Imagine being able to make dairy without cows. To produce enough egg whites to feed America without industrial chicken farms or meat without having to slaughter animals. Imagine growing nutrient-rich produce in urban centers without soil or sunlight. For some, this sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie. But for many modern farmers and scientists, these are the promises of FoodTech: cruelty-free animal products and a way to feed the world without destroying the land.
When it comes to food, fear of change is nothing new. In fact, it’s evolutionary. It’s almost as ingrained in us as salivating when we smell something delicious. Imagine the first human ancestor to crack open a coconut and eat the pulpy white flesh inside. Or the first prehistoric human to cook their food. The chances are good that both were met with disgust and horror at first. But attitudes adapt, and humanity always finds a way forward. Especially when it comes to keeping our stomachs full.
For an example, look no further than your kitchen.
Today, this vegetable is the fifth most important crop worldwide, after wheat, corn, rice, and sugarcane. But when it first arrived in Spain—imported from South America during the 18th Century—it was a startling novelty. Some were frightened by it, others just bewildered.
In fact, according to an article by History, many believed this now-staple caused everything from leprosy to syphilis. The object of this distrust? Potatoes. Today, we eat them mashed, hashed, fried, and baked. But just a few centuries ago, people saw their lumpy, misshapen appearance as “unnatural.” Because of this, the European world almost didn’t embrace one of the world’s most widely-eaten foods, and what some argue is the foundation of modern agriculture.
The heart of food fear
According to some researchers, there are three main reasons people reject or are afraid of food. The first is what keeps us from eating rotten or moldy foods—an aversion to one or more sensory characteristics. This includes the smell, texture, or taste of food. Even if you don’t smell that your milk is sour, you won’t drink it once you feel the curdled texture in your mouth (hopefully). The second reason we avoid food is a sense of danger or fears about the negative consequences of eating a particular food. If you fear that it will make you sick, poison you, or have other negative effects, you may feel fear or aversion. Just look at how hard the tomato had to work to be considered a kitchen staple and not a dangerous nightshade.
Finally, there’s disgust about the idea of nature or the origin of food. It is from this last one that the social fear of food and FoodTech stems from. Also called food technology neophobia, or fear of the new, this fear of change has been prevalent in the food industry for centuries.
Mid-century food tech fears
How do you get rid of bacteria, insects, and other food contaminants without stripping food of its nutritional value? This was the question scientists set out to answer in the 1950s. The solution they discovered was irradiation.
During irradiation, food is exposed to a dose of ionizing radiation. This exposure disrupts the DNA of pathogenic bacteria (or the bacteria that makes people sick). For example, we irradiate wheat and wheat flour to get rid of insects. It also helps inhibit sprouting, giving vegetables (like the infamous potato) a longer, more stable shelf life. For over 30 years, a variety of imported foods have undergone irradiation—everything from pork and beef to fresh fruits and vegetables and even spices. And though the preservation technique is considered safe and effective by the scientific community, it continues to make consumers uneasy.
As Joe Schwarcz, Ph.D., notes in an article for the McGill Office for Science and Society, “Try asking people what they are more scared of, exposing food to nuclear radiation or eating food contaminated by E. coli, Listeria or Salmonella bacteria. It’s a safe bet that many would rather take their chances with bacterial food poisoning than with food irradiation. Too bad because food irradiation can reduce the risk of bacterial food poisoning, but public fear keeps the technology from being more widely applied than it currently is.”
Much of this public fear stems from misinformation. People fear irradiation makes their food radioactive. Some believe irradiated food causes cancer in children. Others believe that with radiation as a safeguard, food handlers early in the supply chain will become careless. But none of these theories are supported by scientific research or data. Sound familiar?
Similar fears persist when it comes to GMOs. But we won’t get on that soapbox again just yet.
Food Tech: changes in modern food systems
Even if you’ve never heard the term “food tech,” you’ve undoubtedly been influenced by it. Food tech (food innovation or FoodTech) is an umbrella term for the entrepreneurs and startups using technology to change the way we grow, package, deliver, sell, and consume food. It includes the biotech used to make nutritionally-dense corn seeds, and the plant-based packaging that it gets sold in. It could be drones and robots in the fields monitoring plant health, or the self-driving cars that’ll deliver pizza to your doorstep.
Advantages to FoodTech and food innovation include safer, healthier, and more nutritious foods that require less energy, water, and space to grow. Some technologies could even enhance environmental sustainability and increase food productivity. According to the Digital Food Lab, there are six key players in the FoodTech ecosystem: AgTech, Food Science, Food Service, Coaching, Delivery, and Retail.
Self-driving tractors. Harvest robots that do the bending, lifting, and reaching in the fields and orchards. Drones that monitor crop health. These are just a few of the AgTech trends we’re watching in 2020.
AgTech includes all of the ways technology is changing how we grow and harvest food and fibers for a growing population. This includes backend things like farm management software, as well as advancements that make the field and factory safer. It also refers to disruptions in where and what we grow. For example, Growing Underground’s recent success with microgreen farming in the UK’s forgotten underground tunnels.
Consider Vitamin A enriched Golden Rice, the sudden prevalence of meat alternatives, or startups working to make edible plastic rings for 6-packs. That’s food science in action. It broadly includes new categories of food, breakthrough food products—mostly to replace those currently in use with more sustainable and healthier alternatives—smarter packaging options, meal substitutes, and drinks. Food Science has three primary goals: to make foods more sustainable, more nutritious, or to add transparency to their production and distribution.
There’s no denying that restaurants and restaurant services have changed drastically in the last few decades. Thanks to foodservice innovations, you can reserve a seat at your favorite 4-star eatery online in minutes. Not interested in changing out of your sweatpants? Pull up your favorite delivery app, and they can bring it to your doorstep. Foodservice is also changing how things work behind the scenes. From burger-flipping robots to bartending androids, we’re cooking and eating alongside the future of technology like never before.
We’ve already talked about food paranoia, and how the quest for a “healthy” diet has led to restricting, bingeing, and general manipulation of our diets. Just look at the rising popularity of the Keto diet to see how fear of carbs has fundamentally changed how millions of people eat. That’s where tech-based coaching comes into play.
On the consumer-facing side, FoodTech manifests in a few different ways. Of these, coaching refers to startups answering questions like, “Is my food good for me?” and “What should I eat?”. One of the most innovative focuses in this arena is the use of genomes and bio-markers to determine the best diet for people on an individual basis. It’s also employing AI to provide tailored nutrition advice to consumers—as evidenced by programs like Macrostax.
Whether you’re waiting for a takeout container of Pad Thai or the ingredients to prep your own five-course dinner, FoodTech has taken delivery systems far beyond pizza. These days, plenty of startups are rising to meet delivery challenges in the food industry, with home delivery of groceries, restaurant meals, and meal kits. But delivery is also about using technology to streamline the process. This includes using delivery bots and drones or employing automated vending machines that distribute food, groceries, meals, and snacks.
Imagine if you could “walk” up and down the aisles of your favorite grocery store while waiting for the bus. Or if smart sensors in your refrigerator knew when you were running low on yogurt and could automatically order more before you run out. These and other FoodTech innovations are changing the way we think about food retail.
FoodTech makes our food system healthier and more sustainable
So why do so many still fear it? Like we said, neophobia is the fear of something new. And what is considered new depends on your background and experiences. And unfortunately, in the modern world, we have little to no hands-on experience with how our food is grown, packaged, and sold. Americans, in particular, are so confused that a third of people think non-GMOs don’t contain genes. That same report goes on to state that these respondents tended to be young, affluent, and self-identified as “very informed” when it came to food issues.
“These findings are problematic because food shapes our lives on a personal level,” the article goes on to state. “[And] consumer choices and agricultural practices set the course for our collective future in a number of ways, from food production impacts to public health.”
Is Gen Z the solution? Looking to the future of food
Because consumers ultimately decide whether a FoodTech will thrive or fail, it’s encouraging to see data from the newest generation of foodies. According to a recent Ketchum study, 77% of Gen Z respondents said they’re fine eating food produced with technology. That’s compared to 67% of Millennials and only 58% of Baby Boomers.
As Amanda Zaluckyj writes for AgDaily, “Gen Z could be a turning point. The people eating and buying the food are open to what we’re doing. They aren’t afraid of technology and science. And they understand that progress in those areas can help solve real-world problems.”
The mission of FoodTech is huge: to overhaul food production from seed to well after the sale. Whether that means growing meat in labs, creating plant-based “plastics,” or programming energy-efficient delivery drones, the goals are the same. FoodTech is here to lessen the damage done by industrial farming and help us rethink the way we—as a global society—interact with the natural world.