Food security will have its moment on the world stage

Written by Julia Rijssenbeek
January 14, 2021

In the year when the World Food Program unexpectedly received the Nobel prize, the fight against hunger faced major setbacks. The COVID-19 crisis laid bare the vulnerabilities in the global food supply chains, causing food insecurity to triple in almost every part of the world, along with the number of people suffering from hunger. The pandemic further made clear that the way we grow food increases the risk of zoonotic outbreaks. Agriculture makes ecosystems more vulnerable and destroys habitats, thus creating the perfect conditions for viruses to emerge.

A third direct link between COVID-19 and our global food system is the undeniable fact that being overweight – a problem for more than a third of all adults globally – makes people more prone to suffering from the virus. To confront global food security issues, international cooperation is needed to set global goals and standards that integrally address the health of people and of our planet. In 2021, the global Food Systems Summit will take place, an event that might induce the establishment of an intergovernmental panel like the one on climate change (IPCC) or a treaty like the Paris Agreement.

The coronavirus is creating momentum for fiscal diet policy

Written by Pim Korsten
December 4, 2020

Of course, it wasn’t the coronavirus that put obesity on the agenda, but the pandemic could influence policy to reduce it. In most Western countries, the current approach is mainly geared towards education, creating awareness with campaigns or labels meant to stimulate self-regulation in the supermarket. According to the World Bank, this has been moderately effective, but it’s doubtful whether that is enough in a world where both wealth and inequality are on the rise. The WHO therefore pleads for a more fiscal policy, since ultimately, our wallets remain a crucial factor: unhealthy food is (too) cheap, healthy food is (too) expensive.

That’s why more than forty countries have introduced a sugar tax and the coronavirus appears to have resulted in an increased sense of urgency and support for this measure. However, in a world afflicted by COVID-19, where inequality is rapidly growing, the most effective fiscal policy is (wage) subsidy, aimed at making healthy food more affordable, especially for poorer families. Because of the costs, subsidies are not as widely supported as tax measures like the sugar tax, which at least create revenue. Seattle has found a happy medium between the two: “circular” fiscal policy, meaning the revenue generated by the sugar tax is used to cover the costs of the health subsidies.

Cell factories

Will our use of microbes enable a bio-based future? It is increasingly possible to use and tweak living organisms to produce food, fuel, drugs and materials. Here, we explore cell factories, or engineered microorganisms, to illustrate the ontological and ethical challenges that we will face in light of the rising numbers of hybrids created by advances in biotechnology.

Our observations

  • Cell factories are single-celled microorganisms, or microbes, whose metabolism is synthetically optimized to produce more energy or different substances. In other words, microbes are viewed as production facilities that are engineered with biotechnology to produce for human usage. Examples include chemicals, food ingredients, biofuels, drugs, detergents, paper and textiles. Whereas modern industries manufacture products on the basis of fossil fuels, these cell factories are the building blocks of a bio-based industry.
  • The advances in biotechnology to engineer microbes and create cell factories are in full speed. The question is whether and when these cell factories will be able to produce at industrial scale and economics, so as to accelerate a bio-based industry.
  • One of the major promises of cell factories is the production of food ingredients, such as lab-grown protein (meat, fish, milk, eggs), lauric acid (to replace palm oil), carbohydrates (to replace flour). In the report ‘Rethinking Food and Agriculture 2020-2030’, the authors argue that microorganisms programmed to produce food, or cellular agriculture, are about to disrupt agriculture as we know it for the next ten years. The reason they believe this is that they have calculated that proteins produced in cellular agriculture will be five times cheaper than existing animal proteins by 2030 and ten times cheaper by 2035. Furthermore, these proteins, they believe, will also be more nutritious and healthier.
  • The driver behind this is the rapid advance of precision fermentation. Fermentation farms, the vessels that facilitate the production of these programmed microorganisms, are production systems that are potentially more energy- and resource-efficient, more stable and sustainable than industrial animal agriculture. Industrial animal agriculture as a matter of fact has reached its limits in terms of scale and efficiency, while the worldwide demand for protein is only rising. This technological development will make the plant- versus meat-based diets distinction irrelevant, as food will neither come from animals nor plants, but from unicellular life.
  • Among the parties working in this field, Solar Foods, whose first commercial factory will be running this year, is an example. But Big Food and chemical giants are also heavily investing (e.g. Dupont) in this area.
  • In the past, advances in biotechnology have often raised fears over unforeseeable risks: are we creating little Frankenstein monsters when engineering cells, living organisms that we won’t be able to fully control? We cannot entirely oversee the consequences of industrial biotechnology using cells as factories.

Connecting the dots

Animals and plants play a major role in our society by providing us with food and materials. For a long time, we have held animals to produce meat, milk, eggs, leather and wool, have grown plants to produce grains, vegetables, fruits and fibers. We have become incredibly adept at optimizing these animals and plants, by breeding them in such a way that they comply with our wishes. Indeed, all animals and plants we see at farms today are the result of a long chain of human interventions. The beginning of domesticating these life forms is considered a revolution in the history of humankind. Thousands of years ago, when we started to keep and breed animals and plants to optimize them according to our demands, the way we co-existed with them also drastically influenced our own lives. It meant that humans were able to quit their nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyles and settle in places. The agricultural revolution allowed humans to collect more food per unit area and thus the overall population multiplied exponentially.
With the advances in synthetic biology, we might witness what we could call the second domestication of life forms in history. This might again radically alter how we interact with other life forms. This time, however, the focus will not be on visible life forms, such as cows, pigs, sheep, chickens or plants, but on invisible ones: microorganisms, or microbes. Through strides made in the field of synthetic biology and the insights gained in molecular biology, microbes can now be engineered and optimized to fulfill certain tasks, such as producing certain substances. By reading and writing the genome in microbes, or cells, it is now possible to create so-called cell factories. They are a promising way to replace conventional ways of production, as they can be tweaked to produce the specific type of chemicals, food ingredients, biofuels, drugs, detergents, paper, textiles and other materials we need, considering this can be done on a large scale and with a minimum amount of input. Because there are good reasons to believe this will be possible within the next ten years, the question is: will this domestication of microbes change our relation to other life forms?

First of all, it will raise the question how we should view and treat these new life forms. In industrial livestock farming, animals have not exactly been treated as life forms of intrinsic value, raising animal welfare problems. On huge farms, animals often live and die on a production line, in a sense bred to be production units. This industrial handling of living organisms has been questioned for long. It has alienated us from our living world. The current corona pandemic has been labeled a “One Health issue”, which means it is seen as an integral health problem for humans, animals and ecosystems. We are increasingly aware that fixed categories of “human” and “animal” do not always make sense and that we are not an individual species, but that our wellbeing is determined by our relationships with and dependencies on other species. We look more holistically at our living world rather than as existing of separate categories. But if we want to treat other life forms rightfully, where do we draw the line? The claim can be made that microbes have less intrinsic value than macrobes, but since all macrobes are built on microbes (or individual cells), there is no clear line to be drawn. Indeed, the fact that we are more focused on life forms that are visible to us has led us to the macrobist bias in the philosophy of biology. But if we take microbes to have the same value as macrobes, should we grant them microbial rights? Already in 1977, this scenario was explored in a sci-fi story by Joe Patrouch, showing the consequences of full microbial rights, such as a ban on household bleaches as they kill microbes. But today, legislation for microbial life is not sci-fi anymore. The Swiss Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology has declared that all living beings, including microbes, have minimal value in themselves, implying that all life forms, however small, will have “rights” to some extent.
The fact that we are intentionally interfering in microbial life forms with synthetic biology more often leads us to the second challenge. How do we see these altered life forms or hybrids? These are times when one can find ever-increasing numbers of hybrids that blur the lines between natural and artificial. Cell factories show the characteristics of life forms, such as metabolism, but are artificially engineered. Indeed, cell factories can be seen within a broader category of late modern technology that is increasingly showing signs of autonomy and agency, like AI. These technologies seem to have a “life of their own”. Yet, there is no clear moral framework for these hybrids to come.
The rapid advances in cell factories lay bare the challenges that we’ll have to respond to in the coming years, in order to decide what a bio-based future will look like.

Implications

  • The rapid advance of the commercialization of cell factories will stir up debate on the moral status of smaller life forms and hybrids. This will again create fears about biotechnologies similar to those surrounding genetically modified crops.

  • Cell factories might have important second-order effects on society. First, cell factories would decentralize production facilities, as they can be produced in vessels anywhere. For instance, fermentation farms can be located in or close to towns and cities. And second, cell factories might help to reduce the focus on chemicals we have in our daily practices – fertilizers, synthetic textiles, carbon-intensive materials and substances – and incite the turn to more microbe-based products.

Foodnationalism

What happened?

The corona crisis has significantly increased the risk of a global food crisis. In the past months, trade restrictions have disrupted the logistics of the global food value chain of 8 trillion dollars and as seasonal workers were banned, parts of harvests have gone to waste. This means that a lot of food never reached the consumer. In wealthy countries, this has resulted in empty shelves and shortages at food banks, but for a large part of the global population, and especially in developing countries, it has caused extreme hikes in food prices and led to acute shortages. The food organization of the UN has warned that, as a consequence of the corona crisis, the number of people with acute hunger in the world will double this year, to over a quarter of a billion people.

What does this mean?

The global food system is an infinitely complex, international network of producers, distributors and consumers. The corona crisis has made painfully clear how fragile large parts of this network are. This has amplified the call to safeguard food at a national level. But similar to vaccine nationalism, food nationalism is not the right solution to the looming food crisis now. In fact, for many countries, it’s a pipe dream. The reality is that a lot of countries depend on each other for their supply of food. Singapore, for example, is 90% dependent on food imports and Iraq, formerly the granary of the Middle East, imports more than 80% of its food. The fact that grain-producing countries such as Russia, the Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Cambodia and Thailand are now pursuing food nationalist policies by restricting grain exports, is leading to alarming developments in countries that depend on their grain supply. But food nationalism isn’t just problematic for food-importing countries now. It also affects countries with revenue models based on exporting food, such as the Netherlands.

What’s next?

In the short term, it’s crucial that the international food market continues to function to prevent shortages. In the long term, however, it would certainly be worthwhile for individual countries to look into solutions in the form of shorter and less vulnerable chains and, wherever possible, more local production. Furthermore, the corona crisis could be a warning for countries not to depend on just-in-time delivery as much and to more seriously consider strategic supplies. The EU supplies are only enough for 43 days (12% of annual consumption, contrary to Russia (18%), India (23%), the U.S. (25%), and China (75%)). Europe could draw up a regional plan (instead of every European country fending for itself). Furthermore, the corona crisis could prompt countries such as the Netherlands, that depend on the supply of large volumes of resources and meat for their food exports, to think about a more sustainable revenue model, less geared towards volume and aimed more at knowledge and sustainable agricultural products.

A Dutch food success story

In the past, floods and famines pushed the Dutch to create large-scale infrastructural projects or to transform entire sectors. Today, again, climate change can serve as a shared formative experience that can lead the country to take initiatives to ramp up food- water and climate mitigation expertise, not only serving only its own people, but also creating a new Dutch success story that can be exported to the world.

Our observations

  • The Netherlands is well-known for its innovation and expertise in multiple domains of agriculture. The Westland region (‘the glass city’) is famous for its horticulture in glasshouses, Enkhuizen is dubbed Seed Valley, Wageningen is called ‘Food Valley’ as the nation’s agrifood ecosystem, Texel is known for its saline farming and seaweed industry, and the current ministry of agriculture envisions the Netherlands to become a leader in circular agriculture.
  • Furthermore, the Netherlands is poised to become a frontrunner in food for an urban world with its Randstad agriculture. Rotterdam’s food cluster is a model that receives attention in an increasing urbanized world and the Netherlands has a leading position in the field of urban farming systems, being specialized in indoor farming equipment and knowledge.
  • The Dutch food sector’s annual turnover is €140 billion, it accounts for 10% of all jobs and contributes nearly 10% in added value to the economy. But more than a contribution to the economy, the food innovation and expertise of the Netherlands is also a way for the country to position itself as a strong food nation in a world of increasing food insecurity and climate change.
  • We are beginning to understand the complex nexus between food security, climate change, conflict and migration. Climate change and conflict have been major contributors to food insecurity in the world. In addition, there isdirect link between food insecurity and migration. Since more than half of the global population live in food insecure countries, a small increase of food insecurity can already lead to mass displacement of peopleFood is thus increasingly becoming a matter of national security to countries around the globe.
  • The Dutch already play an important role as a food nation with its many public and private partnerships with many different countries in the field of food- and water management and climate mitigation. The so-called Dutch Diamond approach, in which government, business and knowledge institutions work together is known for this.
  • There is a dominant narrative of the Netherlands as ‘the tiny country that feeds the world’, however we wrote before that the Dutch agrofood sector is not relying on a sustainable model. Trade volume is no longer a future-proof measure of Dutch export performances and the trade agenda could be further broadened by including services, knowledge and investments.

Connecting the dots

In 1421, a massive flood at European shores of North Sea caused the dikes to break in a number of places, killing thousands of people in the Netherlands. What became known as the poldermodel was an answer to the disaster, a system based on pragmatic, unideological cooperation among all sorts of public and private parties to protect themselves against the water. In 1953, massive floods again struck the country. As a response, the government invested in an immense infrastructural project: the Delta Works. Similarly, during the Second World War, the Dutch suffered from a hunger winter that resulted in a large-scale transformation of the way the country produced food. The shared experience of the 1944-45 famine is seen as an important trigger for the revolution of agriculture that followed after the war, with the minister of agriculture, Sicco Mansholt as the key figure in initiating the revolution. The agro-food sector became capable not just in feeding the Dutch, but also millions more around the world. What was a Dutch weakness, the low-lying country next to the sea in the first case or the lack of access to food in the second, became a Dutch strength because of large-scale investments and innovation. But today the Dutch agricultural success story is increasingly being perceived as a problem.

As a leader of the first Green Revolution, which ramped up food production globally, the environment has paid a heavy toll: soil quality, air quality and biodiversity deteriorated in the Netherlands. As the effects of climate change and environmental damage caused by farming take their toll, evidence shows that the productivity gains of the first Green Revolution will begin to plateau amid accumulated environmental problems. Because of this, a second Green Revolution is needed to intensify agricultural production in a sustainable manner. Again, a common crisis or sense of urgency might ignite change in the way the Dutch grow food, such as the current climate emergency that has been called out by many Dutch cities or the nationwide nitrogen crisis.

We wrote before that there are multiple signs that point to this next shift in agriculture. Indeed, today, a second green revolution is brewing to make the Dutch agro-food sector future-proof. Over the last years, the emissions per pig or cow, the use of artificial fertilizers and the environmental impact of farms have declined. However, more is needed to turn the tide of an unsustainable agro-food model and if the Netherlands succeeds, this will again not only result in a viable agro-food sector, but also as a way to position the nation as a frontrunner of the next Green Revolution. Multiple elements combined could make the Netherlands well-positioned to do so.

First, the Netherlands is a small densely populated delta and has shown in the historical cases of the Deltawerken and the agricultural revolution that it can effectively cooperate with all the necessary parties and make the large-scale infrastructural investments to transform the way the country deals with food or water. Since the Netherlands is a small country, this is indeed an advantage to operationalize such large ideas and provide inspiration to the rest of the world. The Randstad can be regarded as one big, stable city that can be fed by the rest of the country.

Second, the Netherlands has the expertise and innovation capacity and technology needed for the next Green Revolution. For instance, in this new agricultural model, circular agriculture and precision farming will be key.

Finally, along with innovation, the Netherlands has to have an exnovation strategy. The question is whether the country will have to go through the formative experience of a next (climate or food) crisis, before it starts rebuilding systems. After the Second World War, the agro-food sector almost started from scratch, but the choices made then, still have a major influence on the current food system and the country has a large incumbent sector that makes transitions harder. Transition studies show that societal challenges, such as the economic crisis or climate change, offer an opening to reconsider systems. Although innovation is necessary, exnovation, or the destabilization of the existing system is a precondition for transitions. A case in point is the German energy transition. Nuclear disasters in Chernobyl and Fukushima ignited the sentiment among German citizens to switch to other energy sources. Similarly, as plant-based protein production is hampered by the strong livestock industry, and growing consumer awareness can push the sector to make the transition. In leading the transition towards plant-based protein, the Netherlands could have a large impact on the sustainability of food production worldwide and write a new Dutch success story.

Implications

  • As we wrote before, food security has regained attention as a geopolitical risk again. Food expertise of Wageningen, seeds from Enkhuizen, etc. are geopolitical assets in a world of increasing food insecurity. Currently, food policy is conducted separately by the ministries of Agriculture and Foreign Affairs. But by thinking in terms of geopolitics, these ministries could formulate a Dutch food strategy, enabling the country to remain a food nation as well as to contribute to tackling global food challenges.
  • The Dutch livestock industry is already showing to embrace the transition to plant-based protein, multiple incumbents are rebuilding their facilities.

 

Geopolitics of food

Food insecurity has regained attention as a geopolitical risk. In last year’s outlook, we wrote thatglobal food production would continuously be negatively impacted by climate change. In 2019, food insecurity was mainly driven by multiple political events around the world, such as conflicts and the trade war. As food is again becoming an increasingly strategic asset for more and more countries, we expect that food will reemerge as an urgent geopolitical matter in 2020: What will this mean for the food insecure African continent, for China, whose rise is constrained by its dependency on food and for a food nation such as the Netherlands?

Our observations

  • In 2019, conflicts drove millions into hunger. For example, ongoing war and conflict are the primary drivers of the food insecure situation in north-eastern Nigeria, South Sudan and Yemen.
  • Besides conflicts, climate change is an essential driver of food insecurity. According to the first-ever model examining how nature and humans can survive together, five billion people, particularly in Africa and South Asia, will likely face shortages of food and clean water in the coming decades as nature declines. Although the authors of the study believe that people in wealthier countries can buffer the impact by means of imports of food and infrastructure, the magnitude of the impact is such that it cannot be mitigated by technological advances.
  • Food insecurity is a matter of national security. In Zimbabwe, for instance, food insecurity has increased over the past months, to such an extent that it now poses a potential threat to national security and could cause civil unrest and general insecurity in the country. This illustrates how food insecurity inturn is also an important driver of unrest and conflict.
  • Today, among the main geopolitical events giving rise to food insecurity around the world is the ongoing trade war between China and the U.S. Besides trade flows being disrupted, there is less growth in China and the U.S. is slowing down global demand and lowering prices of food exports in poor economies. The trade tensions between the U.S. and China are particularly affecting agriculture because that is the main export from the U.S. to China.  
  • Resource nationalism is on the rise. As natural resources such as water and land, including the supply of food and fresh water, are increasingly considered critical resources, food is becoming a strategic asset.
  • Japanese think tank Nomura recently warned about the heightened risk of rising food prices. As the effects of climate change will further harm food production around the world, it is expected that after years of a downward trend in food prices, they might surge again. Next to climate change, sharp depreciation of the U.S. dollar and the oil price surge are additional possible triggers for a food price surge. As globally, trade protectionism continues and debt levels in emerging economies remain high, this could further amplify the effects that drive food prices up. Countries most vulnerable to food price surges are often emerging economies. They account for more than half of the global population. Numerous times in the past, higher food prices have led to protests, instability, and even conflict and migration.

Connecting the dots

In the past decades, food was less of a pressing geopolitical matter. The Green Revolution that took place in agriculture from the sixties on, mostly in Asia, saved millions of people from hunger. It meant great progress for humanity. Long gone are the days when Western consumers spent more than half of their income on food, as in the fifties. However, several recent developments have put food as a geopolitical theme back on the agenda. Numerous conflicts and the negative effects of climate change on food production have pushed large numbers of people into food insecurity. How can we understand food as a geopolitical matter? First, we are beginning tounderstand the complex nexus between food security, climate change, conflict and migration. Since more than half of the global population live in the 50 most food insecure countries (mostly in the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia), only a small increase of food insecurity can lead to large displacement. In addition to the link between conflict and food insecurity, there is a direct link between food insecurity and migration. Second, food is increasingly becoming a strategic resource. National food strategies are becoming more relevant for countries with large populations in a world of climate change, resource scarcity, more protectionism and trade wars disrupting food trade flows. Flow security, having unencumbered access to food, raw materials and other goods, is a matter of national security.

What are the developments that define the current geopolitics of food? First, while Africa’s population is rapidly growing, which will make it more dependent on food imports, 2019 also showed repeated signs of a new scramble for Africa. Second, out of necessity, China is on the rise as a global food power. The superpower will have to import more food in the future as well as try to buy land or crop facilities in other countries. Both the African continent and China are important to watch in 2020, considering that both populous and rising regions produce insufficient food to meet the needs of their own populations, making them dependent on food imports. Other food vulnerable countries are India, Indonesia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Ethiopia.

What are the consequences for food secure countries? The U.S. and many European countries belong to the most food secure countries of 2019. If countries produce plenty of food for their own population and beyond (exports), this solidifies their position as a food nation. Food can be an important foreign policy tool. If food insecurity is a threat multiplier for conflict, improving food security can reduce tensions and contribute to more stable environments. One of the root causes of migration can be addressed by helping countries to improve their food security with agricultural projects or land restoration projects.

For instance, the EU could use its strong agricultural capacity to create strategic dependencies in exchange for raw materials. Likewise, the Netherlands is considered an important food nation but will have to adapt its capacity to the changing geopolitical reality of food.

Implications

  • Humanity is making progress in many areas, but daily and healthy food on the table does not seem to be a given even for citizens of developed countries. This is especially visible in rich countries where healthy food is not always affordable for lowincome families. Activist movements for food justice are growing.
  • Developing countries are trying to gain from the value that is created in the processing part of the food chain. The African Development bank is attempting to break the trend of exporting food commodities and importing food products. It is creating Staple Crops Processing Zones to develop agricultural value chains and agro-allied industries that process and add value to commodities. As there are signs of agricultural development on the continent, one could even speculate that Africa might feed the world in the future, as Africa has around 60% of world’s uncultivated arable land.

Retroscope 2019

The end of the year is a time for contemplation. In this Retroscope, we look back and reflect on the ideas and insights we have published in The Macroscope throughout 2019. We have covered a wide range of events and developments in technology, global politics and society. The Macroscope is marked by our team’s diversity of perspectives, ranging from philosophy, economics, history, sociology, political sciences to engineering. Combining this interdisciplinary approach with scenario thinking, we aim to assess current affairs from a comprehensive and long-term perspective. Our retrospect of 2019 is therefore about how this year’s events tie in with or deviate from larger trends in technological, hegemonic or socio-cultural cycles. Our mission is to unlock society’s potential by decoding the future.

We hope you enjoy our reflection!

FreedomLab Thinktank

Click here for our Retroscope of 2019.

 

Click here for our Retroscope 2019: Hegemonic cycle

Click here for our Retroscope 2019: Technological cycle

Click here for our Retroscope 2019: Socio-cultural cycle

Click here for our Retroscope 2019: Disruption in the making

Retroscope 2019: Disruption in the making

Disruption in the making

In 2019, we have written about how four domains of our daily lives are being disrupted by digital technology: mobility, health(care), food and education. In all these cases, digital technology does not only change the competitive field and reshape value chains, it also changes consumer preferences and creates new social and ethical challenges. As digital technology, regulation, consumer practices and business models co-shape each other, disruption is a process continuously in the making.

1. Mobility

Despite all stories about new generations not caring about cars, very little is changing in our travel behavior. Youngsters have less money and study longer, but as soon as they earn a living and start a family, they display “adult travel behavior”, just like their parents.

For now, we should not expect too much of technological change either. Even though chipmakers are getting ready to build a chauffeur-on-a-chip, it’s been a challenging year for self-driving cars and it will take many years before truly autonomous vehicles hit the road for real. Until that time, they will operate in trials to collect data for training purposes and possibly, within limits, for last-mile solutions. Most of all, they will be learning about the difficult-to-predict behavior of other, human, road users. Even if self-driving cars eventually come to work perfectly, it is still questionable whether we will welcome them wholeheartedly. For now, technology developers encounter quite a bit of resistance and even technology vandalism that reminds us of the Luddite protests in the early 19th century.

On a different note, the push for electrification of road (and waterborne) transport continues, because of climate change and in response to growing awareness about the deadly impact of local air pollution. Next year, we will see a surge in the number of electric vehicles on the market, but demand remains highly dependent on local subsidies for consumers and ethical concerns over natural resources (e.g. cobalt) could dampen enthusiasm about EVs. For this reason, and because battery technology will not progress fast enough, hydrogen as a fuel-of-the-future made quite a comeback last year.

2. Health

We are in the midst of the transition to a more personalized, preventive and participatory healthcare system. Changing disease patterns and aging societies demand a different organization of the system. Naturally, all eyes are on digital technology when it comes to enabling the transition, but, as we’ve frequently noted, digital technology is not a solution in itself. To illustrate, smart home care could relieve pressure and reduce unnecessary and costly hospital visits, but we expect socio-cultural dynamics, such as the coming generation of self-conscious and tech-savvy “elastic” elderly, to also play a big role in the sustainable management of aging societies.

Furthermore, ubiquitous digital self-tracking practices empower citizens to take responsibility for their own health, keep patients better informed on their health and could thus help democratize the doctor-patient relationship. Unfortunately, the rise of self-tracking might also lead to coercive practices and exploitation of the more vulnerable groups of society and government policies could be perceived as patronizing.

On an existential level, we don’t really know what the impact of the datafication of life will be. The emergence of the quantified self might improve measurable health, the amateur athlete is starting to look like a pro and the widespread adoption of mindfulness apps might help us get rid of the self-destructive and easily distracted “ego”. At the same time, the lack of spiritual legacy in mindfulness could increase self-centeredness or lead to alienation from our very own bodies.

For these reasons, socio-cultural reflection on the role of technology in health care is indispensable. Clever algorithms are already able to outperform doctors on specific and limited tasks (e.g. diagnosing tiny lung cancers), but we don’t expect doctors will be replaced altogether. The decision-making process of doctors requires moral reflection, practical wisdom and they have an important “healing role”.

3. Food

In 2019, food became a pressing geopolitical matter. We saw how the trade war between China and the U.S. disrupted food trade flows, how several conflicts around the world caused food insecurity (e.g. in Venezuela, Yemen and Sudan), and how countries increasingly looked to secure their future demand (as shown by China’s investment in agriculture in over 100 countries).

Unsustainable pressure on earth’s resources is further threatening food security. We are urged to look for ways to produce food in a climate-smart way: by adapting to climate change (e.g. saline farming, climate-resistant crops or regenerative farming practices) as well as reducing the ecological footprint of the food sector (e.g. fighting food waste or reducing food packaging). Drawing most attention this year were alternative protein products, as the plant-based protein transition is gaining speed in developed countries. Yet, since middle classes are rising across the developing world, demand for animal protein is bound to increase, as is illustrated by the rising popularity of milk in China.

Global obesity levels continued to rise in the past year and, in response, we are increasingly in search of more healthy lifestyles. What we eat is key to our health, attempts are emerging to biohack our diets and people have sought ways to link diet to our DNA.

As more and more people are moving to cities worldwide, the question is who the next generation of farmers will be, especially on rising continents such as Africa, where the rural youth do not aspire to traditional farming and are rapidly moving to cities. The question is also how growing cities will be able to sustain themselves in the future and what role indoor farming will play in this challenge. Meanwhile, online food delivery in urban centers is disrupting the food chain by challenging the traditional middlemen and sometimes even connecting consumers to farmers directly.

4. Education

Like last year, traditional education systems are struggling to provide students with relevant qualifications for the rapidly changing labor landscape. Consequently, alternative and sometimes radical initiatives to educate future employees are on the rise and companies are increasingly hiring without demanding a conventional degree. Coding, for example, is becoming an important skill for future generations to participate in our ever-digitizing world,but it has not found its way to general education yet. Nor has formal logic, even though it is central to all programming and would help future coders, irrespective of which coding language they eventually come to use. To fill that void, many online apps, programs andgames that offer the possibility to master coding skills are gaining popularity. Meanwhile,EdTech promises to bring about a revolution in traditional as well as alternative education in terms of efficiency, affordability and accessibility. Until now, EdTech has primarily offeredsolutions in traditional subjects such as math, language and geography and not much in the way of the desired 21st century skills.

Click here to see the full Retroscope of 2019

Gut feeling and the future of nutrigenomics

What happened?

The scientific field of nutrition has experienced many setbacks and disappointments over the last decades. The ‘schijf van vijf’ (the Dutch dietary guideline on the recommended portions the five basic food groups) has nonetheless remained a largely undisputed guide to a healthy diet. But finding out which specific types of food sources and nutrients lead to what health benefit, and what the underlying biological mechanisms are, remains difficult, according to Dutch scientists. In a sense, although many health claims are being made about nutrition, rigorous scientific substantiation is far from present in many cases. Most of all, results from generic studies do not necessarily count for the individual. This leaves consumers confused and vulnerable to believe in (often unscientific) claims that sound promising.

What does this mean?

Nutrition scientists’ hope lies with the advances and increasing insights in genetics. Nutrigenomics is about how our unique biology interacts with the food we consume by looking at the relationship between nutrients and gene expression. Although more than 99% of genes are the same in every human being, this still means that we differ in our genetic make-up to such an extent that what is healthy to one can be unhealthy to another (think of allergies). Nutrigenomics looks at your genetic map and try to explain and how it affects the way your body processes food. But while this scientific field is still in its early stages, and we have only made the first steps towards finding a personalized diet to stay healthy, it hasn’t refrained companies to jump into making promises of linking customer’s genetic make-up with their preferred diet. In that sense, we should be cautious to believe this kind of promises Habit, Arivale, DNAFit, DNANudge, Nutrino and similar parties make.

What’s next?

For now, the nutrigenomic market is experiencing a hype. In the future, however, with the continuous advancing insights into our genes and their interacting with the environment, we will get closer to a personalized diet. Wristbands to guide you through the supermarket for an optimal personal menu, and food delivery services with tailor-made portions and nutrition added according to your personal needs will become reality. But for now, we will have to stick to the ‘schijf van vijf’ and largely to our gut feeling in our food choices.

Biohacking diets

What happened?

In search of a long and healthy life, fasting has gained a lot of attention over the past year. Two types of fasting are becoming increasingly popular among conscious consumers: caloric restriction and intermittent fasting. The first is a diet that restricts the average daily intake of food to below what is common. Intermittent fasting means changing the timing of eating to have longer periods without food than just nights. In many studies, these types of fasting have shown to delay the onset of age-related disorders and, in some studies, extended lifespan. The idea is that bringing the body into starvation state prompts cells to consume accumulated cellular garbage before unleashing a surge of regeneration. This caused the fasting hype in Silicon Valley.

What does this mean?

Globally, we are living longer. Gerontology research is looking to further extend our lifespan by building new classes of therapy to repair and reverse the known root causes of aging. However, until then, a lot of attention will go to a fundamental part of our lifestyle that affects our age: our diet. Poor diet is a factor in one in five deaths and diet is the second highest risk factor for early death after smoking. While dieting was previously mostly associated with losing weight by, for instance, eating less sugar, fat or fewer carbs, this “new” class of fasting diets focuses on “hacking” our cells. Food, or the act of eating less food, becomes a way to biohack oneself. Similarly, we are looking for ways to create personalized diets based on our DNA to live a longer and healthier life.

What’s next?

In search of the fountain of youth, we are willing to buy into the promises made by the “scientific” (expensive) fasting diets that are offered to us commercially. Multiple companies are already offering caloric restriction kits and personalized diet meal plans. But research is still in the early stages, and we have only made the first steps towards developing new treatments to cure aging and to find a personalized diet to stay healthy. Also, as more and more claims are attached to our diet, choosing what food to eat becomes an increasingly complex task, strengthening our wish to outsource it to experts (nutritionists, doctors, biotechnologists).