Last week I was lucky enough to be involved in the Extinction & Livestock Conference in London hosted by Compassion in World Farming and WWF. It brought together different stakeholders from conservation, the food industry, policy-makers and academia to discuss the future of food; especially focusing on the inter-connected impact of the animal feed and animals-for-human feed chain on wildlife conservation and biodiversity loss.
The previous week I was at Unreasonable Impact Conference, organised as a joint venture between Barclays and The Unreasonable Group where many young purpose-led entrepreneurs are getting support to scale organisations which are designed to solve some of the urgent challenges of humankind.
I also consider myself lucky to be part of Peter Diamandis’ digital mastermind group which, following the narrative of one of his most popular books, looks at the future through the lens of the Abundance mindset. Abundance mindset is a very popular worldview in many quarters from mumpreneurs and coaches to exponential entrepreneurialism which takes the highly positive view that there aren’t scarcities and we have an abundance (obviously) of knowledge and technology to solve the problems we face as a world.
When I look at the challenges of sustaining the natural world, set against the potential of exponential tech and the opportunities for entrepreneurialism, I often find myself struggling between these two things. Inconvenient Truths and The Abundance Mindset. Where is the balance between the excitement and positivity that the possibilities of technology offer us to solve future challenges, and the reality of world circumstances? Are things as dire as they are often painted? Can we have as much hope as we should that we can solve the challenges we’ve created? Where is the balance between ‘real’ scarcity and ‘true’ abundance?
Some of the very Incovenient Truths discussed at Extinction & Livestock are painful to hear for anyone who values the natural world:-
- Intensive Agriculture is responsible for pushing us towards Planet
ary Boundaries we can’t cross if we want a stable planetary system, including biodiversity loss, and levels of phosphorous and nitrogen in our biochemical flows: Katherine Richardson, Copenhagen University
- Almost all socio-economic and earth system trends across everything from water and pesticide use to ocean acidification and CO2 have accelerated in the proverbial hockey stick curve
- Population growth: we expect 1.7 billion more middle class consumers in the next 20 years who all want to eat more meat
- There could be no more than 60 harvests left in our depleted soils: UN report cited by Philip Lymbery, Compassion in World Farming
- The negative environmental externalities of the food industry are 224% of EBITDA meaning there’s no way the food industry can be sustainable in the long term the way it is now (KPMG Expect the Unexpected)
- Intensive and industrial animal farming results in less nutritious food,highlighting that six intensively reared chickens today have the same amount of omega-3 as found in just one chicken in the 1970s.
- In 2010, the British livestock industry needed an area the size of Yorkshire to produce the soy used in feed. But if global demand for meat grows as expected, soy production would need to increase by nearly 80% by 2050.
- The amount of worldwide land needed to produce crops for animal feed is equivalent to the size of the EU
- With 23bn chickens, turkeys, geese, ducks and guinea fowl on the planet — more than three per person — the biggest user of crop-based feed globally is poultry. The second largest, with 30% of the world’s feed in 2009, is the pig industry.
- 75% of crop varieties depend on bees as pollinator; no bees, no coffee, no chocolate, no raspberries, no blueberries
- 75% of honey varieties you buy commercially contain pesticides
- Britain had 7 million acres of flower rich grassland to support pollinators 100 years ago — 98% is now gone: Dave Goulson of the Bumblebee Trust
The painful ‘truth’s painted here suggest that the human species is now having an exponentially negative impact on the living planet we require to sustain us. On the other side of this painful coin is the ingenious nature of our amazing species I am confronted with in the exponential entrepreneurs community.
- Companies designing robotic bees to replace our natural pollinators (although they would have to build 3 billion of them to replace bees)
- Precision agriculture from companies like Precision Decisions who are designing human-free farms to further increase the productivity and precision-spraying of pesticides and fertilisers
- Companies like Elevian who are now experimenting with ‘young blood’ which when injected into older animals shows the potential to extend healthy human life by an additional 30 years
- Companies which can produce 5, 6, 7, 10 carat diamonds from nothing more than methane, electricity and water — not that we need more diamonds but it’s a great example of what technology can do!
- Elon Musk’s Tesla and SpaceX are probably the most famous examples of exponential tech companies
The principle of Peter’s thinking is that technology is the force which allows us to look at anything that is scarce and transform it into abundance. That the job of exponential entrepreneurs is to identify industries based on scarcity and use technology to convert that scarcity into abundance.
When I am listening to the people within Peter’s group, I am awed by their visions and intelligence. I’m equally un-nerved by a future world which sometimes feels like a Frankenstein horror show where everything is re-engineered and replaced from its natural form in a lab. Are laboratory designed rainforests truly possible? Can we artificially recreate soil at the rate we need? You can probably tell I’m the dumbest person in the room when it comes to exponential tech!
There are also smaller startups who are designing organisations which use tech for impact, but are using frameworks like the UN Sustainable Development Goals to shape their businesses — many of which I met at the Unreasonable Impact Conference:
- Riversimple who are designing cars which run on hydrogen and will be available on a sharing economy business model
- BioCarbonEngineering which is using drones to plant the 500 million trees we need to pull all the CO2 out of the atmosphere
- Exergyn is developing an engine that runs on hot water (80–120 degC) — the first truly commercial solution to converting low-grade heat to power. I had no idea how much hot water energy is wasted in things like ships all around the world!
- Desolenator — a cleantech solar water desalination/purification start-up, offering an off-grid, stand-alone, cheap and filter free, family based water purification device using 100% solar. The device produces enough daily water for a family up to 5.
Between these three worlds I desperately want to see more joining up of the dots. Putting exponential tech specialists in a room with impact-led entrepreneurs and compassionate conservationists. Finding a balance between ‘just-because-we-can’ and ‘does-it-mean-we-should’. Joining impassioned activists who confront the world as it is to imaginative futurists who can see the world as it could be. Asking the people who protect and preserve what is left to talk to the people looking at life-sustaining system change and to the conscious-led leaders who ask often painful moral questions around choice and action.
That’s what Activation is about. Activating the Future is about bringing diverse people from Protect & Preserve, Life-Sustaining System Change, Conscious Thinking and Exponential Entrepreneurialism together. Breaking up silo thinking and rigid position-taking to try to talk about what’s really ‘best’ to do. Somehow we have to joint together the inconvenient truths — particularly when it comes to the future of food — and the exponential possibilities to change them in a humane, life-sustaining way.