blogging about the meals that were offered to her each day at school, are two recent examples in the UK; as is the food blogger Jack Monroe who demonstrated how she could feed herself and her two-year-old son healthy, interesting food on a budget of £10 a week.

My colleagues in IBM Research have explored turning IBM’s Watson cognitive computing technology to this challenge. In an exercise similar to the “invention test” common to television cookery competitions, they have challenged Watson to create recipes from a restricted set of ingredients (such as might be left in the fridge and cupboards at the end of the week) and which meet particular criteria for health and taste.

(An example of local food processing: my own homemade chorizo.)

Food, technology, passion

The future of food is a complex and contentious issue – the controversy between the productivity benefits of industrial agriculture and its environmental and social impact being just one example. I have touched on but not engaged in those debates in this article – my expertise is in technology, not in agriculture, and I’ve attempted to link to a variety of sources from all sides of the debate.

Some of the ideas for providing food to the world’s growing population in the future are no less challenging, whether those ideas are cultural or technological. The United Nations suggested last year, for example, that more of us should join the 2 billion people who include insects in their diet. Insects are a nutritious and environmentally efficient source of food, but those of us who have grown up in cultures that do not consider them as food are – for the most part – not at all ready to contemplate eating them. Artificial meat, grown in laboratories, is another increasingly feasible source of protein in our diets. It challenges our assumption that food is natural, but has some very reasonable arguments in its favour.

It’s a trite observation, but food culture is constantly changing. My 5-year-old son routinely demands foods such as humus and guacamole that are unremarkable now but that were far from commonplace when I was a child. Ultimately, our food systems and diets will have to adapt and change again or we’ll run out of food, land and water.

Technology is one of the tools that can help us to make those changes. But as Kentaro Toyama famously said: technology is not the answer; it is the amplifier of human intention.

So what really excites me is not technology, but the passion for food that I see everywhere: from making food for our own families at home, to producing it in local initiatives such as Loaf, Birmingham’s community bakery; and from using technology in programmes that contribute to food security in developing nations to setting food sustainability at the heart of corporate business strategy.

There are no simple answers, but we are all increasingly informed and well-intentioned. And as technology continues to evolve it will provide us with incredible new tools. Those are great ingredients for an “invention test” for us all to find a sustainable, healthy and tasty way to feed future cities.

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