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The future of food: a fresh look

This article appears in the issue May/June 2019 [Volume 28, Issue 3]
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Over the past 13 years, this column has kept a watchful eye on emerging trends and ways in which we KMers can actively participate. One vitally important area upon which we all depend is food and agriculture, a sector considered 7 years ago—making it time for an update.

If you research the current and future state of the food supply web, you’ll find conflicting conclusions. Some say we’re in a crisis of massive proportions.  Others tend to think the opposite, yet optimism should be tempered with the following caveat: An abundant supply of food awaits, but only if certain elements fall into place.

The previous article on agriculture focused mainly on production, looking at how to apply KM to increase efficiency by squeezing out incremental increases in yield, reducing waste, etc. After all, we’re talking about roughly 2 billion tons of food a year, so even a tiny fraction of a percent improvement, when amplified across an entire region or continent, can result in significant benefit.

Even today, when people are asked about what is needed to solve the world’s impending food crisis, they usually share ideas about making the mass production of food even more massive. This makes sense in some ways, given that the world’s population is rapidly approaching eight billion and is expected to grow to just under 10 billion by the year 2050. That’s a lot of mouths to feed.

But it is known that legacy solutions are not always the best. The economies of scale we have enjoyed in the past were based on plentiful and readily available supplies of raw materials and natural resources. That’s not the case today, as we’re experiencing relentless increases in demand along with equally relentless depletion of resources such as soil, minerals, water, and energy.

The need to “re-frame” a problem is often expressed, especially when it involves changing what has been an integral part of our civilization for more than 5,000 years. Let’s try flipping this problem and see what happens when we take a look at food and agriculture from the viewpoint of the end user. We’re not talking about the individual consumer. To solve this problem systemically, we need to go deeper—all the way down to the cellular, and even molecular, level.

Mr. Farmer, meet Ms. Mitochondria

We say “Ms.” because all 37 genes in human mitochondrial DNA come from the mother. We start our journey here because no matter what happens along the way from farm to table, it’s all for naught if the mitochondria in your cells can’t metabolize those proteins, nutrients, and minerals into energy.

Recently in medical science, it seems as if all roads have been leading to the mitochondria. For example, with regard to cancer and all its known carcinogens (cigarette smoke, pesticides, radio emissions, etc.) the resulting abnormal cell growth has now been determined to start not with damage to chromosomal DNA, as was previously suspected, but rather with degraded mitochondria (see https://yufoundation.org).

Put the wrong things into the body, and mitochondria start to degrade, which spreads back out to the cells, tissues, and organs. Put the right things into the body, and mitochondria produce healthy cells, which leads to better health overall. This includes improved brain function, which is absolutely necessary for succeeding in a knowledge-driven economy. After all, it’s not just a matter of providing food for survival. It’s providing the right food for both physical and mental health and well-being. In other words, when looking at how we’re going to feed nearly 10 billion minds over the course of the next 3 decades, we need to focus on quality as well as quantity. And that’s going to take a lot of carefully vetted and correctly applied knowledge.

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