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Game Changers in Tech: Food

From empty supermarkets to deserted restaurants, the first sign of a major crisis is usually food scarcity. This is not just true of the post-pandemic world of 2020, which has seen governments intervene on an unprecedented scale in the hospitality sector to protect jobs; it’s universal. 

Thanks to technology, wholesalers and supermarkets have been able to build complex just-in-time supply chains to ensure the quick delivery of fresh produce – and while these offer less food security than initially thought, this year has shown that our food system has a technological underpinning which can be easily adapted to crisis. Ocado, the British online supermarket, has seen its share prices more than double since March, largely thanks to its fully-automated robotic pick-and-pack system which was able to ensure groceries made it to customers during the height of pandemic while brick-and-mortar store shelves lay empty. 

Beyond logistics, though, technology is already playing a vital role in changing how – and what – we eat. The case could easily be made that Instagram alone is responsible for a huge number of popular food trends, from the bubble waffle to avocado toast, as people begin to digitalise their consumption and reflexively form new tastes and habits just from social media. 

The rise of the plant-based meat market, currently valued at more than $12.1 billion USD,  is largely thanks to the lab innovations of companies like Beyond Meat and, latterly, cultured ‘lab-grown’ meats. When you begin to think about the implications of a social media platform influencing people to eat plant-based burgers grown in a lab, and the impact that can have on our use of agricultural land, it’s clear we aren’t just talking about meat and two veg anymore. 

Of course, these innovations are largely the domain of industrialized countries which have already had an abundance of food. For hundreds of thousands of people, famine and food shortages are an everyday reality. The explosion in Beirut earlier last month destroyed not only much of the city, but the country’s only grain silo, plunging Lebanon into a food crisis after months of economic and political turmoil. 

The UN World Food Programme reacted quickly, immediately allocating 5000 food parcels to those in need and leveraging a digital transfers platform which sees 107,000 Lebanese people provided with e-cards loaded with cash. While there’s no end in sight for Lebanon’s woes, technology has provided NGOs with a means of tackling short-term food security challenges.

Disruption has characterised the agri-food sector around the world, as consumers seek increased transparency as to where their food comes from and the impact it will have on their health and bodies. This disruption is set to continue, as firms race to build effective blockchains that can be used across the food supply chain. 

So far, blockchain is already being deployed as a means of tracing high-end specialist food products, but is showing promising results. The Sustainable Shrimp Partnership, for example, promises ‘100% traceability’ from farm to fork using blockchain ledger technology. Meanwhile, the IBM Food Trust platform is already making waves, helping everyone from Cermaq salmon producers to Carrefour dairy farms integrate resilience, traceability, and increased food safety into their products.

The food we eat has changed beyond recognition in the last decade, mostly for the better. But significant structural challenges remain – and technology continually offers new ways of tackling them.

June 2020


June 2021