Recipes for Food Innovation
Sublime innovation is changing the way we work, play, and live. It’s also disrupting the way we eat. That’s a good thing. Our future – and the U.S. economy – depends on it.
The quest to satisfy the need for sustenance has been a core element of human enterprise from its origins. Even in the digital age, 20% of Fortune 500 companies are multinational food and fiber firms.[i]
The United States has long served as a global breadbasket, exporting $150 billion of raw and processed food per year – nearly 25% of production by value.[ii] Agribusiness and the downstream food value chain account for over $1 trillion of annual GDP, and account for one in six U.S. jobs.[iii]
Our food superpower status owes much to fertile land worked by generations of the best farmers and ranchers. The X factor, however, is technological leadership. American innovators continue to devise better ways of getting good food from farm to table.
Today, rapid advances in biotechnology, big data analytics, artificial intelligence, robotics, and the Internet of Things, are pushing the frontier. The most exciting developments are surely yet to come; just when they will be needed most.
Trends in food supply and demand:
The good news, reported by the World Food Programme, is that over the past 20 years, “200 million have been lifted out of hunger and the prevalence of chronic malnutrition in children has decreased from 40 to 26 percent.”[i] The more sobering reality is that the world needs to increase food production by 70% over the next 30 years. [ii] In addition, this massive increase must be achieved in the face of equally monumental natural resource challenges.
Overtaxed water supplies, loss of arable topsoil, as well as the incidence and severity of extreme weather events are on the rise.[iii] Moreover, global population growth is centered in vulnerable, water-stressed and resource-deprived areas where food production is most precarious.
Security experts assess that the prospects for global peace and prosperity will be largely determined at the food-energy-water nexus. Abundance will serve as a platform for more rapid human development. Insufficiencies are a recipe for chronic instability and conflict.
Growing demand is not the only factor. Consequential shifts in the kind of food consumers desire and how they access it are taking place, centered in the United States.
Millennials want food that they perceive to be healthier, safer and more sustainably provided. The market for organically grown produce worldwide is on pace to double between 2016 and 2022.[iv]
More consumers are going vegan or gluten-free. CB Insights reports “seven of the 15 most well-funded food and beverage startups are plant-based.”[v] Major brands are making significant investments in vegan food production.[vi]
Millennials, for example, have a strong preference for trusted, local food sourcing and want to know the quality and provenance of the ingredients they consume. The proliferation of eating at establishments offering locally sourced commodities illustrates locavorism’s momentum. Business Insider noted that locally grown food sales nearly doubled between 2008 and 2016, helping drive mushrooming investment in the food industry. [vii]
Change is also being driven by how consumers use their networked devices to obtain information about their food. When it comes time to open their wallets, consumers expect maximum speed and convenience.
The bottom line is that the world needs abundant, accessible, safe, and healthy food produced through supply and value chains that are more resource efficient, sustainable, resilient, and transparent.
I’m happy to report that American ingenuity is answering the call. Massive amounts of venture capital have been flowing into ag tech, nearly an 80% jump since 2012, according to Forbes. [viii] These investments continue to transform every node of the food system. Even seemingly disparate technologies are interconnecting, promising to add exponentially to their disruptive power.
Information and communications technology (ICT), sensors, and software
ICT and integrated technologies are providing farmers with instant access to critical raw and processed data that makes their operations more precise. Drones, satellites and ground sensors stream critical data on plant health, soil conditions, and microweather to farmers’ fingertips.
Software-managed farm planning and operations services enable growers to intervene at just the right time with just the right resources to manage crops and livestock. Popular platforms such as the Farmer’s Business Network are providing growers with Internet-based access to real-time information on input prices, yields, sales and marketing information. [i] The result is bigger, better crops that support stronger bottom lines using fewer resources.
“Smart farms” are being connected to the other links in the supply chain by “smart logistics.”
Post-sale, web-connected sensors track and report information to carriers, brokers, traders, and buyers. Sensor-based technology keeps consumables moving reliably, enabling just-in-time logistics and reducing food waste. [ii]
Web-enabled apps allow food wholesalers and restaurants to manage their inventories efficiently, lowering their costs of waste and storage. Continuous advances in intelligent-sensing technology and digitized container and lot tracking will continue to revolutionize food logistics. When food health and safety problems do occur, advanced capabilities will enable managers and regulators to pinpoint and contain them more effectively, through faster, more targeted recalls.
Even end-point consumer transactions have been appified. Nearly one-quarter of smartphone owners regularly use food delivery apps, such as Postmates and Uber Eats.
Greater connectivity with each generation of device and software development will arm consumers to exert increasing power to oversee and drive every aspect of producer behavior and supply chain activity – the subject of a U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation blog last year on the advent of the “custulator.”
GPS and the Internet of Things
Thanks to the U.S.-led Global Positioning System (GPS), satellite-supported services direct farm equipment through the work of planting, cultivating, and harvesting with digital efficiency and pinpoint precision. New 5G broadband communication networks will bring even more PNT capability, enabling broad use of “smart,” autonomous farm vehicles.
These higher speeds, lower latency, and bigger data pipes will catalyze an Internet of Things (IoT) that can finely choreograph mechanized processes at every point in the food system: planting, growing, processing, packaging, transportation, and distribution.
The next generation of supply chain management – logistics 4.0 – will leverage edge computing and IoT to provide instantaneous sense-and-respond feedback mechanisms. Management of the cold chain for perishable goods offers a prime example. Handling of meat, fish, dairy and fresh produce, can be executed flawlessly using IoT that not only identifies problems quickly but also fixes them before spoilage occurs.
Blockchain technology provides a distributed, digital ledger of transactions and data that is permanent and unalterable. It provides trustworthy, centralized sharing of information in a highly decentralized system involving many actors along far-flung supply and value chains.
The technology can establish greater systemic reliability, transparency, and accountability. The use-cases for widely shared, tamper-proof records are extensive, ranging from regulatory compliance to end-to-end cargo tracking. The uses of blockchain technology are seemingly endless. Potential applications in the food and ag space include:
- Enabling instantaneous digital tracking of cargo from end-to-end
- Assuring the accuracy of food safety and chain of custody information
- Pinpointing the origins and causes of spoilage or contamination
- Locating trusted partners with greater speed and confidence, such as through the services provided by Agriledger
- Resolving disputes that plague agriculture transportation and logistics
- Complying with regulations and industry standards
- Speeding information needed to acquire financing
- Reducing costs of paperwork
- Guaranteeing the integrity of marketing claims and provenance of food products
- Accessing certifications and facility audit reports
- Providing end-to-end pricing and marketing transparency
- Big data and cloud computing
The digitization of data in the agriculture sciences and the other dynamics of the food system, along with steady advances in analytics software, promise a harvest of new insights that can dramatically improve productivity and logistics, while helping the food system’s most formidable challenges.
In one important area, climate and weather forecasting is becoming more precise. Soil and water dynamics will be better understood. Increasing fidelity about the interplay of factors involved in cultivation, including the workings of genomic codes are sure to make transformational contributions. As will insights big data reveal about human nutritional needs and the natural resources we depend upon to meet them.
Perhaps the most groundbreaking developments are taking place in the field of genetic modification (GM) and genetic engineering (GE). Researchers are mastering new ways of engineering disease- and drought-resistant seeds that yield more abundant, nutritious and higher quality produce.
The science of altering genetic code to replace undesirable traits with sought-after characteristics in plant material and livestock is progressing rapidly. Scientists see the technology as a potent tool for improving the supply, nutritional quality and shelf-life of produce while reducing the need for water, energy, land, and chemicals to grow it.
By 2014, 90% of U.S.-grown corn, cotton, soybeans and sugar beets contained Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).[i]
But despite strong scientific evidence that genetically modified food does not pose a health threat, marketing campaigns touting food products as GMO-free reinforce public fears. Pew Research found that nearly 40% of American adults believe GM food is unhealthier than conventional equivalents, even though studies by the Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, and National Academy of Sciences have found no evidence of ill-effects.[ii]
Bridging the gap between facts and fear represents one of the most significant hurdles facing the global food system. Indeed, the development and acceptance of biotechnology may be what enables us to feed a hungry planet.
Artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics
Advances in AI and robotics portend change across the food system. AI is being employed to manage and learn from complex data to make better predictions about weather, consumer behavior, changes in demand, and inventory management.
The U.S. market intelligence firm Tractica estimates that the global value of the AI industry will exceed $36 billion by 2025. This is a huge opportunity for the food and ag sectors, as well as the tech industry.
Among its many applications, experts note that AI’s predictive capacities can reduce the incidence and impacts of food recalls. There are about 70 million cases of food borne illness that result in about 5,000 deaths each year in the United States. Between 2012 and 2017 U.S. recalls soared more than 92% for food in general and 83% for meat specifically, in part due to better reporting and tracking. [iii]
AI is a prime component of advanced robotics with a growing range of applications on the farm including ploughing, planting, soil maintenance, weeding, irrigation, and harvesting.
Farm labor shortages are a significant problem. According to the Farm Labor Survey and U.S. Census of Agriculture, between 2002 and 2014, California lost nearly 40 percent of its agricultural workforce – a staggering figure for a state that produces one-third of the nation’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts. During that time, the New American Economy estimated losses of up to $3 billion in annual revenue due to farm-labor shortages.
Robotics is one of the ways farmers will overcome these challenges. For example, vacuum powered apple pickers are under development as are experimental robots that use laser and camera guidance to identify and remove weeds with fewer chemicals. “Robotic farm swarms” would deploy dozens or hundreds of agricultural robots with thousands of microscopic sensors, which would collaboratively monitor, cultivate and extract crops from the land with practically no human intervention.
Downstream, robotics are being integrated into food processing, packaging, and preparation, using adaptation that enable them to handle fragile items and ingredients. Benefits include great quality assurance and food safety, speed, and efficiency.
A recent study by the Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute found that nine out of 10 food processing and packaging companies are using robots to improve food safety, decrease worker injuries, and increase efficiency.[iv]
Progress is being made on the development of robotic chefs capable of preparing meals with super-human speed. One company is using 3D cameras to capture the movements of a human chef as he or she prepares a meal before uploading the video to the robot's computer.
Other technologies and their use-cases
Smart packaging to tackling food waste and safety. High technology is also being employed to create smarter packaging to keep food fresher and edible longer, and to detect spoilage definitively and accurately. Imprecise “best by” and “use by” dates will be replaced with spectrographic and other technology-based solutions that can more precisely detect spoilage, reducing food waste and food-borne illness.
Scientists and engineers are working on molecular sensors that can be embedded in packaging to signal contamination such as E. coli or Salmonella. The alert would be detectable to both food suppliers and consumers. MIT is working on sensors using electrically conductive material that changes resistance in the presence of gases called amines, which are released when food starts going bad.
Biologicals for regenerative agriculture. Innovators are rapidly developing and fielding novel fermentation systems that locally produce and deploy naturally occurring, soil-enriching microbes to enhance agriculture productivity. Biobased compounds, extracted from plants and microorganisms, can fertilize crops and destroy pests and disease, saving water and reducing the use of pesticides and other synthetic chemicals.
Indoor and vertical farming. As the U.S. population urbanizes, food production must adjust, accounting for the robust growth of indoor, vertical and rooftop farming. Innovations are enabling growers in urban centers to operate at scale using processes that don’t require soil. [v]
American ingenuity has been counted on to solve many of the world’s most pressing problems and meet its greatest needs. Food security remains the most basic and enduring.
Big challenges require big thinking and big action. The U.S. private sector can and will lead the way in developing master technology to modernize the national and global food system, creating a hopeful future of food abundance rather than one of scarcity and want.
Policymakers have vital roles in this future-defining mission.
With the nation’s private and public sectors working in harmony, American innovation can help lead the way toward a future of food security and prosperity.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation hosted the second annual Food Forward summit to explore the future of food. Learn more here.
[iii] Strengthening Corporate Resilience to Ensure U.S. Security and Prosperity, A 2015 WWF White Paper, 2015, John Raidt