There has been much talk of the Fourth Industrial Revolution of late including the effects and importance thereof. President Cyril Ramaphosa even created the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) in 2019 to “generate a comprehensive view of South Africa’s current conditions as well as the prospects in the Fourth Industrial Revolution”. But what does the Fourth Industrial Revolution even mean and, moreover, what are the potential implications for the Food System?
Introducing the Fourth Industrial Revolution
The Fourth Industrial Revolution heralds a series of social, political, cultural, and economic upheavals that will unfold over the 21st century. Building on the widespread availability of digital technologies that were the result of the Third Industrial, or Digital, Revolution, the Fourth Industrial Revolution will be driven largely by the convergence of digital, biological, and physical innovations.Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, who first introduce the term to the world.
Effectively, the Fourth Industrial Revolution refers to the use of new technologies such as drones, Artificial Intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), robotics and biotechnology; technologies that are rapidly changing the way we create, exchange, and distribute value. While the Digital Age brought about huge changes in our lives, our computers and mobile phones are the primary interfaces we use to communicate and interact with digital infrastructure. With the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we are seeing every day items starting to make use of these new technologies. Examples include cars being able to drive themselves (autonomous vehicles), washing machines that can identify loads and fabrics and select the best setting (see LG’s new AI-powered Washer) and brooms like Fiyela broom from Smart City that allow municipal workers to press buttons on their brooms to identify issues at their specific location.
What does this mean for the Food System?
This also promises huge, revolutionary changes in the Food System. We are already seeing a huge drive to create alternative protein sources, including growing meat without the involvement of living animals; this is only made possible by 4IR technologies. Indoor farming is also growing rapidly, with the use of robotics to harvest crops (see AppHarvest for example). We also see companies like Aerobotics, that use drones to survey performance of farms and fields and improve productivity or Agrixtech, that has developed an app to allow small holder farmers identify diseases on crops using AI, emerge.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution in South Africa
South Africa’s vision for development is premised on resolving the nation’s historical scars, expressed as the ‘triple scourge’: Poverty, Unemployment and Inequality. The 4IR Commission is thus a lever, activated by the State, to provide leadership for all of society in understanding and navigating what will be a fundamentally altered future.The start to the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR)’s Summary Report & Recommendations
The report recognizes the need to direct these new technologies to help solve some of the biggest issues plaguing our society. Food security is a major issue in South Africa, one that makes it exceptionally difficult for people to get out of the poverty trap. A food revolution in South Africa, fueled by the 4IR, could be an answer to poverty (by allowing people to more easily produce food for themselves and others) and to unemployment. 4IR technologies could also help address inequalities in the food system, by providing access to information and expertise for farmers, or allowing easier, cost effective access to markets, or by creating preservation solutions to address post-harvest losses.
For a fairer, more equal South Africa
While the capabilities of these new technologies can be exciting, it is really the potential impact of these technologies in our everyday life that is most important. The Fourth Industrial Revolution heralds a systemic change in how we function as societies and as humans. It is imperative that these technologies create positive changes in our human existence, that they help bring about the systemic change that is required to create a fairer, more equal society and food system in South Africa – or the Fourth Industrial Revolution loses all positive significance in our lives and possibly becomes tools to strengthen existing inequalities, and deepen poverty. It is only in this light that we need to consider this Revolution.