Throughout recorded history, food has played a central role in the human experience. Its no surprise that some of earliest known human art depicts food gathering in the Mesolithic era. The Baroque still life fruit paintings of Caravaggio presaged today’s Instagrammers posting photos of every #meal to their social feeds. Sci-fi creators, specifically, have taken to prognosticating the food we will consume at some point “in the future” and imagining how that food might arrive on our plates. Some have panned out. Some will hopefully never see the light of day. But all the instances of sci-fi meals offer us glimpses of what we want from food and the anxieties we experience as relates to the topic.
The dystopian futurescape of The Matrix series sees humanity driven underground and the sun blocked out permanently, but characters still get all their daily needs of nutrition met through gruel concocted for that purpose alone. In rosier settings like the Jetsons or Willy Wonka, people were treated to entire meals in the form of capsules that provide all their nutrition needs. No matter the method of delivery, technology remains central to our relationship with food. And that relationship is growing increasingly symbiotic. As technological development speeds, the food industry is expected to change more in the next decade than in the past 50 years. That change is right on time.
The global food system of the future faces significant challenges. Providing enough food for an additional 1 billion people over the next twelve years is chief among those challenges. Businesses in the food industry will need to do so sustainably and in the midst of unpredictable climate changes that grow more volatile by the year. The food systems currently in place cannot meet those expectations. Disruptive innovation is required at all levels of the food ecosystem; agriculture, distribution, preparation, and delivery. Thankfully, we don’t need sci-fi writers to think up solutions to those challenges. If AI is the most important story of our time, the food industry represents a compelling next chapter as it is rife with opportunity for disruption. And the stakes for getting it right are a matter of life and death with globe-spanning consequences.
Artificial intelligence and other technology tools at our disposal are already beginning to reshape the food industry and how we feed ourselves. Drone monitoring and machine learning to identify diseased crops or unhealthy livestock for additional assistance. Vertical farms outfitted with suites of sensors summon robotic helpers to cultivate leafy greens and harvest them when the time is right. Algorithm-based applications track our diets and serve up recipes to increase intake of missing nutrients. Restaurants equipped with burger-flipping and salad-making robots that their human counterparts can barely keep up with. And a number of last mile delivery services are testing ways to bring food to our tables through the latest innovations in autonomous vehicles technologies.
The science fiction fantasies of the past are the fringe realities of today. While those fringe experimentations and innovations in the food industry lack the scalability or price points for mass use today, they give early indication of where the industry is headed. Now, those innovations are poised to reshape the industry and society right along with it. Put the comic books back on the shelf. You need only take a look at the current innovators in food tech to garner inspiration for your next future of food breakthrough.
The wildcards in this deck are the evolving tastes, preferences, and expectations of food consumers. Access to information has made consumers more knowledgeable about health benefits of certain diets. Thus demand for produce and grains rises, but manufacturers must still wrestle with making the food taste good. Once considered a luxury, meat is an increasing part of diets across the globe. As developing countries advance, their appetite for beef, poultry, and seafood drive demand beyond sustainable capacity. Cultural changes have shifted expectation of food prep from an integral domestic duty to a service that is increasingly outsourced to restaurants or food prep services. Expectations influenced by the convenience economy of two-day shipping and near instant ride-hailing services cause food consumers to expected the same convenience for their meals. Food delivered to their doors or easily prepped into fantastic meals to be shared with friends across social media.
Consumers stand to benefit greatly from the aforementioned innovations, but food service workers face significant upheaval. The hallmarks of the food industry - fast food workers, retail salespersons, cashiers, food prep workers, and truck drivers - are all most at risk of losing their jobs to automation and other advancing technologies. So advances to the industry at large must be balanced with redistribution of opportunity to these worker communities.
To better understand the relationship between food and technology, Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work surveyed hundreds of business leaders across the globe to find out how they are preparing for the challenges and opportunities presented by the interplay of the aforementioned topics. Given the importance of consumer tastes on the industry, we also assessed the food-related decision making trends of Millenial and Gen Z consumers. Our findings - which we will roll out in the coming months - indicate that technology is a force both pushing and pulling on the food industry as it shapes the way we supply food and the nature of our demands on food systems.
With proper technology investments and strategy we can avoid the dystopian food futures predicted by our favorite books and movies. Artificial Intelligence, Automation, and Analytics along with the remaining innovations of The Industrial Revolution 4.0 are the essential tools needed to adequately feed the hungry masses. Even with that technology, the demands for sustainability on the global food system call for changes to the way business is done and a new view of the supply chain. How does your organization fit within this forward-looking food system? What will happen to the food workers displaced by automation? Will machine learning systems and diet-tracking apps finally put an end to the question of ‘whats for dinner’?
The answers to these questions revolve around the technological enablement and decision-making that can eliminate food insecurity for our ever growing global population, efficiently, deliciously, and more conveniently than ever before. This is the #FutureofFood.