The Great Reset and the Food Industry: An Exponential Problem
It was 2011 - 7:30 am. I was in a Basel hotel lobby to meet an old friend. We had been at a soiree the night before. The kind with academics — our kind of academics. Foggy discourse stuttered in grunts as we both came to terms with daylight — and gravity. Then, after a couple of draws on his cigarette, and a hurried sip of coffee, my friend interrupted his post-nicotine petit mort to say one of the most peculiar non-sequiturs I have ever heard: “Albert Bartlett is the most important man of the 21st century.” And I had never heard of him.
This was a few years after the ‘The Great Reset’ had first emerged into common parlance. Popularised by urban theorist, and author, Richard Florida; it describes our impending economic challenges and solutions. So succinct was this term, it was adopted in 2020 by the World Economic Forum (WEF) and its Chairman Klaus Schwab, to describe a “rare but narrow window of opportunity to reflect, reimagine, and reset our world.” In July 2020, Schwab co-authored his version, Covid-19: The Great Reset, with renowned analyst Thierry Malleret.
If Schab and Malleret are correct — and they may well be — the next few years will foster a period of unprecedented change across the planet. No organisation, corporation, or industry will be able to continue with business as normal — not least the food sector. We are staring hard-faced into the abyss, and it looks back at us with new systems that deal with fundamental adjustments to the social contract, food production, sweeping environmental changes, and an entirely realigned political/geopolitical agenda. But what does this have to do with Bartlett?
Albert Bartlett was a Harvard professor of physics, who specialised in demographics, sustainability, population growth and the realities of exponential growth. He lectured passionately for decades about how small changes to demographics can reach doubling points far quicker than we are capable of realising.
In their book, Schwab and Malleret highlight ‘three defining characteristics’ of today’s world; namely, interdependence, velocity, and complexity. They argue the velocity of change caused by Covid-19; politically, economically, socially, and geopolitically, will be so wide reaching, that it will render our systems obsolete — forcing huge changes to the way we organise our lives and our world.
Albert Bartlett would be nodding in agreement if he were still alive.
Exponential growth in a finite environment can be hypothesised quite easily. Bartlett often asked students to imagine a bottle of bacteria with a division rate of one minute, e.g. every minute the bacteria would double. It would be observed that the bottle would be full after one hour. If we added the bacteria at 11am, it would be 1/64th full after just four minutes. The jar would still be half-full at 11:59am. At 12pm it would be full.
These kind of thought experiments are nothing new, and are closely related to stories about the origins of chess around 800 years ago. The Wheat and the Chessboard mathematical problem is thought to have originated in Persia, or India, and centres around a citizen asking a ruler for a grain of wheat (sometimes rice) to be doubled for each square of a chess board, after they did the ruler a small favour. At first the ruler thinks this is a small price to pay — just a few grains of wheat. After-all, if you double the grain 12 times, it is hardly a kilogram worth of grain. However, if you were to double a single grain of wheat 64 times, you would get 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 grains — over 18 quintillion. This is thought to be around 2000 times our annual world production of wheat.
The problems above, are no less relevant to the current Covid-19 pandemic. With a doubling rate of one week, it would take just 33 weeks to infect every single person on the planet. This is why the ‘R’ (reproduction) number is so important, and why a lot of people cannot comprehend its importance. Recent developments on anti-body resistance, the complexities of finding a working vaccine, basic epidemiological issues, such as viral mutation, all point to a long drawn-out process, that is not going to be solved soon. In many European countries, the doubling rate was just a couple of weeks moving into autumn and winter. Further restrictions will slow this down, but you get the point.
So how will this impact the food industry?
What is clear, is that with any model of exponential growth, the time to make decisions is often too late. Like the bacteria in the bottle, it would be 11:59 before the bacteria realised it was starting to get a little crowded. If by some miracle, the bacteria sourced another bottle, that would also be full by 12:01. Schab/Malleret liken it to a passage in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, when the character Bill asks “How did you go bankrupt? Mike answers: “gradually, then suddenly.”
And so it is going to be in the food industry, as the Covid-19 pandemic creates surges in demand, and forces reductions in productivity. Lockdowns, restrictions, and new safety legislation, are already well documented as having had an immediate impact on the availability of certain foods. There has been massive disruption logistically, preventing many products from reaching markets. Seemingly innocuous changes in supply chains are very likely to create a domino effect over time, and be further exacerbated by future virus outbreaks.
It works both ways, and as certain markets reduce, we could see foods disappearing from our shelves altogether. If a local farmer can only sell fifty-percent of his crops, he will likely spend less on seed the next year. No matter how small the reduction — so long as their is a constant reduction — over time it will have an impact on supply chains. And it is likely we will not notice the problem until it is too late.
‘The Great Reset,’ is the WEF’s answer to the conclusion that our current systems are not capable of responding efficiently to the challenges the world will face longer term in light of the virus. Nobody will escape change. The role government and world NGOs will play in this realignent is still being debated.
For the food industry, its main challenge is to think big and protect its free markets; at all costs, it needs to avoid too much government interference — we all know how that usually goes. It will need to employ technological solutions to mitigate waste, and face the challenge of sustainability. It will need to employ complex alogorithmic modelling and prepare longer term. It will need to look at storage and reserves. Most importantly, it will need to highlight and act immediately on trends. We could already be at 11:59, and not even realise it.