We look at which innovations in technology have the potential to change our food system, and which ones might be more about novelty than sustainability.

The future of our food system will inescapably involve technology. We are surrounded by tech-driven innovations in how we grow, produce, and consume our food—from 3D-printed pizza to blockchain-enabled traceability to ever-more flamboyant artificial flavors and eating experiences. (Think rainbow bagels). With a swell of new technologies on the horizon, which will cultivate a sustainable and productive food system?  Some may prove to be passing fads, while others will lead the way to ethically and sustainably sourced food. We evaluate some of the latest headlines in food tech to identify the most promising applications here.

BLOCKCHAIN TECHNOLOGY

Food fraud currently costs the global economy 40 billion dollars annually. Blockchain may be the solution. While this technology is most often associated with Bitcoin (it’s first application) it stands to bring a profound new form of transparency to our food system. By creating a verifiable record of each step along a food’s sourcing, manufacturing, and distribution, the blockchain of food could lend validation to the concept of “farm to table” and substantially reduce food fraud. Blockchain-supported verifiability is especially profound for the seafood industry, where mislabeling and deception run rampant. In our current crisis of overexploited fisheries and precarious ocean ecosystems, transparency is essential for responsible sourcing.

Blockchain could also help curtail or prevent dangerous foodborne bacteria outbreaks. With detailed information about the offending food’s distribution, supply chain applications can rapidly alert grocery stores and restaurants of outbreaks. And this technology could eventually impact consumers even more directly. Imagine a not-so-distant future in which a shopper can scan a barcode on a package in a grocery store and immediately access information about the origin, sustainability, or healthfulness of the product. The food applications of blockchain may not be as immediately visible to consumers now, but it may prove a game changer for ecological health and personal wellbeing.

In a more strictly financial sense, blockchain can also alleviate cross-border payment concerns with imported and exported foods. As Foodtank recently pointed out, the peer-to-peer transactions made possible by blockchain reduce the need for third-parties, and help various actors throughout the food system receive fast and fair compensation.

  Image:  TechSmartt

Image: TechSmartt

3D PRINTED FOOD

The novelty of 3D-printed food is hard to resist, and it gets a large share of attention in “future food” media coverage. But is there any potential for 3D printed food to generate meaningful change? Arguably, it reinforced negative outcomes in many of its first applications, which were primarily sugar-heavy confections. This technology works by printing layers of material (in this case, edible material) to create a shape determined by an uploaded design. Substances like sugar, gelatin, and other stabilizers make for good printing material, rendering the resulting food biologically somewhat similar to processed food (albeit more intricate and customized). Now some companies, like Foodini, are attempting to develop fresh ingredient-based applications (for both commercial and consumer kitchens),  eschewing additives and stabilizers. However, even so-called “fresh” 3D printed foods still leave the question: How much potential is there for this technology to make substantial change to some of today’s most pressing health and environmental challenges? The printers are not affordable for most consumers, rendering their potential convenience inaccessible to most home chefs. And, they further remove consumers from the source of their food. Ultimately, most of the foods currently produced by 3D printing lean more towards novelty.

With that said, there are a few niche health-related applications where 3D printing may prove beneficial. It could be useful individuals that can no longer make food for themselves, and the small subset of people with swallowing disorders requiring specific food textures. But for the average consumer, food waste is the most exciting application—3D printing can repurpose food waste into a printable material. A notable effort in this area is the work of AgriDust, which turns compost-type food waste into a printable material to make containers for plants, foods, and other short-use packages. The impact is succinct and direct, making it one of the most promising 3D printing innovations.

LAB-GROWN MEAT

With beef’s undeniably large carbon footprint, and with global demand for meat on the rise, the way we produce meat is under unprecedented scrutiny. That’s why the technology driving lab-grown meat is an important consideration for creating change in our food system. By producing meat without animals (or the water, feed or land needed to raise them), consumers could soon have the option of a near-identical product with almost no environmental impact. But will consumers adopt lab-grown meat as a replacement, and what legal barriers could stand in its way?

When Dutch scientists showcased the first-ever lab-grown beef hamburger in 2013, tasters reported no noticeable difference from real beef. Since then, at least ten lab-grown meat companies have emerged across the globe racing to get their product to market and, importantly, to ensure governments know what to call lab-grown “meat” and how to regulate it. Traditional meat organizations and producers obviously do not want these products to legally be called “meat.” Competition presents serious problems to the viability of the conventional meat market, and so lab-grown meat producers may be in for a legal battle. More importantly, producers will need to verify the health and safety of their product; the USDA and FDA are currently struggling to establish rules for who will deem lab-grown meat safe to eat (the former regulates traditional meat, while the latter oversees processed foods). As we evaluate the future of these products, keeping an eye on policy will be important.

Still, there is good reason to believe lab-grown products will be allowed to go to market as “meat," so the question that remains is: Will people eat it? Given the substantial merits of cultured meat, Bruce Friedrich, executive director of the Good Food Institute (a nonprofit organization that helps companies bring their cultured meat and plant-based products to market—thinks it will be a success. "Clean meat gives you everything that people get from eating meat, or want from eating meat, from live animals but without the things people prefer not to think about," Friedrich told Engadget in March. Despite it’s radical divergence from how traditional meat makes it from farm to plate, cultured meat could have a real place on menus and grocery store shelves in the near future. 

VIRTUAL REALITY

Designers have been exploring the potential of using virtual reality to alter traditional eating experiences. One such endeavor is Project Nourished, a virtual reality technology designed to provide the sensory and visual experience of eating “without the calories.” The creators ostensibly feature “sustainable and nutritious foods,” including algae and insects, in their hydrocolloid-based miniature food cubes, but there’s a relatively limited impact, given the rarity of the technology. One intriguing application of Project Nourished, however, is their suggestion of creating digital copies of foods threatened by climate change, overfishing, and natural disasters, thereby preserving some form of it for future generations. Overall, nonetheless, the project is more about an aesthetic experience than food systems intervention.

In a similar vein, augmented reality, which projects digital objects onto the real world, has also ventured into sustainable eating futures. The Economist teamed up with Kabaq to create “Future Meals,” a Snapchat AR lens which projects ingredients like insects, spirulina, and fake meat onto real meals captured by the user’s camera. While such applications get credit for exposing users to important trajectories in the development of sustainable foods, the risk is that users are turned off by bugs crawling on their pizza or seaweed in their soup, and become further alienated from such possibilities.
 

CELL-PHONE BASED APPS FOR FARMERS

Cell phones may no longer feel futuristic when compared to VR and 3D printers, but new types of apps available for smallholder farmers make a substantial impact on how they do business. From mobile banking apps which help farmers manage their finances to sources for reliable information on farming best practices, to quick access to markets for selling their product, these cell phone-based applications can provide real advantages. An app pioneered by SACAU is even able to use aggregation to create a “virtual cooperative” and leverage the volume of farmers’ available products to negotiate better prices with suppliers. Taken together, the diverse types of information and aggregate resources available via cell phone apps have a measurable and considerate impact on how the majority of the world’s food producers do business, especially in developing countries.

FOOD HUB LOGISTICS TECHNOLOGY

With the increasing demand for locally-sourced food and farm-fresh produce, the logistics systems behind food hubs deserve a closer look. Food hubs strive to source from regional growers and distribute local food to institutions, restaurants, and consumers (via farmers markets and residential delivery). With growing awareness of the carbon footprint of food which travels long distances to get to our tables, the craze for local food stands to become a long-term and robust trend. But in order for it to be viable long-term, food hubs must be able to keep costs down for consumers, while also ensuring that farmers are paid a fair wage. The key to this? Efficiency. “Food hubs are thriving because they are plugging into our established mainstream systems: they’re not asking consumers to go out of their way to eat local, nor are they requiring retailers or institutions to spend precious time ordering from dozens of different farms,” says Eva Clark, Head of Communications at HowGood. “The more food hubs can plug into modern, mainstream procurement practices, the better they’ll be able to service their customers and support their farms. Better technology creates efficiency, and efficiency keeps costs down. It’s as simple as that.” Similarly, Tom McDougall, the founder of 4P Foods, believes that food hubs are ripe for better technology, especially in the areas of logistics, optimization, and operational solutions, which could catalyze growing local and regional food systems. Technology—even seemingly mundane logistics systems—are critical in helping to maximize efficiencies and keep local food economies thriving.

Overall, we will have to continue to consider unforeseen ramifications of all of these technologies, and evaluate where they are the most effective and make the most sense.