Food for thought: What would you call the age that we live in?
Though a benign question, it lets us do a reality check on how much the world changes around us without our notice. Every invention and change of policy alter our routines ever so slightly, until one day we find ourselves living completely different lives. Something to think about during commute, while randomly browsing the internet, on a smartphone that that can process 3 billion instructions per second and adjusting your face mask. How did we get here?
We started off as wanderers in search of food and shelter, that much we learned in history. At some point someone learned to tend to the soil and grow as a community. Somehow, we ended up from that simple existence to the complex human being we are today, weighing our choices of which restaurant to eat in and which brand of smartphone matches our personality and star sign. What really happened in between?
Bill Gates recently published an article called “the age of AI has begun”, where he talks about his unique perspective of being at the frontlines of the information age with Microsoft’s Graphical User Interface and how Chat GPT is ushering in the age of AI. Using its Large Language Model (LLM) all our knowledge, records, stories and lives can be reduced to data that can be synthesized into specific and insightful answers. The first cloud of smoke over the factories of London in the 18th century might have evoked similar reactions.
At the dawn of the industrial age, while people Migrated in groups to the to the cities, back in the country sides, farmers helplessly tightened their belts as the price for their crops and labor plummeted downwards out of nowhere, not knowing that they were left behind in a bygone era.
Things have hardly changed since. The gap in comparative pricing and standard of living available to those engaged in farming with other sectors are now wider than ever. People call them the lords of their land and the salt of the earth and want to provide financial aid or clamor for waiver of their loans. But time has revealed that all this sympathy for the farmer approach has done is to brand them as unequal to meet the demand of sustaining a growing population. So, corporations have stepped in and made the soil their factory that produces the crops that provide the most yield, both in produce as well as profit., with the most potent pesticides and fertilizers to keep the cycle going. The entire food supply chain micromanaged to maximum efficiency and traditional farmers are at the lowest end, right below the consumer. This is the current system.
Now history repeats as anxiety builds around how Open AI and machine learning is going to disrupt the current workforce.
What is Your impact:
None of this is a prompt for us to despair or fear a future akin to the one’s portrayed in movies like the ‘Matrix’ or ‘Terminator’, because technology and innovation are not inherently evil. Data is simply an essential tool for making informed decisions. What it needs is nuance and direction, what seems to be lacking is heart.
The solution is not to run back to the dark ages but to be mindful of the power of our own choices. Since the 18th century, the world has been divided into producers and consumers guided by the laws
of supply and demand. This basically meant that type of products, services and yes, the technology implemented is guided by our choices as consumers. If you think about it, these choices are more powerful by scale bigger than your vote. It’s universal, focused and interconnected. That is why companies assign more of their budget in market research and advertisements than R&D or expansion. While politicians vie for your attention every half a decade, corporations exist with the sole purpose of reducing it to ones and zeros.
And yet, after all that the new iPhone or the android update will leave a feeling of “almost but not quite unlike tea”, to quote a certain Guide.
The problem is that consumers have delegated their choice to the best guess of some think tanks in return of convenience.
By simply taking time to think about what goes into the food that we eat, one’s position in the market changes.
The term prosumer is not entirely new, but its potential is being explored more in today’s market. With data being more accessible and transparent, consumers are being proactive about what goes into their products. They read the fine print, peruse the nutritional table and participate in the surveys, beta testing to fine tune the end product to what they actually want. If done right the line between producer and consumer blurs into a synergistic partnership.
More importantly, a consumer leveraged with data can guide who drives the market and the industries where innovation is prioritized. Because currently the only thing that is driving innovation is profit and optimization. The question is, who should the prosumer choose to reorient the market?
Beyond Titles: Can Farmers take back the wheel?
One might be skeptical of such a question, given the current social standing of farmers but we need to recall that Starting with the actual wheel, agriculture spawned much of the prototypes of modern technology. Henry Ford (who reportedly went into business to run away from the chores of his family farm) quoted the steam powered traction machine to be one his inspirations for the cars he would make. By the nature of their work, farmers are beyond job titles. They produce, provide and experiment every day.
This makes farmers the original innovators. They have set the clock for civilization to evolve within society. Is it too far-fetched to think that restoring their position is the need of the hour not out of altruism but to act as the true north through our journey in time.
From a general perspective, the agricultural model was founded on three values, Survival, Sustenance and Community. These are not moral judgements. Farming functions on the same principles of supply and demand, work input and optimization like any other profession. But when the model involves an alignment with nature, the business model that follows gains a grounded and universal vision. Traditional agriculture also has a data driven foundation. The quantity of manure added, soil to water ratio and the best time for sowing harvesting all is driven by a genetical intuition that can be followed and replicated through generations. By backing organizations that work with farmers, they can be introduced to some of the innovations that are disrupting the market, that they can then customize to create their own model and explore the possibilities it opens in terms of real time data exchange with proper internet access and maintenance of records. With this level of monitoring, prices can be distributed equitably across the supply chain.
Transcending the bounds of time:
The good news is, in a saturated market, many of the start ups and pioneers who believe in social commitment and ethical use of technology have realized the value of working with farmers to create a new wave of agritech.
Outside of crypto currency, blockchain technology is now being considered to create an open-sourced database where farmers can form a decentralized network to monitor and regulate the whole production and supply chain to bring in precision and transparency. IoT sensors can detect and share even minute information like deficiency of specific micronutrients. With an involved customer base, the excessive spending on marketing can be redirected back to research and quality at affordable pricing that is equitable for all parties in the supply chain.
With a market willing to pay premium pricing for ethically sourced, eco-friendly products, companies are incentivized to commission production systems and machinery that prioritizes hygiene and sustainability along with efficiency. Here once again, a decentralized network can enable consumers to audit the promises that the producers make.
The other good news is, here is a growing community that is exercising their choice to not just to be a part of the new wave, but also to grow and recall their ancestry and kinship with the farmers to be able to sow, harvest and provide for one’s own family. So that one day this broken ecosystem of ours can be a fair, flourishing, and self-sustained landscape.
So that we may all join the ranks of the triumphant farmer, as the architects of our own time.
-Ajith Paul Thomas