The food industry is the largest economy in the world, its market size around €2 trillion in 2015. Cereals are the planet’s primary food source, fish provide three billion people with one-fifth of their animal protein intake, and consumption of dairy and meat is rising.
The world’s population is expected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050, generating concerns about food supplies as more people will require additional resources. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that the food supply necessary to accommodate this population must increase by 60 percent. This means, among other estimates, a 19 percent increase in agricultural water consumption, more than a billion tons of cereals in addition to existing supplies, and increased livestock production—already the largest user of agricultural land.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to this problem. However, business and technology are playing a role in helping to alleviate the issue, one small bite at a time.
Focus on waste
As the world looks to solutions that will alleviate stresses on the planet’s food resources, focus is being placed on food waste, estimated at 1.3 billion tons or a cost of $750 billion each year (excluding fish and seafood).
Consumers, grocery stores and restaurants all contribute to food waste. Expiration dates that serve more as guidelines than as “laws to live by” mean that food is often discarded while still edible. More food is purchased than is needed or supersized packaging delivers more food than would have been desired in the first place. Much of this food waste and its packaging rests in landfills or pollutes the ocean.
The food tech revolution
Technological advances have transformed industry over the past few decades, from airplane design to the size of our telephones. Such developments have impacted the way in which we live. Can technology help solve the world’s eventual food resources challenges? Can the fusion of technology and food start a “food tech” revolution?
For many, we are already there. Creative initiatives are now helping to avoid, reduce, repurpose or recycle food waste and make the food industry more sustainable.
A recent movement in France has inspired consumers to purchase malformed – yet perfectly edible—fruits and vegetables at a discounted price. “Les Gueules Cassées” (literally “Disfigured Faces” and a play-on-words of the inversed expression “casse gueule” which means risky or dangerous) is an association of French food producers whose business model has now expanded from fruits and vegetables to include certain cheeses and cereals under this label.
LiquiGlide is a new, non-stick coating that can be used on the inside of a bottle, so that food never gets stuck inside (apparently the idea was born from research to solve industrial challenges like preventing ice formation on the wings of aircraft). A German startup, Qmilk, is using sour milk to manufacture textiles. Several online service providers deliver the exact amount of ingredients needed to make a meal, saving potential food waste and costs.
These are just a few examples, and the venture capital world is taking note. According to Dow Jones Venture Source, approximately $1.1 billion was invested in food- and beverage-related startups in the U.S. in the first half of 2014. Although these startups’ activities vary wildly—from food delivery to e-commerce with local farms—the basic message is still there: the investors who traditionally have been behind major shifts in technology and healthcare are now looking at food.
Software’s role in the food tech revolution
Software also has the potential to play a profound role in this revolution by taking it a step further: focusing on sustainability before food even hits the marketplace.
Solutions can help make industries involved in food production or packaging more environmentally compliant by reducing their use of natural resources or improving their processes. This has a “pay it forward” effect, reducing waste of water, air, plants and soil.
Consumer goods packaging companies are using new manufacturing techniques such as “lightweighting” to optimize plastic packaging design, reduce their use of virgin materials and lessen the environmental impact of their plastic packaging throughout its lifecycle. This involves 3D virtual design, finite element analysis, collaborative innovation and workflow management.
Industrial equipment manufacturers are focusing on green agricultural machines that help effectively use water and energy resources for a greateroutput with less input, such as energy or fertilizer. This can be achieved through collaborative design processes that link mechanical, electrical and hydraulics engineers in a digital environment, before any prototype is made. Also, stored and managed design data for a machine can be accessed to upgrade equipment and increase its lifecycle.
Drones are being explored for potential applications in farming such as providing data on field irrigation or crop health that help farmers make informed decisions. High-tech designers and engineers can create complex 3D shapes using cloud-based design tools and social collaboration to enhance a drone’s structure, weight, stability, size, maneuverability and power.
These are just a few examples of software’s potential for sustainability. In tandem with initiatives to reduce food waste once in the marketplace, technology in general, by attacking the entire food waste lifecycle, has the potential to create a digital disruption in the world’s largest industry.