From field to fork in 2030

As awareness of climate change and waste grows, the way we produce and consume food has to change, and new technology could be the answer

A global population explosion, land shortages, extremes of weather, and even trade wars are just a few of the challenges facing the future of food production. In meeting these challenges, the world of food and its journey from field to fork will undergo transformation and disruption on an unprecedented scale.

Trends in societal and consumer behaviours will be key drivers of this. Social responsibility, once considered a fad, is a commercial reality in the food and beverage marketplace, as Colin Elkins, global industry director for process manufacturing at IFS, explains.

“A more socially aware consumer audience with greater access to information will switch buying behaviour purely on a social agenda,” he says. “This makes for a fundamental issue in an industry dependent on brand loyalty.”

Social responsibility, once considered a fad, is a commercial reality in the food and beverage marketplace

Consumers have a role to play in reducing the huge field-to-fork wastage that occurs during production. Efforts to make life easier for consumers by selling vegetables ready peeled and diced create huge amounts of waste, while perfectly edible fruit and vegetables that fail to meet the retailers’ aesthetic requirements are simply dug back into the ground.

“These wastes are not small,” adds Mr Elkins. “I once witnessed Brussels sprouts being sorted where the yield was less than 40 per cent, and 60 per cent of the crop was destroyed for the sake of a few leaves starting to peel away from the core of the sprout.”

Growing customer support for the ‘wonky’ fruit and vegetable movement is encouraging. Meanwhile in food packaging, growing shopper concerns over single-use, flexible packaging – a major source of avoidable plastic waste – have not gone unnoticed.

“Most single-use, flexible packaging cannot be recycled and will last for 500 years or more in landfills,” says Daphna Nissenbaum, chief executive of compostable packaging company TIPA. “Companies are now looking at smart packaging materials that offer the same technical capabilities as plastic, with compostable packaging currently the most viable option that can achieve an end-of-life of zero waste.”

Consumer and social trends aside, it is the technology revolution, driven by artificial intelligence, the internet of things (IoT) and big data, that will power the future of the food industry, with more global tech players entering the agricultural and food manufacturing space.

Among the moves:

  • “Smart greenhouses” in Japan are being powered by IoT technology from Amazon’s AWS cloud computing division.
  • Microsoft is offering artificial intelligence solutions to agribusinesses in the US to improve yields.
  • Alibaba and other Chinese tech giants are offering peer-to-peer lending, online planting advice and other digital services to boost the country’s small-scale producers.

It isn’t just how food is produced that is being transformed by technological innovations, but where, by enabling a shift in proximity to the customer via the concept of vertical indoor farming. In the UK, large, industrial-scale growing facilities are allowing food to be produced closer to its ultimate destination: the table.

Current, the smart lighting arm of General Electric, recently partnered with Jones Food Company to build Europe’s largest vertical indoor farm in the UK, where plants grow in ideal, clean conditions with little or no human contact, from seed to harvest, eliminating the need for pesticides.

“This type of facility also avoids expensive import costs, reduces spoilage issues and transportation-related emissions factors,” says Lauren Mierley Cramér, chief executive of Europe for Current. “We will see more global technology brands and retailers diversifying into the food industry with the aim of driving sustainability, transparency and improvements within the food supply chain.”

In food packaging, growing shopper concerns over single-use, flexible packaging have not gone unnoticed

The manufacture of alternative proteins is another significant technology innovation in food production. Although not yet commercially viable, lab-grown meat is a source of alternative protein that will play a big role in the future of food and, with rapid advances in technology, could achieve mass-market status sooner rather than later.

As Katrina Anderson, associate at global law firm Osborne Clarke, points out, alternative proteins are already being sold, and are likely to gain popularity in the coming years. “We have seen a number of interesting startups producing insect protein, such as cricket flour, gain traction in other markets, and this acceptance widely correlates with the environmental, sustainability and ethical demands of consumers,” she says.

Globally food and agribusiness is a $5-trillion industry, representing 10 per cent of global consumer spend, according to McKinsey, and the complex value chain behind it is creating both the demand and the opportunity for innovation that will inevitably drive fierce competition and create further challenges.

This competition will comprise macro industry-based disruption, typified by the likes of Amazon entering the food and beverage market, and micro disruption from regional, even town-centred, suppliers, arguably providing the toughest competition, says Mr Elkins.

“These enthusiastic entrants are far more agile and often single product focused, producing innovative products and ingredients that are actively taking up shelf space in competition with the multinational producers,” he adds.

In years to come, regardless of their size or their position in the field-to-fork process, those businesses able to adapt to the change and disruption needed to tackle global challenges will be the ones that define the food and beverage industry of the future.