IBM says to expect 5 big changes in the next 5 years

Food is about to change.

  • IBM's 2019 5 in 5 predicts major changes on the horizon.
  • Food chain technology, from farmers' financing to desktop pathogen sensors, is about to explode.
  • IBM and others have big ideas about reducing famine and food-borne illness.

IBM has a long history of seeing the future, and its 2019 5 in 5 event aims to do it again. Ahead of the public prognostication, Arvind Krishna, senior Vice President of IBM Cloud and Cognitive Software, blogged a preview of what IBM sees as the next five years' big changes. It all has to do with... food. Here's what IBM's forecasters say to expect.

1. Digital doubles in farming will revolutionize lending for growers

(otiki/Shutterstock/Big Think)

We've written about digital doubles, or "twins," before. They're highly detailed virtual models of a real-world counterpart of some sort. They've been popular for a while as a means of monitoring factory facilities by keeping an eye on how their digital twins function. IBM foresees them as being used to model the outcomes of farming strategies for which farmers are seeking financing from banks.

A digital model will allow financial institutions to separate the wheat from the chaff in lending applications. It will also help growers more effectively farm by arming them with digital simulations of their crop strategies. Most significantly, the ability to avoid flawed growing plans will more reliably help feed Earth's growing population.

2. Blockchain will prevent food waste

(Jeeranan Thongpan/Shutterstock)

It's been a rocky year for bitcoin, but IBM sees its underlying concept — blockchain, a decentralized, secure ledger — as having a meaningful contribution to make in the field of food supply-chain management. They envision it providing a more accurate ongoing inventory of food supplies, especially as the tech matures into partnership with IoT devices and artificial intelligence algorithms. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States estimates about a third of the food produced for human consumption is wasted, and an accurate comprehensive tracking system such as this could reduce the problem significantly.

3. Bacterially clean foods for sale

(Who Is Danny/Shutterstock)

As scientists learn more about microbes, IBM predicts they'll be able to more easily and cost-effectively analyze the genetic makeup of those introduced to foods at farms, factories, and grocery stores and more consistently identify those that would be unhealthy for humans. This will lead a greatly enhanced ability to keep foods safe.

4. A.I. will sniff out food-borne pathogens

(Artemida-psy/Shutterstock)

IBM sees A.I. sensors becoming readily available to test food for pathogens in seconds before there's a chance that it might be eaten and make people sick. It expects the requisite A.I. sensor to be introduced into mobile devices or even embedded in kitchen countertops so that farmers, processors, grocers, and cooks can stop the next E. Coli or salmonella outbreak before it starts.

5. A sustainable solution to the recycling glut

(By Alba_alioth/Shutterstock)

Currently, experts are raising alarms that there's a limit to recyclers' need for recycled plastics, and that our current approach isn't really sustainable. Some regions are even shutting down recycling because there's no more commercial recyclers willing to take the stuff.

IBM cites the discovery of new chemical processes, such as its own VolCat that can digest polyester (PET) so completely it can be seamlessly reintroduced into the manufacturing stream for new plastic products. With all the plastic that's out there, this technology may well transform the way we deal with waste.

Everybody eats

IBM's predictions may not be as glitzy as Mars colonization or designer babies. Still, we're reliant on the systems in which food is grown, processed, distributed, and sold, and it's easy to forget all that's involved. Likewise how dependent we are on it for our survival, and how the health of the planet's food supply ripples outward geopolitically. IBM's big five would be big indeed. It'll be exciting to watch these predictions come true.

From seed to shelf: 5 innovations will transform the food supply chain within 5 years

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Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

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  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
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  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.