Food Abundance and Unintended Consequences

Two major forces are likely to converge in very unpredictable ways. The road to Abundance, as described by Peter Diamandis, promises to advance our human development in ways we never could have imagined. At the same time, the journey will drive a number of unintended consequences. The intersection of these two forces underscores the importance of focusing on emerging scenarios now, while we have the opportunity to realize the advancements and mitigate the impact of unintended consequences. Let’s use the journey towards food abundance as an example.

In their recent 2019 trends report, The Future Today Institute (FTI) describes a number of future scenarios. One such scenario presents the innovations likely to enable food abundance (Food 2.0 on my Our Emerging Futureemerging future visual. Click the visual for a description). There are two very important reasons to focus on food abundance: extreme weather events, and population growth. Extreme weather events are likely to change traditional agriculture as we know it, driving the need for innovative new ways to feed society. Population growth exacerbates the problem. Today the earth is home to approximately 7.6 Billion people. Growth estimates have us reaching 8.6 billion in 2030, 9.8 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion by 2100. These numbers assume a continuing decrease in average fertility rate from 2.5 births per woman in 2010–2015 to 2.2 in 2045–2050 and to 2.0 in 2095–2100. To compound the food situation, the population of the world’s poorest countries will more than triple, from 954 million in 2015 to 3.2 billion by 2100. Some projections indicate that by 2050, agriculture production must increase by 70% to meet projected demand. As stated by The Future Today Institute; current farming methods won’t cut it.

The journey towards Food 2.0 is therefore critical. Fortunately, a number of innovations are lining up to solve this problem. From new kinds of indoor microfarms, to vertical farms run completely by artificial intelligence and robots, to precision agriculture that optimizes yield. Imagine restaurants, schools and companies growing their own produce, while achieving significant cost savings (a scenario presented in the aforementioned FTI Trends Report). In describing that scenario, Revolution Wheel - FoodThe FTI research team states that in 2019, restaurants will have access to compact, self-sustaining indoor vegetable gardens that are small enough to fit within the existing space of a commercial kitchen. Special lights help reduce the growing time necessary for plants to reach maturity. In addition, they state that in the very near future, similar technology, along with subscription seedling services, will become affordable enough for average US homes. The visual above highlights the food section of my innovation wheel (click the visual for a description of the wheel).

What happens when this drive towards abundance intersects with the certainty of unintended consequences? Here again, education, awareness, and urgency are critical. Reports like the 2019 trends report aid with education and awareness. But the need for urgency must be recognized and embraced. What potential unintended consequences emerge as we move towards food abundance? The Future Today Institute describes a scenario where high-tech local microfarms upend the status quo for supply chains built around conventional agriculture and supermarkets. They envision a possible future where the shift impacts everyone from merchants and importers to truck drivers and UPC code sticker providers. Food shortage driven by extreme weather is also likely to drive a migration from impacted regions  to countries like the U.S. and Europe; creating a humanitarian crisis. As stated by FTI:

That’s why planning for this plant future is vital to ensure that their plant factories arrive with opportunity rather than civil and economic unrest.

This is one small scenario. When you consider the sheer number of emerging scenarios and the certainty of a growing list of unintended consequences – the need for urgency becomes more acute. Telling stories of possible futures is an effective means of communicating both the possibilities and the consequences – but steering us towards the possibilities requires human action. Historically, we’ve required Catalysts to drive human action – human nature being what it is, we are likely to once again need catalysts – versus the growing voices that are imploring action.

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