Food as 5th-gen warfare vector

Paul Raven @ 09-06-2011

There’s a lot of things on which Thomas Barnett and I would disagree, but there’s no getting around the way he can see further ahead than most foreign policy wonks. Forget oil, and start worrying about food supply:

Everybody thinks that the future is going to see fights over energy, when it’s far more likely to be primarily over food. Think about it: The 19th century is the century of chemistry and that gets us chemical weapons in World War I. The 20th century is the century of physics and that gets us nuclear weapons in World War II. But the 21st century? That’s the century of biology, and that gets us biological weaponry and biological terror. My point: obsessing over nuclear terrorism is steering by our rearview mirror.

Which gets me to our Spanish friend over here: an actual E. coli outbreak in Europe, centered largely in Germany, kills upwards of two dozen while sickening hundreds more. The early fingers point at Spanish cucumbers, but that’s looking iffy on investigation. Truth is, we may never know, but once the accusation is levied, Spain’s vegetable and fruit export industry may never be the same, and to me, that’s an interesting pathway for what I expect Fifth-Generation Warfare (which focuses – by some experts’ definition – on the disruption of the enemy’s ability to “observe” in John Boyd’s OODA loop)  will be all about in the 21st century: biological terror to create economic dislocation and loss (along with the usual panics).

Not so sure about his “century of [x]” reasoning, and I’d argue that we’ve seen the “wars over energy” being played out in the Middle east over the last few decades (with, sadly, more to come, though I think we could be in the final act of that particular movie), but by highlighting food supply as an infrastructure that could (and will) be leaned on to highly disruptive effect, I think he’s pretty much spot on. Likewise with the idea of ideological factions piggy-backing on events that may simply be natural or emergent; why invest effort on complicated terror schemes when you can just claim random events for free?

However, I’m surprised that he misses (or maybe simply fails to mention) food’s close sibling, water, which is already becoming a critical resource in developing nations, and is the infrastructural elephant-in-the-room in The Artist Formerly Known As The First World. Seriously, talk to people who work in utility infrastructure; we’re going through way more water than is sustainable, and climate change is likely to exacerbate the problem by changing availability patterns at local levels (hi, Australia!). We’ve already got Alaskan towns looking to export their allotted water rights to the more thirsty corners of the world… and while there’s a possibility we could wean ourselves off our addiction to long-chain hydrocarbons (technically simple, but politically fraught), water is a fundamental need, and an issue that demands we either start thinking in global terms or face some sort of Mad-Max-esque descent into feudal squabblings over the echoing mouths of artesian wells..

Civilisation is a product of cognitive surplus… and if you’re constantly wondering where your next drink of water is coming from, you’re all out of cognitive surplus.

A series of (food)tubes

Paul Raven @ 07-12-2010

One of the biggest infrastructural components of a developed nation is the transportation network that moves food around the place… trucks and lorries, trains, that sort of thing, all pollution-heavy technologies that cost a lot of money to run. So what could we replace that food delivery network with? How about… a series of tubes. No, SRSLY:

Imagine a 1,500 kilometer underground FoodTubes ring circling the UK. The packet-switched-style network would connect all major food producers and retailers via 3,000 kilos of smart grid controlled air pressure pipe. The Foodtubes capsules, spaced one meter apart, will race about in gangs of 300 or so at 100kph. As many as 900,000 will be in circulation at any given moment, either zipping around beneath London and Liverpool or being loaded and unloaded at freight dockets.

“Really fast food,” Foodtubes literature calls the concept, with big payoffs for the economy and environment. “Inefficient food transport costs the Earth,” another presentation insists. Huge quantities of diesel are burned to move food trucks—17 billion for each 25 million UK homes, which represents eight percent of all the carbon dioxide mixed into the atmosphere.

“In contrast, we transport 180 times more weight of water than food every day (150 litres/person) in pipelines, with little pollution and no traffic jams,” the project notes. “Multiply by 5 to get the totals for the 120 million USA households.”

Add to that the traffic relieving removal of huge trucks from UK roads. 200,000 of them could be replaced by 17,000 kilos of pipelines and capsules, the group estimates, saving the country 40 million tons of CO2 each year, and the world perhaps as much as four billion if the idea was adopted globally.

That’s got to be the most Jetsons-esque bit of speculative technology I’ve seen in a long while. The FoodTubes people seem pretty confident that the actual technology side is plausible, but are also well aware that “[t]he freight industry is deeply entrenched at every level of government and commerce”. No kidding… which leads me to suspect that, plausible or not, FoodTubes is unlikely to get off the drawing board any time soon.

MIT’s Cornucopia: 3D printing with food

Paul Raven @ 18-01-2010

Ah, those crazy geeks and boffins at MIT – is there any idea they can’t run with so far and long that it ceases to make any sense whatsoever? Here’s your trajectory: you already know about 3D printing, right? And that there’s a 3d printer called the CandyFab, which specialises in fabbing objects using the tooth-rottingly delectable medium of edible sugars?

So why not go all the way and propose the Cornucopia – a 3D printer that can output almost any sort of food ingredient you can imagine in almost any three-dimensional matrix, plus make sure it’s all cooked properly? [initial tip from @BLDGBLOG, whence a long chain of relinks takes us to Shapeways; image courtesy MIT Fluid Interfaces group]

As a thought-experiment into the possible uses of fabrication technology, it’s a pretty neat idea… but it’s taken me about two minutes to create a ten-strong list of impracticalities that make it an utterly pointless endeavour. I suppose the justification would be that the interim research into fluid dynamics, microscopic fabrication/extrusion, focussed heating and complex programming would produce a whole raft of new avenues for development… but come on, MIT guys’n’girls! Couldn’t you be turning those big brains to developing something we actually need?

Technology and population growth

Tom James @ 28-09-2009

fieldThere’s a great interview over at New Scientist with environmentalist and techno-realist Jesse Ausubel on the subject of how technology and improved agricultural practices may enable and support continued population growth and economic prosperity:

You’ve said that we could feed 10 billion people on half the area we currently use by improving agricultural efficiency. How would that work?

High yields are the best friend of nature. Even if humans remain carnivorous, if we continue lifting yields at roughly 2 per cent per year, as farmers have achieved over the past 100 years, then simple arithmetic shows lots of land now farmed will be abandoned and can return to nature. The world population is increasing by only around 1 per cent per year, so sustaining 2 per cent yield growth could free half of farmed land over 75 years or so. The highest yields that have been achieved in China, India, the US and many other countries are typically 300 per cent of average yields, so 2 per cent yearly gains are not miracles. They are business-as-usual, but with a lot of sweat.

It’s weird to hear someone talking about population growth as if it was something manageable, rather than something to be worried about. I was particularly intrigued by the notion of quorum sensing:

Surely our inability to limit ourselves is a major issue.

Some recent research suggests organisms do try to sense limits. Even bacteria turn out to have networks of social communication and to use something called quorum sensing to coordinate their gene expression according to the local density of their population, and so avoid disastrous growth.

Ever the optimist, I see no reason why problems like global warming, deforestation, or resource depletion should not eventually be resolved. It rarely seems to be a matter of practical or even economic barriers, but rather political will to take the kind of action needed.

Clean air laws and action taken on the ozone layer show that it is possible to make the necessary changes.

[image from Olof S on flickr]

Your vat-grown burger will be ready in a decade, sir

Paul Raven @ 01-08-2009

brunch burgerWe’ve mentioned the potential of vat-grown meat here before, but I thought it worth bringing up again in light of an article at Wired UK that goes into more technical detail about the processes involved in growing cultured muscle for human consumption. [image by Marshall Astor]

“We’re developing a very simplified version of what we know as meat,” he explains. “The cells are grown in this dish within a growing medium and this unit is where they receive the electrical stimulation. These electrodes ensure there is an electrical current – about 1Hz – passing through the cells. To make these skeletal cells develop into muscle, they need to be constantly exercised, just like in the body.” This, he explains, is one of the scientific hurdles for in vitro meat that has not yet been fully addressed. “We can convert stem cells into skeletal muscle cells; however, turning them into trained skeletal muscle appears to be a little harder.”

They seem pretty confident about having a commercially viable product within a decade or so… but it’s probably going to delight the tastebuds about as much as the food you get on budget airlines:

“I don’t think we will spend a whole lot of time trying to replicate the taste of meat, though – that will be artificially added later. The food industry is already expert at enhancing taste – creating the right texture is the Holy Grail.”

Why complicate matters, adds Post, when you can nurture skeletal muscles to produce a simple, lean meat? Strip away the connective tissue, blood vessels and fat – as many of us do when we prepare a chicken breast prior to cooking it – and you’re left with a lean fillet of meat which consists of, roughly, 75 per cent water, 20 per cent protein and three per cent fat. Post believes that we are not too far away from producing this kind of meat on a commercial scale – ten years, perhaps. Convincing in vitro steaks and chops are probably a few decades away.

I guess the problem here is that the stuff will never sell until it comes out cheaper than real off-the-hoof meat. Once that price point is reached, however, I suspect the take-up rate will skyrocket.

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