Food has always played a central role in the human experience, and central to that role has been technology. The wheel improved agricultural efficiency. The mill powered the explosion of food production during the First Industrial Revolution. Point-of-sale tills are at the heart of the $570 billion fast-food industry.
Now, a new generation of emerging technologies — analytics, automation and artificial intelligence (AI), in various shapes and forms — is set to upend every aspect of the global food industry. From production (autonomous farming and crop status analytics) to distribution (self-driving vehicles and machine vision inspections) to retailing (“cloud kitchens” and robotic food preparation), the future of food looks quite different than it did mere years ago. As technological development accelerates, the food industry is poised for considerable change at every level of the supply chain.
This change is long overdue. The global food system faces significant challenges: climate change, evolving tastes, new consumption preferences, and the need to feed an additional billion people over the next 12 years. The industry must step up its adoption of AI, analytics and automation in short order while also reskilling the workforce to adjust to these changes. The stakes for successfully navigating the future of food have globe-spanning consequences.
To understand the relationship between food and technology, Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work teamed with Oxford Economics to survey 304 food industry leaders across the globe to learn how they are preparing for the challenges and opportunities ahead. (To learn more about this study, including its methodology, see our white paper, “AI, Automation and Appetites: How Technology Will Feed the Future,” on which this Perspectives is based.) Among our key findings are the following:
- Respondents are slow on the uptake about AI. While well over half of respondents say AI and robotics have transformed the food industry, only 29% say the technologies are critical to their company’s survival.
- And yet the evidence is compelling. Just under one-third of respondents say their companies have implemented AI broadly across business functions. For these companies, AI investments have made a considerable difference in worker productivity (84%) and quality of worker experience (72%).
- Labor needs will shift – but not in the way you might think. Survey respondents expect the number of full-time and contract workers to hold steady regardless of how and where AI is applied. However, the vast majority of respondents (90%) believe that by 2025, AI will boost the industry’s need for high-skilled labor, and 74% forecast it will diminish demand for low-skilled work.
- Climate change is the elephant in the room. Increasingly volatile weather patterns are proving to be a bane for both consumers and producers. Food waste is a major contributor to climate change. As such, 52% of respondents report using AI and automation to great effect in reducing food waste.