IBM's annual 5 in 5 list is here, where the company outlines five key technologies that it believes will radically reshape the world in the next five years. This time the focus is on the food supply chain, which is already stressed by a growing population and climate change and will no doubt get worse. All five technologies in this year's list are designed to fix problems in every step of that process, from seed to your plate.
As much of a well-oiled machine as the food supply chain is, there's still plenty of room for improvement. Farmers have a tough job of timing their planting, watering and harvesting cycles to maximize yields. Food safety is always a concern but can be a challenge when ingredients need to travel long distances. A huge percentage of food goes to waste, and all the packaging is currently clogging up the environment, especially the oceans.
IBM's 5 in 5 list for 2019 outlines new technologies that might be able to help with all of these problems. Historically, these lists have been pretty hit and miss in their accuracy, and it is largely an excuse for IBM to promote its in-development projects, but still, it's always interesting to get a glimpse of what's in the works.
Virtual farm models could help the real ones
One of IBM's biggest businesses is data, and in this case the company is using that to help farmers all over the world get better insights into their trade. IBM PAIRS Geoscope is a platform that pulls together data from maps, satellites, weather, drones, and other devices, as well as from the company's other initiatives like the Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture. That last tool can help alert farmers when water is running low or what weather events are coming up, so they know when to water and when to harvest.
The idea is that all of this data is cobbled together to create virtual models of farms around the world. Farmers and other people involved in the food supply chain can then share these insights to make farms more efficient.
Blockchain-backed food supply chain
In order to have enough food to stock supermarket shelves and fill out restaurant menus, more produce is shipped than will be eaten – in fact, up to 45 percent of fruit and vegetables go to waste. The problem, IBM says, is that food growers, shippers, packers and sellers are all estimating the demand for different produce based on incomplete information.
To cut back on food waste, IBM predicts that blockchain technology will underpin the food supply chain of the near future. Last October the company launched the IBM Food Trust, designed to give people unprecedented access to consumer data that might inform future decisions. AI algorithms could also allow the entire system to respond much faster to changes in demand.
Food safety through microbe mapping
Traditional food safety testing is too slow and mostly reactive. To make it more proactive, IBM says that databases of microbes could soon play a big part in determining when foods become unsafe to eat.
Last year, IBM started up a project called the Consortium for Sequencing the Food Supply Chain, which gathered 500 TB of data on bacterial genomes. From this, safe and unsafe levels of certain bugs can be determined, and food can be checked for a wider variety of potential pathogens much faster than currently possible.
Tiny AI sensors detect pathogens every step of the way
With so many steps between field and fork, there are plenty of opportunities for pathogens to enter your food. IBM predicts that within the next five years, these bad bacteria could be stopped in their tracks thanks to tiny, AI-enabled sensors that can detect them in seconds.
IBM has started working on optical sensors that can sense the wavelengths of substances and infer microscopic details about them, including the presence of pathogenic bacteria. These sensors could be embedded in equipment every step of the way: surfaces and conveyor belts in food processing plants, produce bins in supermarkets, in chopping boards or countertops at home, and even cutlery, as a last all-clear before you stuff it in your mouth.
Recycling more plastic
Plastic waste is one of the biggest polluters on the planet – just ask the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Recycling programs have shown that people are willing to make the effort, but the problem is that many plastics just aren't recyclable, and even if they are it remains an energy-intensive process.
Once again, IBM is trying to come to the rescue with a new recycling technique it calls Volatile Catalyst (VolCat). This catalytic chemical process digests polyester materials into a powdery form that can then be fed right back into the plastic manufacturing process. The idea is that eventually, petroleum products can be phased out of plastic-making altogether, letting old plastics be almost endlessly recycled into new products.
These five predictions paint a pretty positive picture of the world's food supply chain in 2024, but we'll have to wait and see how accurately they come to pass.
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