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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.
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How technology will feed the future

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AI: Worth its salt

As the preferences and expectations of food consumers evolve, influenced by almost instant access to products; dwindling free time; less emphasis on home cooking; and increasing consciousness of food’s impact on personal health and the environment, AI innovations are emerging that allow food companies keep up with these changing dynamics.

It is puzzling, then, that our survey respondents don’t necessarily see AI as pertaining to their own company’s mission and goals. Roughly one-third had implemented AI broadly or integrated it across the business, while the remainder are piloting, planning, or not considering AI. 

AI’s workforce impact

Of our study’s AI implementors, most say the investment has made a considerable difference in worker productivity (84%) and the quality of the employee experience (72%). These results align with our findings at the Center for the Future of Work, where we estimate that AI will enhance the output and productivity of most workers.

But while AI is expected to enhance jobs for 75% of the global workforce, the remaining 25% face uncertainty. Workers with relevant high-skilled labor experience can look forward to newly created jobs, but others will see their roles eliminated as automation and robotics begin replicating their skill sets in the workplace. The 75%-25% bifurcation correlates strongly with the delineation between low-skilled labor and high-skilled labor in our study. The majority of respondents (75%) expect decreased demand for low-skilled labor by 2025 and increased demand for high-skilled labor (90%). (See Figure 1.)

Figure 1

The most endangered workers in the low-skilled labor pool are retail clerks, cooks, food prep and transportation workers – the majority of the frontline food industry workforce. These are often jobs that provide a path of entry into the workforce for young workers or those returning to the labor market.

But if history is any indication, the low-skilled jobs lost to automation and AI will give rise to new high-skill jobs. Two types of expertise that will be in high demand, according to our study, are related to AI and the internet of things (IoT). Two-thirds of respondents ranked AI as the most important skill over the next two to five years. Computer vision platforms that ensure food safety, new product formulation and even cooking food are all processes now augmented by advances in AI. The demand for IoT skills by 61% of survey respondents is driven by the proliferation of sensor-outfitted systems throughout the supply chain.

Feeding the future

Eating is a sensory, cultural experience, and so work in the food industry needs to maintain a human touch. The destabilization of growing environments, explosive population growth and shifting consumer behavior all exert forces on one another, while also influencing the technological innovations needed for a functioning food system.

Winners in the future of food will be businesses that don’t rail against these trends, but instead pick up on the cues of their customers and serve them accordingly — while using technology to combat emerging environmental challenges. We suggest food companies implement the following recommendations, and do so as soon as possible in order to maximize their competitive advantage:

  • Move fast and fix things: While there’s an imperative to keep pace with AI innovators, too many people rely on precarious food systems to disrupt them for the sake of innovation. The typical Silicon Valley approach won’t work here. Instead, use AI and automation to discover new solutions for previously identified customer pain points, such as Dynamic Yield’s food ordering kiosks that use environmental cues to predict and improve customer orders.
  • Collaborate with innovative, agile partners: A robust innovation scene is already in motion in the food industry, with myriad startups and accelerators. Launching an accelerator or partnering with existing organizations pairs innovative thinking with in-house expertise. Chobani has reaped the benefits of this approach; the company’s incubator program supports food industry startups, and the company has already added 30 program participants to its portfolio.
  • Bring the robots, but mind the humans: Work in the food industry needs to maintain a human touch, no matter how tech-driven it becomes. Even as robotics and automation proliferate, enterprises in the industry should double down on anthropological and psychological studies to enhance the sense of humanity. Miso Robotics learned the value of this approach when it discovered that even hyper-efficient burger-flipping robots needed interventions to maintain the teamwork required for an effective kitchen.
  • Embrace new models: The pace of change in the food industry is the fastest it’s ever been. Those who fight this change will be left behind. Instead, businesses should observe cultural shifts (such as consumers spending less time cooking at home, or expectations of near-instant delivery) to apply new technologies and methods that facilitate new opportunities. The new technologies in play present an array of new opportunities and challenges for workers in the industry. Entirely new business models are emerging that take advantage of advances in technology and cultural shifts around dining.

To stay ahead of the curve and the competition, food companies need a new recipe for success — one built on adopting new concepts to excel in new environments and building on existing knowledge of best practices. An appetite for adaptability is the key ingredient for thriving in the future of food.

To learn more, read “AI, Automation and Appetites: How Technology Will Feed the Future,” visit our Center for the Future of Work, or contact us.