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The future of food: a fresh look

Primum non nocere

Those three Latin words are the medical profession’s motto: “First, do no harm.” Yet, after more than a century of mass production, including the introduction of GMOs and other manipulations at the genetic level, innumerable harmful elements have entered our food supply. The old expression “You are what you eat” is backed up by a growing body of research showing extensive long-term damage from nutritional deficiencies and/or toxicity present in our diet.

What good is doubling output if the food being produced has little or no nutritional value, or worse yet—contains harmful toxins? Clearly, we need to do a better job of managing our knowledge about the connections between how our food is produced and what happens when it enters our bodies. What medical science has already discovered in this regard fills volumes. But as you might expect, that rapidly expanding body of research is riddled with inconsistency and contradiction.

For example, we’ve been told repeatedly that LDL is “bad” cholesterol and should be kept low in order to reduce the risk of a heart attack or stroke. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find that LDL is actually low-density lipoprotein, which isn’t even cholesterol, but rather a carrier of cholesterol, which is vital to, guess what? Brain health! Long-term studies are beginning to show that the preponderance of low-fat, low-cholesterol foods is contributing in part to the recent increase in neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. That’s just one of many examples you’ll find when you dig down into the details and start connecting the dots.

We all want to see an end to world hunger. Yet, much of what the world’s poor are given to eat and drink is high in refined sugars, gluten, and trans fats. This contributes to chronic conditions such as obesity, cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, glaucoma, and many others, which in turn contribute to keeping them in poverty due to high medical bills and limits their ability to succeed in a highly competitive global workforce.

The opportunity

This presents an extraordinary opportunity for KM to lay the groundwork for the construction and curation of knowledge libraries, and more specifically, ontologies, to help keep track of all these moving parts. This is especially true in the growing field of integrative medicine, which seeks to view cardiology, urology, neurology, dentistry, and a host of other sub-disciplines, including nutrition, as an integrated whole, as opposed to isolated (and often protected) areas of specialization. The last Future of the future column looked at how the one-size-fits-all approach to education has been rendered obsolete. The same also applies to food, agriculture, and medicine.

Workforce alert: There’s a growing demand for the ability to facilitate the integration of knowledge generated by widely diverse communities from multiple disciplines. For example, today’s telecommunications infrastructure combines hardware, software, materials science, mathematics, quantum physics, biology (e.g., biometrics), and many other disciplines. Building and sustaining a proper food supply web for the 21st century requires an even greater integration effort.

And yes, this carries a significant economic impact. But the costs must be weighed against the staggering expenses we’re already incurring when treating diseases and chronic conditions brought about by a degraded food supply loaded with toxins, antibiotics, and hormones. With more than half of the U.S. population overweight, and with four out of the five top causes of death in the U.S. and the world being food- and nutrition-related, this is a problem we can’t ignore.

New discoveries keep coming at a rapid pace. KM needs to take on the challenge of helping to create and maintain a truly integrated, sustainable, nutrient-rich food system of the future.

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