Can Technology Actually Change Our Food Systems?
Many recent food innovations appeal purely to novelty, but these six show actual promise for the future of food
It’s an unavoidable fact that the future of our food systems will involve technology. We are surrounded by headlines about how our eating has gone tech—from 3D-printed pizza to lab-grown meat to ever-more flamboyant artificial flavors and eating experiences (think: rainbow bagels). With a swell of new technologies on the horizon, will any of them actually change our relationships with food for the better? Many will be relegated to the realm of passing fads, the one-hit wonders of gastronomy. Others, however, will lead the way to a future food system that is rooted in both ethics and sustainability. Here are some of the most promising recent applications.
If you're familiar with blockchain technology, you're probably thinking, "but what does Bitcoin have to do with my dinner?" While most commonly associated with the enigmatic cryptocurrency Bitcoin, its first major application, blockchain is a much wider type of technology that be utilized in the medical industry, in elections, and in keeping tabs on our food. The basic premise behind blockchain is that it creates a secure, uneditable record of transactions, which verifies the validity and source of something. With the heightened concern about where our food comes from, blockchain could be a powerful tool in our farms, grocery stores, and restaurants. 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 illegitimate or mislabeled food fraud. (Food fraud currently costs the global economy a staggering 40 billion dollars annually.) 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, it is more essential than ever that we know where our seafood is coming from.
Blockchain could also help curtail dangerous foodborne bacteria outbreaks, like the recent McDonald's salad food poisonings and the salmonella-related Goldfish recall. With detailed information about an offending food's distribution, grocery stores and restaurants could be rapidly alerted of outbreaks, and pull dangerous foods from the shelves quickly and efficiently.
Blockchain 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 its origin, sustainability, or nutrition. Is that bluefin tuna actually bluefin tuna? (A recent study in Brussels showed an astonishing 98% of tuna labeled as bluefin was not.) Barcodes or QR codes on foods in both grocery stores and at restaurants could give us a powerful tool in verifying what we’re eating.
3D Printed Food
The novelty of 3D-printed food is hard to resist. 3D-printed pizza is the obvious crowd favorite, but in all honesty, it's hard to figure out the advantage of using a robot to assemble something as simple as, well, pizza. Furthermore, considering our country's obesity crisis, should we really be making it even easier to eat more pizza?
3D-printed foods originated, for the most part, with sugar-heavy confections. Since 3D printing works by putting down layers of material (in this case, edible material) to create a shape predetermined by an uploaded design, substances like sugar and gelatin made for good printing substances. The resulting printed objects ended up not that different from processed food, albeit more intricate and customized.
Some companies, like Foodini, are now 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 beg the question: Will this technology actually move the needle on any of today's most pressing health and environmental challenges? 3D food printers are not affordable for most consumers, rendering their potential convenience inaccessible to most home chefs. Moreover, they further remove consumers from the source of their food and from any skills in home cooking and meal preparation.
With that said, there are a few niche applications where 3D printing may prove beneficial down the road, given ample funding and dedication. For example, it could be useful for elderly or disabled individuals that can no longer make food for themselves, or for the small subset of people with swallowing disorders who require specific food textures. The most viable niche application out there has to do with repurposing food waste into a printable material. AgriDust has started turning 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.
Most people are on the fence about eating "meat" grown in a petri dish. But 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 behind 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 required to raise them), consumers could soon have the option of a near-identical product with a lesser environmental impact. The main issues on the table are: Is it all that eco-friendly to produce this meat? What will we call it and how will it be regulated? And, of course, will people eat it?
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. But it's not so simple: Traditional meat producers do not want these products to legally labeled as "meat." Competition like that would present serious problems to the viability of the conventional meat market, and meat industry lobbyists won't go down without a fight. More importantly, lab-grown meat producers will need to verify the health and safety of their product. Currently, the USDA and FDA are 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). On the sidelines, the debate is still raging as to whether lab-grown meat can be considered vegan, and whether we should instead focus our efforts on building a culture where we simply eat less meat, instead of trying to grow it in new ways. The latter makes one of the best cases against techno-meat, and acknowledges the bigger problem with our culture of consumption.
Still, there is good reason to believe lab-grown products will ultimately be allowed to go to market as “meat," and there will be great interest from consumers looking to decrease their carbon footprint. Despite it’s radical divergence from how tradition, cultured meat could have a real place on menus and grocery store shelves in the near future.
As designers and programmers work to perfect virtual experiences, some have tinkered with adding dinner to the menu. Project Nourished is a virtual reality technology designed to provide the sensory and visual experience of eating "without the calories," by reproducing the aromas, textures, and even chewing sounds associated with eating. Beyond the obvious novelty, what is the broader impact? The creators ostensibly feature sustainable and nutritious foods, including algae and insects, in their hydrocolloid-based miniature textured food cubes, adding a layer of purpose to the project. They also suggest the future creation of "digital copies" of foods threatened by climate change, overfishing, and natural disasters, thereby preserving some form of it for future generations.
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 a New York–based startup called 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 new resources available via cell phone apps have a considerable 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, it's worth taking a look at how that food is getting onto shelves. Much of that is powered by the (admittedly boring) logistics systems of food hubs. Food hubs strive to source from regional growers and distribute local food to institutions, restaurants, and consumers (often via farmers markets). With growing awareness of the carbon footprint of food that travels long distances to get to our tables, the craze for local food stands to become a robust and long-term trend. But if we're going to meet the soaring demand for local strawberries and squash, 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're not asking consumers to go out of their way to eat local," says Eva Clark, Head of Communications at HowGood. "Better technology creates efficiency, and efficiency keeps costs down. It's as simple as that." Technology—even seemingly mundane logistics systems—are critical in helping to keep local food economies thriving.
In hindsight, some of our current food tech fads may end up on the gastronomic cutting room floor, alongside McDonald's McSpaghetti, GE's attempt to build kitchen cabinet refrigerators, and NRC's combination microwave / banking system (so you can pay your bills while you wait for your TV dinner to heat up, of course).
The most important of these food tech innovations will ultimately be the ones that help us arrive at a more sustainable and ethical food system, and not just provide good fodder for Instagram.
This article was originally published on the FoodFutureCo’s Harvest Blog.