Watch the video of Ed Dowding reading the following article.
Imagine it’s 15 years from now and we’re almost at 2030…
There are very nearly 100 billion devices connected to the internet. When the Dutch startup ‘Sparked’ put pregnancy sensors on cows in 2008 everyone thought it was pretty cool. But now, almost 3 decades into the 21st century, we look over a field of newborn lambs knowing that every single one was chipped at birth, like every other farmed animal in the UK. That sensor technology now seems…old.
The farmer pulls out his phone (since he’s never really liked the contact lens screens and doesn’t like wearing ‘funny glasses‘) and shows you a map, displaying from above what you see in front of you.
As he clicks on one of the dots representing the ewes it flashes briefly to show the location of her lambs, then the screen changes to show a report on her health, medical treatments received, and so on. This is precision agriculture for livestock: each animal gets exactly, and only, the treatment it needs, and welfare is very strictly monitored and open to all. And in this volume it costs pennies.
Naturally, after the government regulation on transparent food supply chains in 2016, all this live data is available on data.gov.uk since 2019.
And now that DNA fingerprinter is available to anyone who wants it in a £30 unit, supply chain fraud (aka horsegate) hasn’t been a significant issue for almost a decade – even in fish – although paternity suits are going through the roof.
As you walk across the field the farmer tells you about the apple trees he planted. He was originally going to put in cheap replacement field shelters, but when the local water authority started paying landowners to plant trees to reduce run-off and protect soils (as recommended long before the first “Long Flood” of ‘13/’14) it became a no-brainer. He now has over 300 trees across his land, acting as windbreaks, too, which is a bonus during the now stormier winters.
In the neighbour’s field – a robot about the size of a shoe box is moving slowly but inexorably between the rows of salad. Suddenly it darts out spike, skewering a slug.
James, the salad farmer, made it himself from plans he downloaded off the internet. It’s powered by biogas, and collects the slugs and other pests in a container. His yields have gone up 6% since he started using it, so he’s thinking of building the “CropMaster” version next winter which has a soil analyser, and jets which deliver a tailored blend of nutrients to the plant roots when the weather forecast tells it they won’t be washed away.
Precision Ag like this has been going on for decades, but mainly in large and expensive machinery. It was the open-source maker-movement who created the plans for swarms of affordable autonomous units; and the Modern Farmers who used them to support their agro-ecological methods.
And now with artificial intelligence expected to reach that of an adult human within the next decade, he’s looking forward to the day when his drones can do more of his work for him. He wants more time to fine-tune his companion planting experiments, and time to teach others how to replicate his work out in the countryside, not just here in the city.
When the most market-ready fruits and leaves have been harvested, he snaps a photo and types into the FoodTrade app what they’ve cropped that day. All the regular orders are deducted immediately, leaving him with a small surplus which he places on the market. 20 minutes later it’s sold by auction to a cafe a few hundred metres from one of his regular stockists.
When self-driving vehicles were declared road-legal in the UK in 2013, James’s dad had invested in Uber and Hailo, hedging his bets on which would capture the home delivery market.
Uber won out thanks to its relationship with Google, and when they launched the global courier section of the business spanning from 40 tonne lorries to the stair-climbing neighbourhood units about the size of a squat wardrobe, they won pretty much every contract going. They even had a new class of sail-powered cargo ship, developed after they acquired “B9 shipping” in 2018. Their routing and fuel efficiency, coupled with lower maintenance costs and tiny labour bill allowed them to come in not just cheaper, but safer, and vastly more environmentally friendly. It’s no coincidence that fatal and non-fatal lung diseases have fallen almost 30% since they started – even up to 50% for children in some European cities.
Uber licenced the technology to the once dominant UK supermarkets, but they only did distribution. It was Amazon who actively worked to start collections, too.
Amazon’s main advantage was it’s self-awareness and market positioning. It never pretended to be a food company. It knew that it wanted to be the most efficient peer-to-peer retailer and logistics company the world had ever seen.
It 2019, two years after Amazon purchased FoodTrade it relaunched “Amazon Fresh” – this time as a service which would pick up from producers, combine it with international produce, staples, branded products, and household items at tens of thousands of its micro-aggregation-and-distribution sites, and do same or next day delivery.
Customers flocked to it; it never had to overcome the long public mistrust of supermarkets, it supported and empowered local & independent business, it delivered fresher food, with less packaging, and switching was easy since we were all doing online ordering anyway.
So, soon the lamb we saw will be distributed this way, having been processed by a mobile abattoir service.
James and his friends at Zero Carbon Food growing hydroponically in the once disused tunnels beneath him, sell their produce via FarmDrop. It’s a simple and effective service where rather than being powered by Amazon, it’s managed by someone nearby. Since everyone is part of a buying group, the discounts on bulks save members money, generate more local employment opportunities, and people like meeting and working with their neighbours.
Looking back, it was the small things that most people didn’t really notice happening which started the snowball rolling…
- The progressive beer duty in 2002 which prompted all those microbreweries
- Repealing the Market Charter and changing planning law – to stamp out the ‘playgrounds-for-supermarkets’ bribery of local authorities – led to a market and high street renaissance
- The Mayor or Bristol’s legal challenge to EU public sector procurement rules, so he could match the city of Malmo on their target of 100% organic in all public meals by 2020.
- And when health insurers added obesity multipliers to policies, it became obvious that there really was no such thing as cheap food.
Food became more and more visible, more valued and appreciated as a product in a class of its own: something which, if handled correctly, could regenerate ecosystems and reverse GHG emissions, slash healthcare costs, improve performance in schools and behaviour in prisons – even in whole cities; enrich culture and create conviviality, all the while nurturing and supporting healthy, skilled livelihoods in resilient and vibrant regional economies across the country.
So…if that’s 2030, then what’s the problem? Sustainable, fair, resilient supply chains – or supply webs, really, are just a matter of time, right?
The challenge is not how to have a sustainable food system, it’s how to transition to one. It’s here and now that we spread the knowledge of the simple, crunchy ideas that change the rules. Want to know more? Read our next post on how to spread that simple, crunchy idea.