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How can we navigate the global food crisis with emerging technology?

14 Dec 2023

While there continues to be a dramatic imbalance in the world’s food supply, food futurist Tony Hunter explores how tech innovations could help tip the scale in the right direction.

One of the most critical challenges our society faces is inequality in our food system. While estimates from the World Food Programme suggest that as many as 783m people are facing chronic hunger, there continues to be a huge amount of food waste happening in other parts of the world.

The UN estimates that around 13pc of food produced is lost between harvest and retail, while another 17pc of food production is wasted in households, in the food service industry and in retail. While this inequality is happening, the global population is growing, putting pressure on food producers to meet demand in certain areas of the world, while the food poverty gap widens. Not to mention the climate problems that come with increased food waste.

So what does all this mean for our future? And can technology and innovations in the food industry play a role in fighting any of these societal challenges?

‘You can grow food where there’s no arable land and very, very little fresh water’

“I believe there is no problem on the planet that cannot be solved by the proper use of technology,” said Tony Hunter.

With a background as a food scientist and more than three decades of experience in the food industry, Hunter is a self-proclaimed food futurist. He said that when it comes to solving the global food crisis, it’s not as simple as reducing production in areas where there’s too much waste and moving it to places that are suffering from food insecurity.

“There is the world as we would like it to be and there is the world as it is. In the world as it is, there’s not enough food. That’s the end of the story. And I think if we look at trying to reduce things like food waste… [it] is going to take generational change. We don’t have generations to wait,” he said.

“We have many technologies at our fingertips which can manufacture food with little or no arable land and fresh water, little or no pollution in terms of run-off or greenhouse gas emissions. If we look at using those technologies, we can create a world of food abundance without breaching planetary boundaries. But we need to apply those technologies correctly.”

Using tech to feed the masses

The food-tech industry is a growing sector that does exactly what it says on the tin – utilises technology to reshape the world’s food system. There are several start-ups around the world working in this space to create a more sustainable and efficient food supply chain at every stage, from agritech and processing to delivery and restaurant tech.

In Ireland for example, FloWaste (now known as FloVision Solutions) is a start-up that is using computer vision to see an end to food waste. In Finland, Solar Foods is a food-tech company working on creating a protein alternative using only renewable electricity, water and air.

“So you can grow food where there’s no arable land and very, very little fresh water,” said Hunter. “And if you look at countries that are going to need food, we’re particularly talking about Sub-Saharan Africa, right? So, guess where the most abundant supply of solar energy is?”

There is often resistance to alternative proteins, particularly when the end goal appears to be convincing consumers to switch to plant-based diets. While alternative ‘meats’ are nothing new, recent iterations such as Beyond Meat are designed to replicate the taste, texture and appearance of the meat products we are used to seeing.

When it comes to environmental impact, research shows that even the lowest-impact animal products typically exceed those of vegetable substitutes so encouraging dietary shifts is an important step in changing our attitudes to food for the betterment of our planet’s future, but it misses the bigger picture when it comes to the true power behind food tech.

“We’re not saying ‘no meat for you’. What we’re saying is, there are other technologies that you could use to supply high-quality protein to feed your population, without generating a huge animal agriculture industry of the scale that we have in places like the US and Australia. You can leapfrog that,” said Hunter.

While food-tech companies are working on producing alternative food sources without a huge agricultural footprint, that doesn’t mean the future of food is without an agricultural sector. In fact, the evolution of technology and how it can change the food chain is perhaps seen most clearly at the beginning of the food production process.

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In Ireland alone, we have companies like ProvEye using drones and computer vision to support crop monitoring, Micron Agritech which has developed a parasite testing kit for animals and Dairy Robotics which designs robotics to automate the process of milking cows.

But there are other technologies at work too that can help produce better yields, save costs, reduce waste and improve sustainability. For example, Pivot Bio is a US-based company that has developed soil microbiomes that can reduce the amount of nitrogen required.

The resistance roadblock

While these innovations are exciting and can make a difference, it’s not as straightforward as deploying and implementing them.

For a start, there are regulatory considerations. And while there once may have been a longer lead-in time for new developments, the growth of generative AI over the last year has shown us just how quickly and impactful new pieces of tech can force us to consider regulatory roadblocks.

For start-ups that are waiting for such regulatory approvals to get off the ground, it might mean burning through money for months or even years. “That’s not a criticism of the regulatory organisations. That’s a criticism of the fact they are not sufficiently funded or resourced to make the decisions in the timeframes that are required,” said Hunter. “We’re talking about deep science here, deep tech. And if they don’t have deep-tech people there and they don’t know if you can understand these things, that puts them at a real disadvantage.”

‘People use questionable science for their own ends’

Speaking of the deep-science side of the house, another major challenge for innovation in the food industry is what Hunter referred to as “anti-science”. The term itself comes with its own issues in that we must be careful how we use it, especially when there is so much manipulation of facts when it comes to politically motivated issues. This has been seen throughout history in everything from tobacco and the use of ‘forever chemicals’ to the climate crisis.

“People use questionable science for their own ends,” said Hunter. “We don’t rely enough on the scientific facts that are there and the scientific consensus. So I think that’s a roadblock.”

He used the example of organisations that are against the production of genetically modified organisms, also known as GMOs. These are animals, plants or microbes whose DNA has been altered using genetic engineering techniques. GMOs can offer significant advantages in food production, including increased yield, decreased pesticide usage and better disease resistance.

But there is both a human psychological aspect to GMO negativity and a strong anti-GMO rhetoric that holds up public fear with what Hunter said are “cherry-picked” facts.

“[There are] entrenched interest groups who often view these new technologies as a threat…[but] you have 2bn more people, you’ve got rising middle classes, you can’t scale animal agriculture to feed those 2bn people. So, what are you worried about? The pie is getting bigger and bigger and bigger…you’re still going to be making money selling animals, [it’s] not going to go away for a long time, [it] doesn’t matter what people would like to think.”

The next generation of food tech

Looking to the future, the innovations that Hunter sees changing the food industry are alternative proteins, cellular agriculture and synthetic biology. In terms of technology, he said AI, quantum computing and sensors will also have a huge impact.

“You can give an AI 2,000 ingredients and say, ‘give me the best combination of five that does this’, and it’ll do it,” he said. To put this to the real-life test, a company called NotCo that develops plant-based milk used its AI tool to create a formulation that best simulates milk.

“It put in pineapple and cabbage flavours, because they best simulate the lactones, a component of milk. No human would ever have been stupid enough to think about that. But the AI didn’t worry about being stupid,” said Hunter.

“We’ve got beverage companies from AB InBev to companies in Europe like Vivi Kola, all using AI to formulate their products. And that is going to have a huge impact on food.”

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Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic