The ongoing pandemic has fundamentally changed so many things we once took for granted and accelerated some technologies. Futurist Tony Hunter looks at what this means for the future of food? This article first appeared in the January/February 2022 edition of Food & Drink Business.
In the recently published book Aftershocks and Opportunities 2: Navigating the Next Horizon, my chapter, Five Technologies Shaping the Post-Pandemic Future of Food, examines the disruptive role of technology, how it is advancing exponentially, and how it can close loopholes. in the food system exposed by the pandemic. From there, I developed my TECHXponential concept, exploring this new horizon of food as technology.
The 2020-21 pandemic has irrevocably changed our world. But what might be the legacy of the pandemic for the very future of the food, beverage and agribusiness industries?
Glimpse the future
Many developments are shaping the future of food, ranging from natural farming approaches, advances in agricultural science and precision farming, to technological developments, better use of data analytics and innovations in food processing.
I want to focus on the future potential of five critical and exponentially advanced technologies that were already exerting a growing influence on the future of food before the pandemic: genomics, microbiome, cellular agriculture, alternative proteins and biology synthetic.
These could have an even greater impact in the years to come as we seek to address the issues and risks highlighted during the crisis, including hunger and food security, food sovereignty, costs, waste , supply chain vulnerabilities, quality, reliability, environmental impacts and sustainability.
So, the legitimate question arises as to what have been the knock-on effects of the pandemic on these technologies in relation to the future of food?
Examination of recent signals of change in these technologies suggests that their development is continuing and that they are still central to the future food agenda. In practice, product sales are increasing for alternative proteins and microbiome-based gut health solutions; genomics and synthetic biology are combined to fight the virus and generate valuable new knowledge; the cellular agriculture research program was virtually unaffected; and venture capital investments in agribusiness technologies continue largely unabated.
Despite continued disruptions, these signals suggest that the fundamental long-term trajectory of these technologies in the food, beverage and agribusiness industries remains unchanged or has, in some cases, been accelerated.
As the world seeks to recover from the pandemic and stabilize food supplies, let’s explore the potential development paths of these emerging technology areas and the possible impacts on the industry over a two- to five-year period.
Looking to this horizon, the main lesson food manufacturers need to learn from the current crisis is the extreme vulnerability of currently labor-intensive industries during a microbial pandemic. We have seen the conventional meat sector shut down entire factories, which could lead to major protein shortages.
Thousands of tons of vegetables around the world have been buried in the ground or left to rot due to a lack of labor and disruptions in the hospitality industry.
In the dairy sector, milk has been thrown down the drain as conventional industries with long delivery times and little control over supply have not been able to react quickly to market changes.
Automating the entire food supply chain, which might have seemed too expensive in 2019, may increasingly look like a good idea in 2022 and beyond.
Our local and global food systems have been exposed as working well only when there is relative stability of supply and demand, and every element is functioning perfectly.
The problem is a lack of resilience in times of crisis. Equally importantly, the negative implications of the globalization of the food supply chain are now becoming evident. These vulnerabilities include susceptibility to transportation disruptions and lack of labor to select, process and manufacture staple foods.
Additionally, some countries have temporarily banned the export of commodities like wheat, soybeans, flour, sugar, and potatoes. This means that the perceived advantage of the five technologies above is that they do not suffer from these constraints and are much more agile in adapting to short-term changes.
Food production has long been linked to the availability of arable land and fresh water. Countries that have it have food security; those who are not at the mercy of those who do.
These and other factors have dramatic implications for the short- and long-term food sovereignty of many countries and the global and equitable distribution of food.
Decoupling the supply of this tyranny from arable land and available water would allow many countries to avoid supply problems and achieve a high level of self-sufficiency and food security. Until recently, this has been an impossibility; however, technologies such as those discussed here can now alter this seemingly fundamental basis of food production.
The argument of technologists is that developing countries and even developed countries need not continue to pursue only conventional technologies.
The hope is that we can increasingly insulate our food supply from the cross-border impacts of pandemics and reinvent our food system to use non-arable land and even salt water to produce food and food ingredients.
By pursuing a portfolio of developments drawn from these five core technologies such as cultured meat, algae, and synthetic biology, countries can establish a whole new food system and achieve greater individual food self-sufficiency and security.
The following questions are: will these new technologies lead to a more sustainable and equitable food system and will countries be able to achieve increased food security?
Aftershocks and Opportunities 2 can be purchased at www.fastfuture.com. Enter code TH25AO2 for a 25% discount.