Davos: Can connectivity feed the world?

What do elections, cell phones and social media have to do with the food on your plate? More than you might think.

We’ve entered a new global era. In the midst of a shifting geopolitical landscape, the accelerating pace of technology, and unprecedented inequality, our diets might seem like a modest concern. Yet the food we choose to eat – and the systems that deliver it – are among the most powerful forces shaping the world. What will we consume in the future? And how can this food be healthy for people without over-taxing the planet?

The answers are complex. But one element is apparent: feeding a world of 8.5 billion people nutritiously and sustainably by 2030 will depend on connectivity. Putting good food on every plate depends on trade, technology, communication and collaboration in an interconnected world.

Yet we are growing more geopolitically disconnected. After an era of increasing globalization, we are reversing course. Nations that have historically been drivers of open trade and alliance-building have turned inward, prioritizing domestic concerns. Collaborative norms and international institutions are being questioned. And these changes are underpinned by increasing wealth and power disparity.

What might this mean for the world’s food systems? Such fragmentation could drive starker social and economic divisions between the affluent and the poor, creating islands of plenty along with hunger hotspots. It could also provoke new tensions: Nigeria depends on food imports to feed its population of 186 million, which is expected to exceed 260 million by 2030. What might be the cost of food in Lagos if Nigeria’s trade is weakened or cut off, and with what consequences for poverty, hunger, social stability and migration?

Another medium of connectivity – technology – has the potential to link and serve people across geography, class and culture. But without care, it could benefit only wealthy citizens while leaving the poorest behind.  One look into the future shows a world reshaped by innovation, and such changes will impact food in unexpected ways: a meal in 2030 may have been grown in a lab, harvested by robots or chosen on a personalized nutrition app. Yet many of the most powerful innovations are less visible: technologies that increase connectivity – such as mobile platforms and the internet – hold profound promise to chip away at problems like hunger. A digital divide currently separates the 4 billion people disconnected on the internet from the rest of the world. How much economic growth could we stimulate if every smallholder farmer accessed accurate market data on her phone to inform planting and selling choices? And of the 40% of food that is lost in most of the developing world, how much could be saved if trucks on remote roads were equipped with spoilage sensors?Unprecedented social connectivity means that new norms spread quickly – for good or bad. Nearly half of the global population eats unhealthy diet, and this trend is likely to worsen. Especially among the growing middle class in regions like Asia, billions of people are transitioning towards diets high in sugar, salt, fat and meat. And while food choices are influenced by factors ranging from price to convenience to culture, they are also a product of social aspirations, informed and perpetuated by social connectivity. Social media is a high-speed train; when used intentionally, the tracks can be laid towards better choices for people and the planet. Such choices shape the whole system, from fork to farm – so what would it look like if cultural icons appeared on advertisements for vegetables? Or if wasting food were a social taboo?