“We need to start thinking about the Future of Food if we are going to feed 9 billion people in a way that does not destroy our environment.” (Bill Gates)
Whether a few years ago the skepticism was related to eating Tofu and soja, veganism is now getting positive considerations. The market has rapidly grown in the direction of healthy-, plant-based meals in response to climate change and environmental consciousness. However, if vegans are getting momentum, the idea of 3D printed food, genetically engineered products, or AI-designed recipes arise doubts and disconcert. But why are we going to prefer a 3D-printed steak instead of a real one?
We can predict that in the next decade, the future of food will undergo six major shifts: made in the lab, fewer natural resources, justice, full of nutrition, less wasteful, and global taste palates, although a few food industry trends have already taken place in 2021 such as organic and additive-free, plant-based, convenient meal solutions on-demand, booster of immune health, high quality and nutrient, mash-up products, innovative flavors to familiar products and tastes.
Moreover, digital technologies, innovations, and social trends during the 20th and 21st centuries had a great impact on food consumption and habits, although these technologies may help solve five issues on the table: we do not know what we eat, what or how we should eat, whether food production should be limited to one industry, and the global dichotomy between obesity and famine. Thus, several companies have already proposed food scanners to detect nutrients, calories, allergens, and toxins in food, as well as, different technologies to cope with food allergies, test gluten sensitivity, or innovative digital solutions to track food and eating habits. Moreover, while combining genetics with nutrition science, nutrigenomics would be the solution to know what we should eat based on the individual genetic code.
Climate change and its related consequences are going to have a major impact on crop yields. Likewise, producing food for the increasing global population will negatively impact our environment. Thus, a shift toward different habits will be necessary for our survival. In this article, we will discuss the main issues related to current food production, and associated solutions forecasting the future of food and eating.
Are we running out of food?
Are we running out of food? Aren’t we suppose to be in 2021, the era of Industry 4.0, disruptive technologies, digital transformation, and abundance of resources? How is it possible?
Based on recent statistics, food and agriculture represent about 10% of the global GDP; indeed, this industry sector has 7 billion trusted customers. A record from 2018 showed that $1.71 trillion was spent on food and beverages. In fact, among Americans, 9.7% of income was used to pay for food. Whether is true that water and agricultural soil are becoming scarce resources, the threat that even food will run out soon seems a reality that has to be faced. Thus, in this century the worldwide food processing industry is going to be disrupted. It has been estimated that by 2030 the global population is expected to be around 8.5 billion. Therefore, a closer focus on this industry, primary human needs, sustainability, and health are essential to promote innovation in this sector.
A possible solution comes from sustainable models of food production, that are implemented to respond to the increasing food demand while supporting and restructuring current industries. These innovative models refer to the fabrication of food, nerd farming, the recycling of waste, and advanced food technologies. Indeed, bio-innovation, robotics, gene editing methods, or AI were suggested to produce more food and resolve the increasing worldwide demand. How will the food industry be reshaped? What will be the future of food? Toward which direction will social and food habits evolve?
Due to the abundance of sensors, machine/learning systems, AI, robots, 3D printing, genetically engineered crops, and vertical farming, these technologies are going to be implemented to transform and cover each step: from food production, preparation, to delivery. Reshaping the food industry would also have a tremendous impact on jobs. Over the last centuries, jobs in agriculture covered 90% of the opportunities, whereas today they represent just 2% in the U.S. Moreover, while automation has replaced the farming workforce, the food supply sector has rapidly increased leading to innovative jobs positions and opportunities for entrepreneurs; thus, moving from scarcity to abundance.
Food tech: from present to future
The implementation of technologies has gigantic effects regarding food usage and a decrease in waste, to sustain the environment and the parallel growing population. Nowadays, food consumers are more careful, looking for convenience, consistency but also concerned about food quality and affordable costs. Based on spending trends, consumers are more willing to spend even more if innovative food technologies can meet their needs. Hence, a new market enriched with novel trends and opportunities is evolving. But to what are these innovations related?
Bringing innovation into the food and agricultural industry refers to new types of raw material processing engineering, packaging and labeling, and food additives to preserve flavors and enhance tastes. Thus, technological solutions would be provided to prevent the natural decomposition of food, to modify nutrients into healthier and more tasty, or when talking about crops, to reduce the risk of diseases while also increasing the response to weather conditions . Moreover, the implementation of food technologies would also be effective in solving malnutrition which affects 462 million adults, currently underweight, 149 million children estimated to be stunted for their age, and around 45% of deaths among children due to undernutrition .
Before speculating on the future of the food and associated technologies, worthwhile is the investigation of nowadays processes and challenges in response to innovation. Today food techs cover grocery ordering and delivery. Differently, the challenges of tomorrow concern scalability and contamination in the supply chain stimulating entrepreneurs to invest in innovative technologies to reach new horizons. In this perspective, the future of food tech relates to three main areas: customers tech, industry tech, and supply chain .
Primarily, the development of technologies aims to respond to consumers’ needs and demands. Organic food trends, alternative/diary products, nutrition, and meal-kit distribution companies are just a few examples. Even Burger King and McDonald’s are now introducing meatless burgers in their menus to attract those customers that usually shop at Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods. However, since the market for plant-based proteins, is going to grow from $5 to $85 billion in a few years from now, companies are commercializing innovative products such as alternative proteins, dairy, and nut-free milk alternatives .
Moreover, industry innovation would also involve how to process, package and distribute food. Industries focus on innovative food processing, high-tech packaging, and new food content to improve ingredients, nutrition, and labeling. Other examples regard food preservation technologies, reduction of waste, and higher quality during food transportation .
Lastly, supply chains are also going to transform. Startups and industries are aimed to increase food traceability while proposing new models to track the provenance of food (e.g., against frauds). The innovation in the supply chain tends to meet the rapid change in consumers’ needs and requests for quality, convenience, sustainability, and gourmet products that would negatively affect fast-food restaurants, which will have to reinvent their business models. Emerging startups are already implementing AI and machine learning systems to prepare healthy food or in partnership with stores and restaurants, robots have already been adopted to deliver food .
Whether it is about tracking food, sustainability, nutrition, novel ingredients, or reduced waste, innovative solutions are covering each stage of the whole food industry and where advanced technologies are going to have a primary role from production, packaging, delivery, and consuming. Investing in this sector would generate great business successes to support healthier and sustainable food production and delivery .
Reinventing food: from production, preparation, delivery, to consumption
As previously mentioned, in 1790, farm jobs accounted for 90% of U.S. jobs, compared to <2% today. However, the shift toward food supply is necessary for response to disruption in food production which regards :
- Bioprinting of meat: based on a statistic in 2016, 63 billion land animals were needed to feed the worldwide population. However, this means that land animals utilize 8% of the water supply while generating 18% of greenhouse gases. To reduce the environmental impact with a more sustainable response, innovative industries such as Modern Meadow, a Singularity University company implement bioprinting to grow meat (beef, chicken, pork) and leather in the lab. Bioprinting meat would bring a great advantage allowing the feeding of the global population with 99% less land, 96% less water, 96% fewer greenhouse gases, and 45% less energy.
- Genetically engineered crops (GMOs): After 30 years of research on GMOs, innovation in food production regards genetically engineered crops revolutionizing modern agriculture. Already in 2016, over 75% of crop yield in the U.S. was genetically modified. Proving the safety of GMO meals, engineered crops will regard a faster growth while using more efficiently the sunlight, the growth in saltier waters due to the rise in sea levels, growth in more arid lands, and enveloped with specific nutrients.
- Vertical farming: to reduce food transportation and additional price related to it, food will be produced in artificial intelligence-controlled vertical buildings, resistant to weather allowing crops to grow in optimal and more suitable conditions. In this direction, the implementation of clean-room technologies would permit the avoidance of pesticides, herbicides that affect the environment. Likewise, the use of fossil fuels, fertilizing, seeding, weeding, and harvesting will no more be used. Lastly, delaying the loss of biodiversity will be determined by the possibility of reforesting the old farmland.
- Production closer to home: when implementing vertical farming and genetic engineering crops, the production of food will be decentralized. Thus, food can be easily produced near home with a great cost reduction and decreased food transportation.
- Plant-based meat alternatives: translating plants into food tastings like meat or eggs has been possible thanks to innovative companies such as Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat, and Hampton Creek Foods. Moreover, data scientists at Hampton Creek Foods are weeding out billions of proteins from hundreds of thousands of plants to learn to produce the equivalent of a chicken’s egg, while generating one of the largest worldwide plant databases.
Have you ever counted how much time do you spend on food preparation each day? On average, the United States spends 10.5 million minutes preparing food and cleanup. Reinventing the future of food would disrupt the way of preparing food. In this regard, a few technologies proposed to prepare food are :
- 3D printed food: companies such as 3D Systems, Natural Machines, Print2Taste, and startups are working on preparing 3D printed food, from chocolate, sugars, starches, proteins to spices, and mostly in the perspective of personalized and custom-based nutrition.
- Personalized nutrition: 3D printed food is customized based on individual and personal needs, a person’s microbiome, genome, and blood type. In this regard, Viome is an AI-based technology to detect the activity of the gut microbiome discovering those foods and supplements that match ideally the individual’s microbiome. Based on research that goes beyond the DNA, the analysis of mRNA is focused on investigating those internal and external factors (e.g., diet, stress, exercise, disease, pathogens) that can affect the individual and how to modify these factors to improve health and life. Hence, Viome’s team aims to support a healthy and disease-free life in people through health insights, personalized food, and supplements in the perspective of precision medicine.
- Artificial intelligence to design recipes: IBM’s Watson is implementing machine learning systems to develop innovative recipes beyond human capabilities. Indeed, the algorithms can find the best mix between the taste of food and its chemical content.
- Food is fuel: innovative companies are also focusing on enhancing the nutritional content of food, optimizing the content of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats to match individual body needs.
New Apps have been developed to reshape the future of food delivery. GrubHub, Postmates, Doordash, and UberEATS are just a few examples, mostly involving :
- Food on demand: new companies are now involved in delivering high-quality, restaurant, and chef-prepared food directly on customers’ doorstep on demand. UberEATS is a great example, that in partnership with hundreds of restaurants was able to make already a few million deliveries.
- Drone delivery: in 2016 the commercial drone market was estimated to be worth $552 million, and clearly with an increasing perspective. Domino’s pizza has already invested in drones to deliver pizza in New Zealand, although under a few food size regulations to allow drones to fly safely in different windy conditions. However, more has yet to come.
Incremental or disruptive change? A great example of a transformative switch toward disruption is given by the New Jersey pizza restaurant Pizza Love has been evolved into an innovative startup tech-powered pizza called PizzaHQ that utilizes robots and other technologies to create a more affordable pizza with the same recipe and quality. Becoming part of a novel trend in the restaurant industry, PizzaHQ had to adapt to the increasing rate for digital ordering and delivery generating new business models based on “online-only restaurants” automated by “ghost kitchens.”
However, pizza restaurants are not the only ones to implement robots. Indeed, a few years ago a restaurant called CaliBurger introduced Flippy, the first robot to make fries and burgers. Nowadays, more commercial, customized, and advanced versions were proposed such as Miso robotics Flippy 2. This new robot can perform without the need for human assistance over an entire fry station, doubling the amount of food prepared while covering each task of the cooking process. Being Flippy 2 more performing than its previous version, relying on automated AI-based systems would also respond to the increasing demand for fried food among Americans and the impossibility for restaurants to hire as many as needed employees. Thus, high-tech food robots are not just helpful but mostly a real necessity. Similarly, in Tokyo the major Japanese convenience store operator FamilyMart Co. introduced an AI-based robot that automatically restocks drinks by predicting sales based on the time and season. The choice of implementing a robot was also to reduce the fatigue and workload of employees while assigning them to high-value-added tasks such as serving customers.
Cute, colorful, multilingual, and customizable robots were also introduced at Dallas businesses, La Duni, and Ari Korean BBQ restaurants to welcome guests. The robots are bussing tables, bringing clients’ orders, cleaning tables, and helping waitresses to earn more tips. With a “simultaneous location and mapping solution” (SLAM) technology, these robots are also quick learners. Furthermore, also in Florida, a restaurant chain declared that staff earned more tips after having invested in a robot of $US1000 to carry plates. This robot is in charge to carry the food from the kitchen to clients, while staff can talk with guests serving even more tables, and earning more tips. In addition, Servi robots use 3D cameras and laser-sensing technologies to move around the dining room becoming real “personal assistants.” Hence, robots like Savi are the solution to many US restaurants that are currently struggling to hire and keep the staff, who leave for better working conditions and benefits.
Even Amazon is bringing cashier-less technology to Whole Foods. Built with cameras, AI-based algorithms, and a mobile app to detect customers’ choices, this system is called Just Walk Out and is aimed to generate in-store purchases without the help of traditional cashiers and staffers who will be more responsible for assisting clients. Merging online with offline shopping has been also proposed by Albertsons launching an AI-powered grocery cart in local stores. This high-tech cart would allow to quickly buy groceries without visiting the store, supporting customers’ shopping in a more digital and tech experience. Furthermore, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic and social distancing, which required a change in lifestyles and purchases, the Central Food Retail Co, operator of Tops Supermarket, Food Hall, and Tops Daily has introduced an AI service robot to offer convenience to consumers while adapting to new customers behaviors. Thus, the AI-based robot was intended to promote promotions and new products with the effect of increasing sales and special offers for clients, mostly based on customers’ features. Moreover, the robot can also indicate where to go matching clients’ needs saving their time and effort; an innovative and technological solution to transform supermarkets while supporting customers in their shopping experiences.
Lastly, not just in restaurants, even at home usage 3D-printed coffee-making robot has been proposed by a U.K.-based YouTuber, who has a strong interest in engineering but is also probably too lazy to make a cup of coffee every time. Who doesn’t want a 3D-printed coffee maker at home?
Our actions today make our future tomorrow
“The food crisis is coming - and even faster than climate change.” Besides the damage to the earth’s ecosystem, the food crisis is estimated to happen around 2050, and it seems that humans have to immediately find a solution to preserve their survival on this planet.
In this article, we have seen how advanced technologies may help the restoration of resources, moving from scarcity to abundance. Once again, welcoming and embracing disruptive technologies in our daily life brings the advantage to unlock unlimited opportunities and a future even brighter than imagined.
In hospitals, in restaurants, or even at home. Innovative technologies, digital gastronomy, and 3D-printed food is the solution for customizable, nutrient, sustainable products and are suitable for every human need. In conclusion, although the future of food is driven by technologies, government policies and business ethics will play a central role in this game. Thus, the government should provide farmers with capital enabling them to invest in technologies, create a structure of collaboration between farmers, universities, and industries, encourage the implementation of technologies while supporting farmers along this transformative process, and lastly, embrace big data to introduce “smart farming” approaches.
Are you ready to eat your first artificial food or even insects?
“The future of food means that food systems enhance food and nutrition security for all, are economically sustainable, are inclusive and have a positive on climate and environment.” (Francesco Branca)
- M. Klimczuk-Kochańska, A. Klimczuk, Innovation in Food and Agriculture, [in:] P.B. Thompson, D.M. Kaplan (eds.), Encyclopedia of Food and Agricultural Ethics, Second Edition, Springer, Dordrecht 2018, pp. 1-7, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-6167-4_628-1.
- WHO (2021). Malnutrition. Available at: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/malnutrition [Accessed on November 16, 2021]
- Fung, I. (2019). The present and future of food tech investment opportunity. TechCrunch. Available at: https://techcrunch.com/2019/10/22/the-foodtech-investment-opportunity-present-and-future/?guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAAh9JMniF5_JPlqiR4eea_LcTLZ6bks1kpN203sREeGU1hLXBdEWZoMMf5vuY4kHlw49PzAkymT7RxEzcd9Hii939e39iA5YFRjc07jISiWJ0eCGSzaND8KZhmT1M0zUaMsvnvO63iyCXs3VQmTvbMSt-LJe4tf29_JsUHGrjO1c&guccounter=2 [Accessed on November 16, 2021]
- Diamandis, P. (2016). Reinventing Food. Peter H. Diamandis Blog. Available at: https://www.diamandis.com/blog/reinventing-food [Accessed on November 16, 2021]
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