How the Fourth Industrial Revolution Can Radically Improve Our Food Supply Chain

How the Fourth Industrial Revolution Can Radically Improve Our Food Supply Chain
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The Fourth Industrial Revolution is an unprecedented moment of opportunity for a world facing unprecedented challenges. One of the greatest challenges is to feed an expected population of 9 billion by 2050 in a radically sustainable and impactful way.

That is, not merely "sustainable" as we casually use the word now, but in a way that improves the lives of everyone participating in the food chain along with the ecological health of our planet.

The single best way for us to do this is to focus our investment and innovation—both in terms of technology and business models—on small-scale farmers in the developing world, using the already huge and constantly growing demand for sustainable food in the global market to power development programs that help these farmers and their communities escape poverty.

Crucial Producers

Here are some facts that still astound me: About 2.5 billion people worldwide depend on small-scale farming for their livelihoods. They manage 500 million farms, account for 70% to 80% of food production in many parts of the developing world, and are already a key source of food supply globally. Yet about a billion small-scale farmers live in absolute poverty, and many others are trapped in a vicious cycle of absent opportunity.

We can change this reality.

Important strides have already been taken to address the poverty of marginalized small-scale farmers and to include them in the global food supply chain. Fairtrade certification, and the fair trade movement generally, has done perhaps the best and most visible work in empowering small-scale farmers and bringing their lives and challenges to the attention of an increasingly conscientious general public. Fairtrade International states that already over 1 million small-scale farmers are benefiting from the Fairtrade system. While this is certainly an impressive number, it still leaves the world with a massive challenge to find solutions for the remaining 499 million farms.

We Need Systemic Change

The technological advances of the Fourth Industrial Revolution will improve aspects of the current food system. We'll use technology such as precision planting and irrigation techniques to improve yields organically. The speed, efficiency, and sustainability of transport will improve radically. Mobile information technologies will improve farmers' understanding of the land they are farming and the markets they are selling to, while also allowing them to communicate with and learn from each other. And we cannot underestimate the importance of advances in communication, education, and finance to farmers and their communities.

But as Klaus Schwab has emphasized, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is not merely about technological devices. Fundamental to the revolution will be new, innovative, visionary business models that alter systems on a grand scale.

The truly massive numbers of small-scale farmers who remain marginalized, and the equally massive numbers of consumers who want healthy, sustainable food but do not have affordable access to it, is a sign of a problem in the system.

It is also a sign of a huge opportunity—the opportunity to create a solution that is truly win-win-win.

This solution, enhanced by the technological advances of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, would make it radically easier for small-scale farmers in the developing world to receive customized development support and, when ready, to be included in the global food supply chain. It would make healthy, sustainable food more affordable and accessible to people around the world. But most importantly, it has the potential to contribute significantly to solving the how-to-feed-the-world challenge we are faced with.

I have spent over a decade studying this challenge and working toward a scalable solution. I know first-hand about the massive demand among small-scale farmers for inclusion in the global food supply chain, and about the mounting, unsatisfied demand among retailers and consumers for a more impactful alternative to the status quo.

But I also know that to truly revolutionize the food system, we need a multi-stakeholder approach from players in all sectors, players share the common mission of improving hundreds of millions of lives.

The future of our planet depends on it.

For the second conversation in our Purpose@Work series -- a discussion designed to explore how we can infuse a deep sense of purpose into our work -- we're going to focus on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the theme of this year's World Economic Forum in Davos.

How are you using technology to elevate purpose in your organization, community, or project? Let us know at or by tweeting with #PurposeAtWork.


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