The commoditization of food, climate change, and AI: The case for the philosopher

December 14, 2016

 

What are the next big jobs coming?  Maybe you have kids who are approaching college age and looking for majors?  Maybe you’re between jobs yourself or looking for a career change that increases the prospects of your finding more available and/or lucrative employment?  Or maybe you’re like me, just recently having newborns and wondering what kind of world they will be entering in a short two decades?  What if I told you that the most important, and hardest to replace by automation, jobs of the future will be done by philosophers?  You know the types, those people who study the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence.

 

We have a world of changing climate which will, at best, strain natural resources to the point of conflict and render areas of the planet completely inhabitable for humans that are currently inhabited by humans.  At worst, we as humans could be facing a slow boiling (pun intended) extinction level event.  Whether or not you believe the Paris agreements will succeed in keeping climate change manageable, the systems of government we have now seem ill-equipped to handle massive, large scale migrations of populations in the tens or hundreds of millions and widespread strains on natural resources given how our current world governments are responding to smaller scale migrations of hundreds of thousands to millions of populations and small, albeit acute, strains on natural resources that we face today.  Ask yourself this:  when under strain, what do you think nations will do?  Will they adopt policies for the betterment of the planet with a clear vision for the future that is informed by science since our entire civilization is so dependent on science and technology, OR will they adopt policies that are shortsighted, for the betterment of their nations or themselves, adopt a narrow sighted view of the future and blame “the other” for all their issues while being informed by emotions in authoritarian regimes and by emotions and polls in democratic regimes with science treated as a luxury item to be ignored until the very society that depends so heavily on science and technology breaks down?  If, or more likely when, these systems fail, it will be philosophers who envision the new forms of government we will have.  Political philosophy, from Plato and Confucius in ancient times, to St. Thomas Aquinas and the rise of political Islam in the Medieval times, to John Locke and Thomas Hobbes at the dawn of the “Western World”, to Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels social critiques of western capitalism to the seminal work by John Rawls in the early 1970s, to the interesting theories on deliberative democracy today, how each and every person lives their lives has its roots in some form of political philosophy.  This will not change but will become even more necessary as we respond to climate change. 

 

Next on the list of major global changes will be the continued rise of the machines.  Imagine a world where each human being is connected via the cloud to the Internet.  It’s kind of like the Borg from Star Trek the Next Generation meets the Matrix.  Nanobots in our neocortex connected to the Internet could essentially download not just data, but entirely new skills.  New languages could be learned instantly.  I wonder about the kinesthetic aspects of these downloads.  Sure, we can all download information and store it in memory for future access, but I don’t imagine anyone being able to download the LeBron James package and then dominate.  So sure, I can learn French, but I’ll still have an accent.  And if we can download, certainly we can upload right?  Couldn’t we upload our brains to the cloud and just find a new body?  And what would this body be made of, flesh and bone or some human/machine mixture?  Or will it come from a 3D printer from one’s own stem cells?  I’m asking a lot of questions here, but I’m not asking the important ones.  What does it mean to be human if we’re all connected?  What does privacy really mean at this stage?  We already question where life begins; now we’ll have even bigger questions about where life ends as well.  Who gets these augments?  I hope it’s not just soldiers, but I also hope it’s not just the rich or just certain countries at the expense of others.  The need to think about the prospect of human beings separating into two species might be coming sooner than anyone thinks.  Philosophers generally have answers to these questions long before most people even think to ask them.  Fun oxymoronic phrase for thought for those who want to plug into a massive consciousness:  a real virtual reality. 

 

But mainly, I’m running a company based primarily on sustainable production and consumption of food, so it makes sense to focus on the planet’s food system.  Humankind produces enough food to feed the planet, but a billion or so people are undernourished.  The media only tells part of the story by focusing on hunger as it pertains to food scarcity.  This leads to people believing, through no fault of their own, that any added calorie is a good calorie.  A nation that the world thinks is secure, the U.S., has 42.2 million food insecure adults and children.  That’s 13% of households, according to FeedingAmerica.org.  This is because food insecurity is often hidden due to overconsumption of macronutrients and under consumption of important micronutrients, and it’s just as dangerous to the long term health outcomes (especially for small children) as the acute hunger and starvation caused by widespread famine so often associated with food insecurity.  So naturally, interventions aimed at decreasing food insecurity so often focus on increasing agriculture production, particularly in developing countries, and sometimes focus on nutrition interventions. 

 

A critical piece to the global food security puzzle is missing, or at least not well understood:  the commoditization of our food supply.  About 40 years ago, this is how the futures markets worked:  farmers would grow food and processors would buy contracts to purchase the food at a future date from wholesalers or farmers directly, locking in the price early in the growing season.   These contracts served as a hedge from disruptions on harvests, such as weather.  The contracts were heavily regulated, and served the purposes of both farmers who wanted protection against volatility and processors who wanted reliable input prices.  Well, that wasn’t all that interesting financially, so regulators started scaling back on their regulations in the 1980s, Wall Street got a little more interested, the housing market crashed in 2007, and Wall Street got a lot more interested. 

 

When the housing market crashed and speculated money on paper evaporated overnight, how could people “speculate” their way back into the game:  by trading commodities.  Banks, hedge funds, pensions, even university endowments got into the act.  Wheat, corn, and rice began to be traded like equities, and the price of food tripled in a matter of a couple of years.  Yes, China’s increased consumption has been a factor, and biofuels do play a role as well to these price increases, but to not acknowledge the role that the commoditization of food plays on global food insecurity is intellectually dishonest.  The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that in 2008 alone, the volatility of wheat prices globally was 60% greater than what could reasonably be described by supply and demand economics.  What happens in the developing world in places like Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Syria, when the price of their staple food in 2008 increases so much that up to 75% of their household incomes is spent on food?  What if there is a shock to the system like a major drought in the wheat growing regions of a country, such as what happened in Syria?  How long can people survive like this?  As it turns out from what we now know of recent history: about two years. 

 

And what about the USA?  What happens when the price of the crops needed to make the foods we love increases so quickly?  Well that’s a little more tricky, but it goes something like this:  high quality ingredients get replaced by low quality ingredients with lower micronutrient content, more processing, more cheap carbohydrates and added sugars as opposed to complex carbohydrates, then a whole fad of “no carbs at all” sorts of diets, then less grass fed meat and more meat coming from concentrated animal feeding operations with more and more steroids to make bigger birds and cows.  I think you see where this is going from a food perspective.  However, when this change is met with stagnant incomes in the U.S. over the last 30 years for the middle class, what we get is a true healthy diet that is out of reach financially to 1 in 6 people.  Couple that with increased work hours and the need for two working parents to support this stagnant median middle class family income, and you get a further decoupling of food from commodities and a true healthy diet that is out of reach to many more simply due to a lack of time. 

 

A philosopher might argue better than I could about whether or not food should be a human right, a common good, a commodity, or something else.  And a philosopher would certainly argue better than I what this would imply for our civilization moving forward, and how this factors into how we govern ourselves in the age of artificial intelligence.  But to even get started, people get stuck on who should control and regulate this good.  I can hear naysayers now stating (or more likely screaming), “Get government out of my kitchen!”  You would think people would care about their health, but take a look at what happened when Bloomberg tried to limit the size (not the ability to purchase) of a soda sold in the city.  The conversation went something like this:  “I don’t think kids should be able to purchase a gallon of soda pop all at once for 17 cents”.  To which, the response was, “Oh yeah, you’re a communist!”  I’m speaking in hyperbole of course, but the sad fact is that it’s not THAT much hyperbole.  The real fear is that people don’t want government in their kitchen, taking away their money and taking away their food.  The real problem is that people have already let corporations into their kitchen to do their cooking for them, taking away their food and money, and also taking away their health while they’re at it.  I’m not saying corporations are inherently evil.  They used to cook like grandma cooked, with real foods and quality ingredients.  It’s just that when the cost of the ingredients went up, and the income of the consumers did not, well, they responded to the marketplace.  I would find it hard to believe that anyone at a corporation that’s been around a hundred years sat in a board room 20 years ago and said, “you know what would be fun, let’s make people so unhealthy that doctors will tell our consumers to stop eating our foods entirely.”  The conversation probably went more like this, “hey boss, we’re making product X and it used to cost Y to make it, but now the cost of Y doubled in the last 5 years and is set to double again in the next two.  It’s also quite volatile to price shocks due to weather, and I can’t reliably forecast what our costs are going to be.  So our investors are going to panic.  Furthermore, our market research shows that if we increase the price of X by just 25% to compensate in the near term, demand for X will decrease substantially, and we may not be profitable making X anymore.”  To which the response would be, “well, we’re an X-making company, it’s what we know.  We could pivot and make a new product, but we’re way behind those other guys.  What can we do to reduce the price of Y, or can we find a substitute Z for Y?  What about that research and development department we have?  Couldn’t we hire a few more food and flavor chemists to fix this?  They’ll come up with something I’m sure, and the investment will cost far less than a complete pivot in the marketplace.  Oh, I know, we’ll call it Super X now!”  It goes on like this, until the food you eat is called the same thing, tastes pretty similar, but looks nothing like that food did 20, 30, and 40 years ago.

 

I joked earlier about a real virtual reality, but I often think about the world in which we live and if indeed we are living in the world we think we’re living.  Simply put, we all think we’re headed one way, and the signs seem really clear, but maybe we’re missing a few key points and underestimating some others (like technology) that will drastically change our planet and what it means to be human.  And perhaps that profession that everyone likes to quip “why” about will become our most sacred job sought after by those who want to make the lasting differences our planet will need.  Arthur C. Clarke can sum up the need for the philosopher quite nicely:   “I don’t pretend we have all the answers, but the questions are certainly worth thinking about.”

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