Abundant Digital Food
A key ingredient to end capitalism and solve climate change
In response to my recent article on capitalism: The End of Capitalism Cannot Be Avoided and Digitalization Is to Blame, the feedback and comments included several comments on the question of food. They necessitate a response, so here it is.
To the extent that digitalization is the primary driver behind the emergence of a postcapitalist economy, one question nearly always bubbles to the top in casual conversation: what about food? It’s a good question. Of all things we humans need, food is among the most critical. It is also among the most complicated to secure. All of our food begins as a living organism, then it must be harvested, sent to distribution points, possibly processed, distributed again, purchased in a store, and finally get to our tables in various states of freshness to be edible and healthy.
This complicated economic problem of feeding people has given rise to an enormous food infrastructure that includes farms, processing plants, packaging and shipping, grocery stores and food co-ops, the kitchen in a home, and the waste treatment process in sewage systems, compost, and waste hauling. It includes mining and distribution of minerals, processing and delivering chemicals for fertilizer and pesticides, and the production of huge, powerful farm machinery. Of all commodities, food’s origin in living organisms seems to suggest it could never be produced with digital abundance. I thought the same thing, but new advances on the frontiers of science are changing that and may lead directly to digital food abundance.
Digital food is different from other digital products for one simple reason — it is alive. Food products must be grown, fed, and nourished, and the wastes removed and dealt with. Truth be told, the earth itself is exquisitely good at this. Indeed, its natural abundance is so substantial that it can support the billions of people on this planet, plus all the other living organisms. Unfortunately, all these systems are under severe ecological stress due primarily to the extractive aspect of capitalism, but so far, we are still producing enough food to feed the world.
As two areas of leading research come to fruition, they are likely to play significant parts in an abundant, digital food world. First, the rise of animal-less or “cultured” meat is setting the table for a fully digitalized method of producing meat. Companies today are growing meat in laboratories based on harvested stem cells. In fact, in February 2016, Memphis Meats announced the creation of its first animal-less meatball.[i] Other companies like Modern Meadow in New York and Mosa Meat in Europe are doing the same thing. In fact, according to FactCoExist.com, “In 2013, with the backing of Google co-founder Sergey Brin, Mosa Meat founder Mark Post held a taste test of the world’s first cultured hamburger.”[ii]
The technology is based on stem cells. Producers harvest the stem cells from the animal, then culture them in a lab, and a machine grows the muscle tissue needed without ever having an animal. This way of creating food will create massive disruption in the agriculture industry, which is perhaps the single most capital-intensive industry in the world. Even if there is no direct digital component, the stem-cell-driven disruption to capitalism will be enormous.
The second key technology is the processing system for growing these living tissues. No doubt the first systems will simply be an enclosed system in which the culturing process adds nutrients for the cells to grow and captures waste to dispose of it. The early machines will require expensive purchased inputs, but it won’t stay that way.
Why can I say that with confidence? Look what is happening in hydroponics and new food production systems. Hydroponics is essentially the same concept as meatless beef — plants are grown for human consumption in the most artificial way — with no soil, with roots growing in nutrient-rich water, indoors, under artificial light. Hydroponics has been around for several decades. What’s interesting isn’t the fact of hydroponic growing enterprises, but rather how they are being combined with other growing systems. For example, James Prokopanko the former CEO of Mosaic, the world’s largest producer of potash and phosphate as fertilizers for agriculture, shared in a presentation at the University of Minnesota in April 2016 that hydroponic producers are joining their systems to other farming methods, such as fish farming. In this interesting system, the waste from the fish is filtered through the hydroponic system, thereby providing the necessary nutrients for the hydroponic plants. Likewise, the old and dead plants are provided as food to the fish. Other than the energy input of heat and light, this little system is moving rapidly toward a no input, no output production system.[iii] It is not too difficult to imagine that you could replace the fish farm with a cultured meat system.
Today, the production of cultured meat begins with harvested stem cells, but it doesn’t seem too hard to believe that the industry will soon begin with a genomic sequence instead — purely digital information from which to start the production of a steak or chicken breast. Start with the digital sequence, add the proper energy, provide the necessary conditions, and things start to grow. In other words, the digital component of the product is increasingly dominant, and that will be the part that has no marginal cost of production.
The ongoing march of technology is likely to drive digitalization into the food system in unforeseen ways. For example, we could anticipate miniaturization of these systems to culture meats — so much so, that it may one day be possible to grow your own meats in your own home by selecting digital recipes — essentially the genome for a T-bone steak. The inputs may arise from the waste from an affiliated system, or perhaps they only exist as energy generated from an abundance of sunshine. It is entirely possible that food could be produced for free and in totally abundant supply throughout the world.
Of course, this is all speculative, but research and development are already addressing this area. Food is probably the most difficult category to digitalize toward abundance, but like all other forms of digitalization, capitalism will drive us there because it is compelled to by its cost-reduction logic. The real marker for entering true postcapitalism will occur when food is digital, totally abundant and the price is free. Such food will be very different from how we think of “organic” food today, but abundant food, produced at the level of the home, promises compelling benefits — we could end world hunger, dismantle capitalism, and provide people with a new kind of independence. The trade-offs will not be perfect, but they will be compelling, and we are better off to begin thinking about this now.
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[i] Memphis Meats. “Memphis Meats, Cultured Meat Company Profiled In Today’s Wall Street Journal, Makes Global Debut.” February 1, 2016. Web. http://www.memphismeats.com/press-releases/.
[ii] Leber, Jessica. 2016. “These Meatballs Are Made Of Beef — But It Didn’t Come From A Cow.” Co.Esist. February 5. https://www.fastcoexist.com/3056325/these-meatballs-are-made-of-beef-but-it-didnt-come-from-a-cow.
[iii] Prokopanko, James. The Mosaic Company. First Tuesday Luncheon, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN. April 5, 2016.