The Synergism of Food and Technology

Since our society’s very inception, we have been trying to understand food and have discovered remarkable innovations through capabilities gained over the millenniums. The birth of agriculture, marked by the transition from gathering to producing, became a fundamentally significant milestone in history as we attained control over the availability of food. The onset of the Green Revolution in the mid-20th Century played a pivotal role in combating global famine as agricultural productivity increased drastically with advances in mechanization, chemical fertilizers, and multiple cropping. Selective breeding, a technique developed for growing plants and animals with tailored characteristics specific to their purpose and external environment, resulted in yield proliferation with cereal production increasing by 280% and meat production by 320% during 1961-2014. Refrigeration completely redefined the timescale over which food would be consumed, leading to extensive globalization of edible products across the globe, thereby increasing their accessibility and diversity. Technology has made a remarkable contribution to the ecosystem so far. However, numerous challenges still exist, demanding novel solutions capable of disrupting their older counterparts.

With a dramatic surge in the global population, combined with economic growth in the developing markets, we are witnessing a global trend towards increased meat consumption. Livestock agriculture brings substantial resource consumption with it by swallowing 25% of the earth’s surface and 30% of fresh water usage. Additionally, the environmental consequences associated with animal farming are catastrophic, generating 18% of all greenhouse emissions, compared to the 12% generated from global transportation! This opportunity is serving as motivational fuel for many startups innovating in the food segment. Companies like Mosa Meat and JUST are reinventing the role of livestock in the food value chain through their lab-cultured meat substitutes. Thanks to technological advancement, not only do these imitate meat exactly, but they are also economical with the price of a lab-grown burger dropping from $330,000 in 2013 to $11 as of today. With 65% of global consumers making a seismic shift towards plant-based foods amid environmental and health concerns, vegan foods sales have spiked by 23% in the last year, laying the foundation for a $10 billion alternative meat industry over which unicorns like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are building their businesses.

With an enormous surge in its popularity in prototyping and manufacturing, 3D printing has also found its way into the food industry. The 3D printing way, building every product layer by layer, will unleash endless possibilities into the culinary world, thereby adding more dimensions to our food culture. With a growing trend towards special diets such as veganism, gluten-free and dairy-free, 3D printed food will likely become the norm through its complete control over the type of ingredients used in a dish. Entomophagy, otherwise known as consumption of insects, is yet another phenomenon that has popularized in recent years as an environmentally sustainable substitute having tremendous nutritional value. However, insects face a psychological hurdle of being accepted with 12.8% of males and 6.3% of females reporting likely to consume insect-based food. By incorporating impressive aesthetics, 3D printing will play a key role in advancing the insect industry and reducing food wastage through efficient use of leftovers. As 3D printing matures, the complexity involved in the automation of robotic chefs will drop down significantly, eroding the niche fast-food restaurants have long held onto.

In addition to the advances in food production technology, we are also witnessing companies that are redefining food’s core purpose. Soylent — a brand leading the meal replacement market — questioned food’s necessity in providing the nutrients that are essential for our survival. Through their substitutes, the company has made tremendous progress in eliminating the efforts and sunk costs associated with preparing food every day.

With innovation progressing at an exponential scale, the question now remains — is it possible to transform the most basic necessity of humanity into a luxury? As stated by Soylent’s founder Rob Rheinhart, “I’m looking forward to the point where we don’t have to worry about hunger or nutrition. Where people make food just because it’s beautiful-like gardening or painting, I’m looking forward to the point where food can just be art.”