The hidden dangers of experimental food technologies

AgTech is beginning to help farmers produce climate-resilient foods as the industry becomes a part of the solution rather than the problem. But what are the inner dangers it poses?

Over the last couple of months, India announced an export ban on wheat, and the UN warned that Russia's invasion of Ukraine could soon cause a global food crisis that could last for many years. Elsewhere farmers are warning that the world is sleepwalking toward food shortages if we don't start tackling the impacts of the increasing costs of fuel, fertilizer, and climate change.

Despite the big problems in the world, big tech continues its obsession with building a future around Web3, the metaverse, and industry disruption. Ironically, all of this comes at a time of hyperinflation and the beginning of a global recession. As a result, many believe that the tech industry has lost its way and needs to refocus on solving real problems rather than the next big thing.

There is an increasing argument that we need to unite innovative problem solvers and harness our collective intelligence combined with technology to proactively tackle the significant challenges ahead. For example, agriculture technology or AgTech uses technology to improve every aspect of farming techniques and create diverse solutions to rethink food production.

Protecting the supply chain against disruption

Modern agriculture is being blamed for one-third of greenhouse gas emissions, but far away from farming fields, advances in food tech make it possible to make meat out of thin air and fish from plants. However, there is an argument that we are at risk of making the same mistake from our digital past, and we need to proceed with caution rather than moving fast and breaking things again.

The challenge is to prevent the food supply chain from being disrupted and protect it from cyberattackers. As every aspect of our critical infrastructure comes online, it also invites many vulnerabilities that have the potential to be catastrophic without the proper measures in place. For example, the Colonial Pipeline was famously forced the shut down its entire pipeline after being hit by a cyberattack and 24 hours later paid $5 million in ransom. But what happens should these same attacks hit the global supply chain?

The combination of a cyberattack and an unexpected snowstorm in Texas halted the production of Coors beer, with a loss of up to $140 million worth of product. This series of events perfectly highlights the industry's vulnerabilities to the impacts of climate change and cyberattacks. Elsewhere, Meatpacker JBS paid an $11 million ransom in the food industry after a cyberattack disrupted its North American and Australian operations. With our critical infrastructure online, it’s rapidly creating new vulnerabilities and even becoming a prime target for state-sponsored attackers.

Rise of the AgBots

Agbots (agricultural robots) are increasingly used in farming to help improve efficiency and reduce reliance on manual labor. As a result, traditional farming practices such as tilling, planting, fertilizing, monitoring, and harvesting fields are delegated to AI. For example, algorithms rather than humans are beginning to control drip-irrigation systems as self-driving tractors and combine harvesters automatically respond to climate conditions, weather, and the precise needs of the crops.

As the AI revolution in agriculture gathers pace, a recently published risk analysis warns of the substantial potential risks for farms, farmers, and food security that nobody is currently thinking about. Of course, there is no avoiding that accidental failures, data breaches, and cyber-attacks have impacted every industry. Still, the stakes are raised further when a tech outage could impact our food supply.

The problem with having intelligent automated systems responsible for managing the farming process that is growing food to feed entire cities could create a vulnerability for hackers to exploit. For example, imagine the damage and disruption a cyber-attack could bring to a farm by poisoning datasets or shutting down sprayers, autonomous drones, and robotic harvesters.

The future of food tech

The inconvenient truth is that the ecosystems that help feed the world are broken and unsustainable. Obesity continues to rise, and commercial kitchens and supermarkets waste food every day while many are left hungry or suffering from malnutrition.

Stabilizing food security has become a global priority, and transforming the global food and agriculture system with sustainable innovation powered by emerging technology is already gathering pace. IoT sensors can capture data from every element of farming, and AI will help farmers unlock invaluable data analytics and predictive insights to help farmers make data-driven decisions.

It is also hoped that blockchain will step up to increase transparency across the entire food supply chain and promote a sustainable approach to farming that benefits everyone. But most importantly of all, every aspect of the global food supply chain must be protected from bad actors and ensure that we do not repeat the mistakes from our past when rushing into gene-editing and creating meat out of thin air.

It's a journey that will impact every person on this tiny planet we call home. But ultimately, it will take a combination of humans and technology to deliver a healthier and truly sustainable food economy that serves everyone. But as we explore how we can rethink the industry, we must consider the potential risks early on in the technology design rather than when it's too late.

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