With the Food’s Future Summit having just taken place in Hong Kong and with Brinc’s announcement of its new food tech accelerator in partnership with JUST, it is a good moment to explore the food tech industry at large, its promise and prospects.
Perhaps no other industry subject to disruption is as exciting and impactful as the food industry. Concerns over food safety, sustainability and accessibility affect us all and are driving a strong demand for authenticity, transparency and fairness.
By 2050, the world’s population is expected to have grown to 9 billion. By that time, current food production rates and methods are not sufficient. In addition to quantitative shortcomings, environmental developments also pose a threat to the future global supply of food and nutrition. Unresolved, this would leave half of the global population looking for scraps.
Food tech, which seeks to address these issues, marks the intersection between food and technology. It aims to drive transformation at the level of agriculture and food production all the way through the supply chain and distribution channels to the point of consumption and waste management.
Food for thought
Just to get a better idea of some of the things that are happening in food tech at different levels in the chain, we present a quick overview of notable developments. Some of these are discussed in-depth at Food+Tech Connect: one of the great online community building platforms seeking to connect, inspire, inform and accelerate food innovation.
Agriculture & Food Production
A major issue when it comes to sustainability is humanity’s hunger for meat. Considering that it takes approximately 15000 litres of water to produce one kilogram of edible beef and bearing in mind that the agricultural sector is responsible for about 18% of all greenhouse gasses, re-directing our carnivorous tendencies is crucial.
Just have a look at these projections for the global demand for meat:
Tackling the problem head on, Exo is seeking to foster the development of insect-based diets. Crickets to be precise. They are resource-efficient: requiring 12 times less feed than cows; releasing 80 times less methane; and needing only 7 litres of water per kilogram of edible cricket protein.
Aware of a common aversion against eating insects, Exo draws on the power of design in marketing their cricket-based protein bars. In fact, they work with a company-wide ‘no photos of crickets’ rule: anything to remove psychological barriers.
Another highly revolutionising development is that of lab-grown meat and creating other food products without the use of live animals.
One pioneering company contributing to this development is JUST. They turn to plants as a basis for producing food ranging from cookie dough, pasta and ice cream to butter and scrambled eggs.
Changing the world’s mindset one step at a time and in collaboration with like-minded others, products made by JUST can already be found in every Whole Foods, almost every Walmart and even in one of the busiest streets in Hong Kong.
Supply Chain & Distribution
It is generally accepted that fresh, locally produced food is more beneficial in terms of health and nutrition. Micro-farms are more inclined to adopt responsible methods of production and are easier to track down for food safety purposes.
To enhance connectivity between local farms and chefs, retail stores and end consumers, with the goal of ensuring that more people have access to fresh and healthy food, FarmersWeb has created farm management software to Uberise food distribution enabling sellers and buyers to find each other more easily.
Freight Farms works towards the same goal of ensuring better access to fresh produce. However, they do so by providing the tools that enable fresh food production in any environment, irrespective of climate.
Their fully operational hydroponic up-cycled container-turned-mini-farm allows farmers to grow food, anywhere. When off-site, farmers use the farmhand app to monitor their operation, bringing transparency and control of the production process to unparalleled heights.
Another company that aims to enhance accessibility to fresh, local produce is Hong Kong-based Rooftop Republic. Collaborating with designers, chefs, nutritionists, architects and organic farm specialists, they are making urban farming a reality.
Delivering their solution holistically, beyond connecting locals with their food sources, Rooftop Republic leverages urban farming to educate urban dwellers about farming; contribute to greening the city and thereby improving air quality; and build a stronger community.
Consumption & Waste Management
As much as the food industry is driven by production processes and distribution chains, consumer behaviour is a major influence. However, making the right choices is difficult. Especially considering the abundance of food marketing, fad diets and false information with which everyday consumers are confronted.
With over 25 million users and 2 million recipes, Yummly is one of the leading companies that utilises technology and data analysis to guide consumers in a personalised manner. Based on preferences, lifestyle, health and allergies, their app helps consumers decide what to eat.
Yummly's enterprise is part of a larger movement where wearables such as Fitbit or the Apple watch and apps like ShopWell and Fooducate leverage technology to monitor and improve our health through personalised guidance.
At the end of the line, food tech companies specialise in reducing the amount of uneaten foods ending up in landfills. Smart systems, like the one developed by WISErg, utilise technology to reinvent food waste management and turn food scraps into organic fertilisers to grow the food for tomorrow.
The future of eating
Stories of plastic islands in the ocean, fake rice, cities with insufficient fresh water supplies, animal cruelty, pesticide-laden fruits and mass obesity cast a dark shadow.
At the same time, however, it is good to realise that we are living in an incredibly exciting time with rapid innovation happening at all levels of the food chain: from how food is produced to how we eat.
There are vast challenges. Change is not simply a matter of introducing new technologies and methods, but it also requires adaptation in terms of culture and mindset.
In addition, while green living and organic food is gaining popularity, the matter of universal accessibility is key to impacting the future significantly. Healthy food that can be trusted should not merely be a luxurious option for the wealthy, but a basic fact for all.
Despite these challenges, with food tech at the table there is no reason to be pessimistic.
It is not naïve to believe in a future world where everyone has access to fresh, sustainably and locally produced vegetables and the finest plant-based steaks to satisfy appetites. A world where food habits no longer threaten but improve public health and where localised community building projects around resource management and consumption is scaled up to a global level.
Food tech is about making healthy living a reality for everyone.