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Having the cake and eating it too

Many complain about being busier than ever, yet the likes of social media, Netflix and Amazon Prime video services are flourishing. How’s that possible? Might it have to do with the abundance of food that exists?

It’s a riveting proclamation: social media is, “ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.” That sort of bold talk can be hard to ignore. And to some degree, most of us would probably agree with that sentiment. But it’s especially meaningful given it comes from Chamath Palihapitiya, former Facebook executive who served as vice-president for user growth.

Several days later, Facebook published a blog, “Hard Questions: Is spending time on social media bad for us?” The company notes that, “In general, when people spend a lot of time passively consuming information... they report feeling worse afterward.”

Adding insult-to-injury, former Facebook president, Sean Parker, has recently described social media networks as “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”

Also attention-grabbing, the same week Netflix announced their users (me included) collectively watched more than 140 million hours of content per day, or the equivalent of 1 billion hours per week. All this inherently invokes discussion about how we think, interact and spend our time and potential negative consequences of the current digital era.

Digital services and technology have become an essential component of our economy. For example, the collective market capitalization of the FAANG stocks (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google) is currently about $2.8 trillion; that’s nearly four-fold bigger versus 2012. Comparatively, the broader stock market averages have performed incredibly well in recent years but have only doubled during the same timeframe.

You’re probably beginning to wonder why this discussion is showing up in Feedstuffs. It’s all about time. Many of us complain we’re busier than ever, yet the likes of social media, Netflix and Amazon Prime video services are flourishing. How’s that possible? I’d argue the foundation that’s made it all possible circles back to the fact that we have an abundance of food.

The trend is relentless. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is projecting U.S. farmers produced yet another corn yield record in 2017 (175.4 bu. per acre) -- that’s nearly a bushel better than last year’s record and makes this year’s crop the second biggest in history. (Remember all the hand-wringing in late-summer about how tough this year’s crop may be.) The same goes for meat and livestock: USDA has 2017 marked for a new production record for red meat and poultry –- with even more upside coming in 2018.

Food surplus isn’t just happening here; it’s a global phenomenon. Case in point, this decade has witnessed a dramatic decline in famine mortality throughout the world. Thus far, deaths due to famine are just a fraction of what occurred –- and all the while we’re feeding a bigger population.

But this isn’t just a matter of quantity. There’s also a qualitative aspect being facilitated amidst the abundance. Bee Wilson recently provided an apt illustration of that reality (Wall Street Journal):

“One modern innovation that has killed off our seasonal rituals is the globalized food supply, which blurs the keen awareness that cooks once had about certain foods belonging to particular months. It is a luxury to have year-round access to summer berries and winter greens, but this ubiquity also dulls the magic of anticipation. In India, carrot halwa is a dessert made from grated carrots, raisins, evaporated milk, cardamom and sugar. It used to mark the end of summer and the start of autumn, because that was the only time of year when carrots were plentiful. But now, as chef Vivek Singh explains in his book “Indian Festival Feasts,” you can easily find carrots in supermarkets year-round and cooks make carrot hallway any time they feel like it.”

None of this discussion is intended to diminish the large number of people in the U.S. and across the globe who deal with hunger and food insecurity on a daily basis. But those challenges aren’t because we’re running short of food –- they’re typically the result of other circumstances. So, the broader point is that most of us don’t spend much time or energy worrying about nutrition because of food shortages.

The food system’s success has enabled much of the world’s population (now encroaching 8 billion) to move up Maslow’s hierarchy-of-needs scale. Accordingly, society is evolving in all sorts of ways. Most important, it’s enabled specialization creating all sorts of other important advances that wouldn’t have occurred otherwise.

Undoubtedly, there are many favorable, enjoyable and productive aspects of our current digital world, but some of the negative assessments need to give us pause. Like any new revolutionary innovation, at the very least, it calls us to consider some of the unintended consequences.

This conversation is now emerging because we’ve been incredibly successful creating food abundance (something we should be all thankful for). Without that foundation, there’d be less discretionary time and thus less opportunity for digital consumption. To that end, I’ve previously noted in Feedstuffs, “…take away agriculture’s gains, and our collective perception of the world’s problems would be [very] different.”

How does all this shake out in the future? That’s hard to assess –- it’s all so new. After all, it’s the first time in history that we’ve been able to eat our cake –- and have it, too.

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