Generations past saw agriculture as the central driver of technological advancement. The first industrial revolution was sparked in large part by the British Agricultural Revolution. The rapid improvement of productivity freed up people to spend less time in the arduous process of cultivating and harvesting crops and more time engaged in activities that spurred innovation in other industries. Agriculture remained a key theme of the second industrial revolution too as it saw the rise of fertilizers in farming. The computerization and automation of farming processes were key components of the third agricultural revolution. Thanks to these advances, fewer people than ever before work in agricultural services while the global food supply chain feeds a population that has doubled in the past 50 years. But a few global trends threaten to disrupt that supply chain. Consequential changes in climate, population, and human behaviors are pushing our food system to the brink. As digital and mechanical innovations transform other industries at breakneck speeds, the food industry has begun to adopt some of those technologies to address its own pain points. Can technology feed the future?
With each of the past five years ranking among the five hottest in recorded history, we need not cast our eyes on the future to understand this change. Catastrophic weather events growing in scale and frequency exact a great toll on the residents of areas of impact. Beyond the initial damage and casualties, these events have reverberating effects on food supply chains around the world. As cities begin assessments on how to increase resilience to such changes, the food industry must also adopt a resiliency plan for operations.
Agricultural operations face a number of threats as human activity negatively impacts the climate. With less predictable weather patterns and more acidic oceans, previous farming practices yield less and less output. Such changes have already manifested in the United Kingdom. Changes in weather patterns have thrown plant and animal life cycles out of sync. As a result, insects are feeding on plants earlier than before and negatively impacting harvests of staple crops like potatoes. Globally, for every 1°C over pre-industrial levels the Earth warms, wheat yields will fall 6%, according to a 2015 paper in Nature Climate Change.
The ever more precarious conditions of farms calls for constant monitoring of fields for infestations or disease. Big data analytics combined with machine learning of satellite images bring insights that can add value to farmers struggling to make sense of the new climate realities. Companies like Gro Intelligence combine those technologies to produce insights that are visual and easy to understand.
Population growth continues to accelerate across the globe and people are increasingly migrating to cities. Earth’s total population will surpass 10 billion residents around 2050. The countries that will see the largest growth are at opposite ends of the spectrum in food system readiness. The propulsive growth of Asia’s population is set to continue into the foreseeable future. Africa’s population is set to see significant growth along that same timeline. While tech leaders in China have already begun equipping their systems to take on the challenge of feeding such a massive population, similar infrastructure and investment has been lacking in the emerging economies of Africa.
Adding another layer to those dynamics is the shifting of populations from rural to urban areas. Also by 2050, 80% of the world’s food will be consumed in urban areas. This helps in centralizing the demand centers for food. Transportation networks can be built out that take advantage of such large populations in centralized locations. The challenge is getting enough food into these areas when most of it requires an abundance of land. Typically, that land is only available in rural, less populated regions.
Some of the most densely populated cities on the planet have begun piloting programs that address this issue. Deep below London’s city streets lie underground farms inhabiting the city’s former bomb bunkers. In Tokyo the farms lie underground, on rooftops, or anywhere else a bit of land can be spared. These aeroponic farms are fully automated to light and nourish leafy greens around the clock. Each harvest brings more data on optimal conditions for maximizing yield. One Japanese farm alone is expected to produce 5,000 heads of lettuce per day by 2020.
Adoption of new technology and the aforementioned population changes combine to notably alter the behaviors that people exhibit, particularly as relates to food consumption and preparation. People are spending less time in their own kitchens and more in the dining halls and restaurants that cater specifically to their needs. In fact, US diners’ spend on eating out now exceeds spending on groceries. This trend looks to continue and with it are opportunities for gain and loss in the industry. In addition to more spending outside of the house, consumers are eating more than ever before. By 2030, the average daily intake of calories is expected to reach 3,000. This represents a 700 calorie increase since the 1960s.
While the grocery segment of the market has yet to experience the same disruption that ecommerce caused to the rest of the retail industry, companies are staking their futures on cracking that code. Expectations of same day delivery (or even quicker) inherited from other retail platforms have set the standard for the still nascent grocery delivery industry. This behavior must be reconciled with the strong desires that most people have to engage and evaluate their food prior to purchase.
Advances in autonomous vehicles provide opportunity for that engagement while maintaining the convenience of delivery. In recent years, entrepreneurs began designing mobile grocery stores that bring fresh produce and other food staples to the neighborhoods of customers. By early 2019, several national chains began partnering with startups to provide similar services with vehicles stocking up at their physical store locations.
The destabilization of growing environments, explosive growth in population, and shifting consumer behavior all exert forces on one another, while also influencing the technological innovations needed for a functioning food system of the future. The winners in the future of food will be those that don’t attempt to rail against these trends but instead pick up on the cues of their customers and serve them accordingly.
We stand on the precipice of Industry 4.0. Deployment of sensors in smart factories, robotic collaborators, and artificial intelligence present opportunities never before imagined for food production. As has always been the case, automating ourselves out of jobs remains a constant concern for this new era of industry. But the technology available to us brings about many new conveniences for customers and opportunities for entrepreneurs. Intrepid innovators have already begun to serve those needs with the latest technologies available to the food industry. Their work represents early use cases of technological tools meeting the pain point caused by the aforementioned changes. These leaders have created recipes for using the tools of Industry 4.0 to feed the future amidst the changes ahead.