Five scientific breakthroughs that will change the near future of food

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From AI-powered smartphones able to test pathogens in our food to a global network of smart-farms, this is the future of food safety we all have to look forward to over the next five years.

By Santiago J. Arnaiz

In this year’s Five-in-Five, IBM’s researchers tackled one of the most pressing issues facing our global community today: A complex food supply chain straining to keep up with an exploding population.

Here are the five scientific breakthroughs that will shape the next five years of food safety and security:

Prediction: Farming’s digital doubles will help feed a growing population using less resources.
Researcher: Juliet Mutahi, Software Engineer at IBM Research

Taking the concept of a farm cooperative into the 21st century, IBM’s research team predicts that farms in five years will be completely digitized and connected to a network spanning the globe.

Mounting a suite of sensors on a tractor moving through their fields, farmers can generate a digital “twin” for their farms, pooling together all the critical data necessary to properly manage their livelihoods, with benefits such as predictive fleet utilization and maintenance, proper access to financing, and crop yield forecasting.

This data combined with artificial intelligence connects farms to the larger food supply chain, allowing every node in the network to communicate instantaneously — much like a futuristic farm cooperative might.

Prediction: Blockchain will prevent more food from going to waste.
Researcher: Sriram Raghavan, Vice President of IBM Research-India and Singapore

Food waste is one of the greatest global tragedies of our modern era. Massive tracts of food spoiled due to mismanaged systems and poor communication between producers, middlemen, and retailers.

In the next five years, the agricultural value chain will be further transformed by the inclusion IoT devices and AI algorithms operating on a public blockchain platform.

From farmers to grocery suppliers, each participant in the food ecosystem will know exactly how much to plant, order, and ship — matching supply and demand, with none of the costly unknowns. That means fresher food, and less waste.

Prediction: Mapping the microbiome will protect us from bad bacteria.
Researcher: Geraud Dubois, DGM Science to Solutions of IBM Research

In each and every person, there are about as many microbes as there are human cells. They exist in our bodies, and in foods — at farms, factories, and supermarkets.

And these microbes are remarkably responsive to their environments, just like people are. That means microbes respond to environments filled with bad bacteria in a way similar to how a person might respond to smoke filling up a room.

In the next five years, scientists and food safety inspectors will be able to map out these microbes, understanding their behavior to make food safer.

Prediction: AI sensors will detect foodborne pathogens at home.
Researcher: Donna N. Dillenberger, IBM Fellow

What began as a way to test provenance in diamonds gave birth to a device capable of turning a smartphone into an AI-powered microscope.

This device, a dongle that attaches to smartphones, is able to peer into foods on a molecular level, testing for contaminants and counterfeits as easily as reading an RFID sticker. And it’s already being sold to companies and poised to enter into the consumer market.

In the next five years, farmers, chefs, and everyday grocers will have AI sensors built into not only their phones, but countertops, cutting boards, knives, and containers — all able to sense whether the food they touch is safe to eat.

Prediction: A radical new recycling process will breathe new life into old plastic.
Researcher: Jeannette M. Garcia, IBM Global Lead for Quantum Applications

From produce to packaging — the problem of food waste goes far beyond spoils and leftovers. Plastic waste is a massive problem facing the global community, one that’s proved impossible to solve with today’s tools.

But in the next five years, a new recycling process will be able to break down common plastics found in food packaging, bags, and even clothes to their base components, making them completely reusable. And all with a device no bigger than a rice cooker.

With a recycling plant in every home, landfills will be goldmines and ocean trash, a thing of the past. Plastic will never be seen as waste again.


Watch the full presentation here: