We are what we eat; so the saying goes. And for those at the forefront of ‘food tech’ that means a diet of innovation designed to chew over some of the world’s most pressing problems.

I’ve long been interested in the intersection of the food industry and game changers such as big data, AI and the Internet of things, and how applications emerging from companies may change the way we produce and consume.

Evolving agribusiness to become more sustainable, healthier and more efficient is long overdue and pressing. The global food industry consumes 30 per cent of the energy we produce and emits 22 per cent of the total greenhouse gases, while soil degradation, wasted water and overfishing are undermining our capacity to supply food. With the accompanying population growth, we simply cannot afford not to step up and embrace a food revolution.

But it’s a future with great investment potential too – reflected by rising interest from venture capitalists. Food is, after all, the planet’s biggest industry, with a devoted seven billion customer base. Indeed, the Global Food Tech Market Analysis & Forecast 2016-2022 estimates the food tech sector will be worth US$250 billion by 2022.  

The agri-food industry is calling out for creative tech solutions all along the supply chain, from food preparation to distribution and consumption. These look to solve contemporary challenges such as how to feed the world, climate change, food waste, the lack of natural resources and global digitalisation.

Big stakes call for big ambitions – even if food tech still accounts for only a tiny part of the agri-food industry itself. Nevertheless, these ‘agripreneurs’ are at the bleeding edge, offering research and development projects from biotechnological agriculture, agricultural product trading platforms and bioenergy to agricultural robotics and new crop systems.

Consumption is being transformed by areas such as personalised diets using AI, social networks and DNA to create menus tailored to individuals. Knowing where your food comes from is also an increasing concern for consumers and a driver of their purchasing choices – and blockchain tech is beginning to help supermarkets with food traceability issues – allowing them to guarantee, for instance, that their chicken is antibiotic-free. Meanwhile, distribution is getting an upgrade as robots, remote-controlled vehicles and drones take on delivery, display and inventory.

But it’s meat substitutes that perhaps offer the most exciting and expedient potential for positive impact. Plant-based diets are big news: perhaps the most high-profile flesh substitute, Beyond Meat, made from pea and soy protein (and financed by, among others, Bill Gates and Leonardo Di Caprio), has become a posterchild for the ‘alt-meat’ movement. But cellular laboratory meat too has been causing a stir, with prototypes of cellular agriculture – which cuts out live animal husbandry – expected on the market within the next decade. When you consider animal products produce more than half of all food-related greenhouse gas emissions and use 80 percent of available farmland, it’s clear that reducing their consumption or even changing the way they’re produced – as sci fi as it might seem now – will have huge impact.

In the end, the answers to all our global food issues won’t all come delivered on a plate. Ultimately, though, I do believe that food tech companies offer some of the best hopes to keep them on the menu.

 

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Appetite for innovation

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