Wednesday, April 07, 2021
Imagine a world where algorithms are used to optimize growing conditions on every fertile square metre of land. Where whole ecosystems are re-engineered. Where drones and surveillance systems manage the farm. Where farmers are forced off the land into e-commerce villages.
Imagine a world where food is treated like a strategic asset and food transit routes are militarized. Where powerful governments and their flag-bearer corporations control resources and food supplies across vast economic corridors.
Imagine a world where many foods are grown in petri dishes, vats, and bioreactors. Where people’s eating habits are invisibly nudged using reams of metadata they have unknowingly surrendered via digital wallets. Where AI assistant apps decide on people’s food intake based on genetic information, family history, mood, and data readings from inside their waste bins and digestive systems.
“Travel any further down the path laid by agribusiness, and the momentum will soon be unstoppable.”
This may sound like science fiction. But the “4th industrial revolution” is already sweeping through food systems. For proof, we need look no further than the changing complexion of the agri-food sector, where mergers and market disruptions are occurring at a dizzying pace. E-commerce platforms like Amazon and China’s JD.com are now among the top ten retailers globally. With agribusinessesincreasingly reliant on cloud, AI, and data processing services, big tech firms like Amazon, Alibaba, Microsoft, Google, and Baidu are moving into food production. Meanwhile, Blackrock and 4 other asset management companies own 10–30% of the shares of the top agri-food firms.
With climate change, environmental breakdown, and pandemics wreaking havoc on food systems over the coming years, the “silver bullet” solutions offered by the new agri-food giants may prove irresistible to panicking policymakers. This year’s UN Food Systems Summit—arising from a partnership between the UN and the World Economic Forum—will be a showcase for corporate-led “solutions.”
In other words, the keys of the food system are already being handed over to data platforms, e-commerce giants, and private equity firms. This could mean dismantling the diversified food webs that sustain 70% of the world’s population and provide environmental resilience. It could mean putting the food security of billions of people at the mercy of high-risk AI-controlled farming systems and opaque supply corridors.