Technology and Food

enterra

July 25, 2014

We are living in a world of growing consumerism; but, we all know that truly important things for humankind’s survival are the basics: clean air, pure water, sufficient food, and adequate shelter. There is a growing concern that as the climate continues to change and the global population continues to increase shortages of food and water will create significant human crises. In a previous article, “Farmers and Scientists Must Collaborate to Feed the World,” I argued that the agricultural sector must work closely with scientists to help divert potential disasters. I wrote: “One would think that people would welcome closer collaboration between farmers and scientists; but, one would be wrong. Science scares the hell out of some people and, when scientists start experimenting with the foods we eat, it is natural that people get nervous.” As the world has become more urbanized, and as young people have fled the farm for the city, the agricultural sector has become more industrialized in order to meet the needs of the world’s burgeoning population. The combination of industrialization and experimentation has created an active and vocal group of critics. Jane Black (@jane_black) notes that there are some “idealists and moralists who believe local and sustainable food can undercut the industrial system. If only urban yuppies voted with their recycled shopping bags at Whole Foods and farmers’ markets, loading up on artisanal meats and heirloom vegetables, then perhaps small farmers wouldn’t be robbed of their livelihoods. If only the food world were simpler, then perhaps we could end Americans’ addiction to cheap food laden with salt, sugar, and fat.” [“Silicon Valley’s Next Big Goal: Fixing Our Broken Food System,” Fast Company, 28 January 2014]

Unfortunately, small farmers simply can’t feed the world. In much of the developing world, subsistence farmers can barely feed themselves. Black reports that a group of tech-savvy people in California’s Silicon Valley has turned its attention to the challenge of fixing the food system. Black continues:

“The Valley’s food-tech vanguard rejects this utopianism, choosing instead to embrace solutions that would redesign the systems and processes that have made the food industry a target of such ire. Redesigning is very different from dismantling. ‘If you were designing America’s food and ag system from scratch, you’d never end up with what we have today,’ [Ali] Partovi says. But it’s what we have, which means it’s the starting point. ‘What I want to figure out is, is there a way to come up with some creative ideas that are a path to the solution?’ This new approach acknowledges that we still want cheap and abundant food. And rather than shying away from technology because of the role it played in creating today’s problems — for example, synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, made from petroleum, fueled the explosive growth in the production of grains, soybeans, and corn, which in turn were used to make the processed foods that make up so much of the American diet — these new food reformers seek to use it strategically to produce what we want without costs to our environment and our health. That requires more complexity than a network of community gardens can provide.”

The group isn’t trying to eliminate small farmers or community gardeners, because they play an important role in helping provide food security; but, they can’t scale enough to feed the world. Frankly, there are no silver bullet solutions that provide the best way to feed to the world. It will take a combination of strategies that involve farmers, consumers, and everyone in between. Technology has a role to play in some of these strategies. Paul Matteucci (@foodcrunch), a venture capitalist who encourages and connects food-tech upstarts through his not-for-profit, organization called Feeding 10 Billion, told Black, “There really are two kinds of food entrepreneurs. There are the ones that hang around Berkeley or Brooklyn, and build businesses mostly for the end consumer. Then there is a whole different group of highly technical people who are building robotics for the field, sensor-based technology, automated watering systems, new food-packaging technologies, and big-data-related inventory control to reduce waste. These are the people who are going to solve the big problems.” Black points out, for example, that there are companies that provide sensor systems and big data analysis to help farmers engage in “precision farming.” The objective of precision farming is to grow the right crops, in the right location, using exactly the right amount of resources.

Cheryl V. Jackson (@cherylvjackson) reports that another group that is “on the case” is the Institute of Food Technologists, which is “bringing technology, innovation, scientists and food experts into the discussion.” [“‘Miracle berries,’ faux fries, technology and the future of food,” Chicago Tribune, 17 April 2014] Jackson’s article included the following video that describes some of the areas that members of the Institute are working on and how they will impact the agricultural sector in the years ahead.

In addition, to being smarter about how we grow food, Black notes that some companies are developing alternative foods (such as meat substitutes). In her article, Jackson notes that celebrity chef Homaro Cantu (@Homarocantu) experiments “with making ground-beef substitute from food that cows eat – barley, corn and beets – mimicking the taste and texture of French fries using granola bars and making a tuna substitute from watermelon and spices.” Cantu is a big believer in science, especially as it applies to the food industry. He told Jackson, “When people say technology and science don’t belong in food, that’s like saying we shouldn’t learn math. It’s all around us. We wouldn’t be here without it.” Another entrepreneur experimenting with alternative foods is Josh Tetrick (@joshtetrick), the 33-year-old founder of Hampton Creek Foods. His team has conducted over 1400 experiments focused on how to make mayonnaise without eggs. He told Sydney Brownstone (@sydbrownstone), “The egg is this unbelievable miracle of nature that has really been perverted by an unsustainable system.” [“Why Silicon Valley wants to hack the food industry,” The Guardian, 14 February 2014] Although Tetrick’s immediate goal is to develop food that vegans can eat, he believes the alternative food industry will have a much larger role to play in the years ahead. He understands that small experiments with alternative foods, unless they can scale, won’t be able to feed the world. Brownstone reports, “Tetrick is adamant that his product has a market beyond this rarefied [vegan] universe.” Tetrick told him, “We’re not just about selling and preaching to the converted. This isn’t just going to happen in San Francisco, in a world of vegans. This is going to happen in Birmingham, Alabama. This is going to happen in Missouri, in Philadelphia.” It also needs to happen in developing countries.

Brownstone reports that Tetrick’s company “isn’t the only fake-food startup in Silicon Valley. In the last couple of years, venture capitalists, including Bill Gates (@BillGates) and the co-founders of Twitter, have been pouring serious cash into ersatz animal products. Their goal is to transform the food system the same way Apple changed how we use phones, or Google changed the way we find information.” She continues:

“Sounds a little grandiose? Food industry experts think that Tetrick and his ilk might actually have a shot. According to the market research firm Mintel, some 28% of Americans are trying to consume fewer meat products. Patty Johnson, a Mintel analyst, believes that this group, many following doctors’ orders to cut cholesterol, will be game to try meat substitutes that don’t require them to change their recipes. ‘Products that can mimic chicken the best will do well with that group – the reluctant vegetarians,’ she says.”

The alternative food movement isn’t just about preventing animal cruelty or selling food to vegetarians, it’s about using scarce resources more efficiently and effectively. In fact, that is goal of most scientists and technologists working in the agricultural sector. Using scarce resources wisely will be essential if we are going to feed the world’s population in the decades ahead.