The Future of Food: A Systems Approach to Global Agriculture 2.0

“ You say it’s a living, we all gotta eat*….”


The Problem 

When we look across the spectrum of technological and societal endeavors which are connected to both the largest challenges facing humanity, as well as to some of the largest potential commercial opportunities, we need not look any further than the (dining) table.  Food and fiber are simply the cornerstone of society, from local to global scale.  Perhaps lyricist/poet Robert Hunter* said it best – we all do need to eat.  At the most foundational level, if the business and technology worlds are going to attempt to sustain a healthy planet, a healthy population and a healthy global economy, the complimentary initiatives should be placed on fostering a systems approach towards agriculture, as it literally touches every one of us.

Meeting the nutritional needs of a growing population that is on pace to reach 10 billion by 2050 will not be easy.  Fragility of supply chains, emerging diseases, weather disruptions, contagion risk, lack of water in key origins…these are only a handful of the many challenges facing the global agricultural value chain, and it is important to note here that the discussion should not be solely one of food security.  Taking a systems approach, what we really should be striving towards is the concept of nutrition security.  As my former Mars colleague Howard Shapiro has very successfully emphasized and communicated over the years, many of the calories that feed the world today are simply empty calories; caloric intake with no nutritional benefit.  If we are attempt to talk about food security in the 21st century seriously, the dialogue must shift to embrace the holistic concept of nutrition systems security.

Expanding on this idea a little further, it follows that large scale centralized agriculture, which leads to regional monoculture, simply does not work over time.  Despite the best efforts from the food production/processing, biotechnology and chemical industries, diminishing crop biodiversity via traditional monoculture in the long run promotes development of agricultural disease, depletion of soil nutrients and productivity capacity, stress on water tables (particularly where deep-rooted varieties are dominant) and systemic crop risk, as well as the inhibition of food choices.  Each of these topics will be addressed in greater depth in future papers, but it is worth stating that a systems approach applied to how food is selected, grown, processed and distributed will not only promote agricultural biodiversity and market participation, but it will also enhance nutritional and quite possibly societal security.

Over the last two decades, I have worked closely with just about every sector across the agricultural value chain.  This diverse group includes suppliers, producers, traders, consumer goods corps, co-ops, distributors, breeders, chemical manufacturers, and many others.  It is extremely difficult, if not nearly impossible, to name another sector with reach across as many sub-sectors as the food and beverage complex.  Global agriculture, perhaps more than any other operating sector, is a complicated and complex business and as a result, no problems can be tackled nor can solutions be generated via traditional discipline-specific silos.  For Global Ag to work, and to evolve to meet societal needs of the coming decades, it must adopt a decentralized approach built upon a systems foundation.


Systems Agriculture: Technology Considerations

(Image courtesy of MIT Media Lab OpenAG)


In recent years, the food industry has witnessed a rise in technology companies that are looking to the laboratory for new ways to assist in feeding the planet, while at the same time minimizing environmental impact.  This is a reaction to what can be traced to both supply and demand side pressures in global agriculture.  To take one example, synthetic biology has made great progress in R&D, potentially bringing to market commercially viable substitute protein products which satisfy the demands of the carnivore, minus the ethical, environmental and economic externalities commonly associated with traditional livestock production.  Another example with potential upside can be seen in the burgeoning indoor or controlled-environment agriculture sector.  Here we have also seen a rise in supply-side activity, both in the traditional the startup community, as well as in the corporate venture space.  These and the many other ‘alternative agriculture’ tools and technologies are most certainly welcome pieces to the puzzle, and I feel that they will have a growing place in the portfolio of tools needed to address Agri decentralization.  However, at least in the short term, in aggregate, the suite of new market entrants will still occupy a niche with respect to the global industrial agriculture stage.

Most of what we consume has been and will continue to be derived through relatively traditional plant and animal harvesting, via means which have not changed all that much since agricultural and livestock domestication, some of which date back to the transition into the Holocene.  Simplistically, seeds are planted, and this is followed by watering, nourishing,  harvesting, in some cases processing, and ultimately their products are consumed.  Similarly, while livestock husbandry has been effectively industrialized and scaled, the general series of events associated with the lifecycle of protein harvesting has not changed very much.  So while I expect all of the new players in the Food2.0 world to contribute a steadily increasing percentage of global food and nutrition requirements, most of the world’s efforts will continue to improve upon what we perceive as traditional agricultural practices.  When it comes to food and agriculture, society is still largely at the mercy of Mother Nature. Drought tolerant varieties and developments in field applications notwithstanding, to put it simply, if it doesn’t rain there is no grain.


Systems Agriculture Solutions: Physical Resource Theory

(Image courtesy of Chalmers University)


For all of the reasons mentioned above, viewing global agriculture through the lens of complex systems is not only preferable, but actually necessary if we are to realistically assess the risks, opportunities, and potential developments that come to mind as we address the growing challenges associated with global nutrition security.  This ensemble of variables encompasses all of the components across the entire agricultural value chain, comprised of dozens upon dozens of industries where the physical and life sciences are so tightly coupled with global commerce.  As a result of the complex nature of global food, the application of Physical Resource Theory (PRT) as a means to assess what can be grown, at what rates, under what environmental conditions, and above all with commercially and socioeconomically equitable outcomes, is an appropriate platform on which to build a tangible transition to Food2.0.

Sustainable application of PRT as it is applied to global food production is predicated upon the understanding of both biophysical energy transfer from source to (edible) product, as well as capital transfer between supplier, producer and consumer.  The biophysics and economics of resource production can not be divorced from one another, although many of the more traditional agricultural ‘models’ tend to just focus on only one half of the problem.  A complex systems/PRT framework more effectively weaves together considerations related to crop potential and market potential through a series of stocks, flows, transformations and transactions, and will ultimately lead to more robust planning and sustainable solutions.  When we analyze global agriculture, we can do so in the same manner that the biologist examines the behavior of the cell.  Observation reveals a collection of processes dealing with energetics, transfer, competition and cooperation, each agent performing a function that spills over and affects their neighbor, and somehow all of this machinery comes together to result in a functioning cell embedded within a larger operating system.  So by definition and going to the roots of complexity science, the cell as a whole IS more than the sum of its parts, and the emergent behaviors that have evolved allow the larger scale systems to perform efficiently.  Taking the industrial biological metaphor from micro to macro, the same concepts can be constructed into a ‘model’ that can guide the evolution of systematic benefits to global agriculture.  Competition is of course encouraged, but this can and should be balanced with cooperation incentives as a means to ‘open-source’ benefits to the larger system.  We have seen this approach work in software, genomics, computational and data sciences, and it is starting to take hold in energy and transportation.  Agriculture should be next.

Driven by economics, the waste from one industry becomes the feedstock for another.  Diversity leads to not only system strength, but also system resilience.  This interplay among agents actually becomes an indirect form of systemic risk management in the face of disruptions where the catalyst could be climate, disease, geopolitics, sanctions, or any number of other external forces.  To be clear, all of this does in fact occur to some degree, but a more comprehensive and concentrated effort among market ‘agents’ is needed for systemic PRT to scale.

To extend the Chalmers University PRT definition and framework to the global agricultural complex, effective implementation and maximum potential system benefit will reside at the decentralized intersection of technology, society, nature, commerce and culture.  The favorable transition from physical/biophysical/economic theory to practice will result in a higher quality of life for consumers (nutrition security), sustainable business models for market agents (commercial security), and biosystem resilience and productivity (natural security).


Additional technical papers addressing the ideas presented here will follow.


This article was cross posted on LinkedIn and Medium.



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