Friday, May 12, 2017

Reflections on reThinking Food: Agriculture Data as a Platform

The reThink food 2016 event has come and gone, and once again, it did not disappoint. Any time spent at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena is a treat, but the discussions, and the evolution of the conference itself since I first attended two years ago, have taken on bigger and more pressing challenges and opportunities, with data being the central theme.
A conference of this nature runs the risk of focusing the discussions towards very esoteric topics, with no real potential applicability beyond the test laboratories, computational models or experimental food kitchens of the attendees. This was not the case at reThink. Each session and discussion throughout the three-day tech (& food) feast truly stressed the importance of open data, participatory science and markets, trials and transparency, and the goal of providing solutions that will impact global populations dealing with issues related to both food and nutrition security. I was honored to share the stage with Caleb Harper and Kevin Esvelt of the MIT Media Lab to close the conference, and hopefully we left the attendees with something to think about in advance of next year. If anyone in the food/sustainability space needs to remind themselves every once in a while why they are doing what they are doing, just google one of Caleb’s videos and it becomes clear. And Kevin’s discussion of his work on the use of gene drive technology which touched not only on the science, but also on the philosophical dimensions related to the future of agriculture, had me downloading several papers for the flight home.
It is crucial to emphasize one component associated with future global agriculture systems which I believe will only grow in importance in the coming decades: the need for open and distributed data. The 2015 Wharton IGEL report ‘Feeding the World’ notes that 1 in 9 of the world’s population do not receive adequate food and nutrition, and it is as much a logistics and distribution issue as it is a production issue. Water stress will only exacerbate the situation in the coming decades. As data pertaining to all aspects of the food system is coming online, increasing in volume and frequency by the day, it is necessary to make the case that this information is only useful if it is decentralized, open, and in an accessible and useable format. Also, the question really is not around the volume of data, but instead what to do with the data. Agricultural information now spans in scale from the genome to the biome, and viewing the food production, distribution and market system as a platform requires a shift in how we view the most basic necessity for life. The Internet of Things (IoT), by definition, is built upon the collection, dissemination and utilization of information pertaining to nearly all areas of society. It can be argued that agriculture can and should be one of the foundational components of this IoT network.
Work in the OpenAG group at the MIT Media Lab is at the forefront of this shifting dialogue around food data. What if we could code for specific environmental variables, whereby ‘climate recipes’ could be tested, optimized, and shared, with the result being a global library of open phenotypes as part of a truly distributed agricultural system? What if, instead if relying so heavily on monoculture (which will always have a place), a supplementary food production system capable of optimizing both controlled-environment and traditional agricultural practices were able to fill the gaps where food requirements are not secure? What if we could select for specific parameters that could grow more food while conserving biological and physical resources in the process? These are not issues that sit solely in the domain of science and technology - they can also be the foundation for significant commercial opportunities.  Taken further, ideas related to a digital agriculture platform can quite possibly evolve to serve as a risk management tool against factors such as weather and climate variability, water stress and supply chain disruption. Looking ahead, I can imagine future reThink and other related conferences addressing such topics as:
  • Making agriculture a central foundational element of IoT
  • Bringing cognitive technologies to phenotype selection via climate recipes
  • Seed through consumption - opportunities for the Circular Economy
  • Transparency: Open Access and Global Participation
  • Redefining biodiversity
I often hear those describing AI and Cognitive as being in the top of the first inning. I feel that with respect to agriculture data as a commercial and technological platform, we are still warming up as the game has not even started. Looking forward to reThink 2017.
+Hats off to my Media Lab colleagues Hildreth England and Caleb Harper, as well as Nicki Briggs, for organizing an energizing and entertaining event.

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