Bringing the U.S. Food System Full Circle

“Combining the power of AI with a vision for a circular economy represents a significant, and as yet largely untapped, opportunity to harness one of the great technological developments of our time to support efforts to fundamentally reshape the economy into one that is regenerative, resilient, and fit for the long term.”

— “Artificial Intelligence and the Circular Economy,” Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Google

Facing the twin challenges of environmental sustainability and climate change, world political and economic leaders are considering proposals aimed at promoting a food system that can help address these global problems. The EAT Forum-Lancet Commission on Food, Health, and the Planet published a major study on sustainable food systems at this month’s World Economic Forum in Davos with new guidelines for a plant-based “planetary health diet.” Focusing on the role technology can play in promoting sustainable food systems, Google partnered with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to produce “Artificial Intelligence and the Circular Economy,” an extended discussion of how AI could help develop an economy “in which growth is gradually decoupled from the consumption of finite resources.” An expansion of traditional calls to reduce, reuse, and recycle, the report reframes food and agriculture as well as consumer electronics “value chains” as part of the solution to pollution and waste. This circular approach calls for “redesigning our economy to be one that creates rather than extracts value, keeping finite technical resources in flow within the economy and protecting and regenerating biological systems.”

In particular, the new report focuses on the role small farmers like Refresh Working Group (RWG) member Karen Washington of Rise & Root Farm play in the circular economy, explaining how sourcing food locally contributes to a more sustainable food supply chain. To that end, it cites two organizations with a connection to the Refresh Working Group: FARMWAVE (Craig Ganssle and Chris Chan) and PlantVillage (Amanda Ramcharan). By developing AI tools for farmers to interpret, share, and leverage data, they are helping to make the most forward-thinking, sustainable practices accessible to all.

A circular economy needs local farmers, and local farmers need affordable tools. Food Tank, led by RWG member Danielle Nierenberg, has been at the forefront of discussing the role AI can play in empowering farmers, highlighting everything from facilitating precision weeding to recognizing plant diseases. In her film From Farms to Incubators, RWG member Amy Wu profiles women working in agriculture to develop new technologies to support farmers. Wu profiles HeavyConnect, a Salinas, CA startup that created a user-friendly app to help small farmers comply with food safety requirements, helping ensure they can thrive by delivering safe products in the most efficient, sustainable way possible.

In the film, HeavyConnect design engineer Rivka Garcia discusses the importance of collaborating with the farmers (i.e. the end users) she’s designing the app for: “We don’t want to come in and show them this is what you need to do. We’re also learning with them.” Her insight tracks one of the most important points in “Artificial Intelligence and the Circular Economy,” the key role that human expertise must play in developing these new AI tools: “For AI to prove solutions, such as the examples mentioned above, it not only requires the four steps of data collection, data engineering, algorithm development, and algorithm refinement, it also requires a clear understanding of the actual problem and what we specifically need AI to solve. Put simply, if humans cannot establish the relevant inputs and outputs clearly, a machine cannot solve a problem.”

By bringing together a range of experts, the Refresh Working Group is ideally situated to discuss the inputs and outputs that would characterize a circular food economy. That effort dovetails well with their individual and collective efforts to promote a more healthy, efficient, and just US food system.

Diana Huang
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