How to Build a Future of Food That Works

  • 793 million people are chronically hungry
  • 40% of food is lost
  • 9 billion people on the planet by 2050
  • $6.8 billion invested in global food tech in 2015

In a few years we could have a completely technified and sustainable food supply chain that could feed the world… if we keep one thing in mind during this transformation.

The illustration above is perhaps what comes to mind when you think of a general food supply chain. It may look simple, but it isn’t flawless. In poorer countries, food is lost between the farmer and the retailer. In richer countries, food is lost in the trash bins of restaurants, supermarkets, and homes.

Now, let’s imagine how the present day food supply chain could change in the future. Enter tech: Farmers use precision agriculture on land that they already own, to plant and yield more crop per drop. This yield is then turned into micronutrient powder; crops last much longer as powder and won’t expire in transportation. The powder “cartridges” are then distributed via drones to local consumers who plug in the cartridges to their 3D food printers. Your personal data is then sent to your printer, and food is printed with your exact required nutrients. Supermarkets are no longer the main source of food now, causing them to theoretically make better decisions about supply and demand, thus reducing food waste.

Drones flying food cartridges to houses may seem futuristic or apocalyptic (or both, like Hogwarts mail on a Sunday). Either way, all of the technology already exists.

Aquaspy in California is using soil-monitors for intelligent water management and increasing crop yields by 40% per acre. The drone delivery service Flirtey believes that drones in the sky will be as normal as trucks on the road. The 3D printing company BeeHex, founded by NASA engineers who built a machine to print pizza in space, is now building revolutionary commercial food-producing 3D printers. Habit partners with experts in systems biology and nutrition to deliver a data-driven, personalized nutrition plan. All you would need to do is send your Habit data to the printer, order your cartridges, and boom -- dinner is printed. The future food supply chain is ready. Right?

“Yeah... I don’t agree with that.”

So says Jamie Hicks, a non-GMO corn farmer for Whole Foods, who owns a farm in Kennett Square, PA. I asked him what he thought about the proposed future food supply chain. “It’s the opposite end of the spectrum for ‘buy local eat fresh.’ If you go that way it might get taken over by large corporates with no limits -- just produce, produce, produce. If it’s cheaper, people would go that route. It might take smaller farmers out of it.” At first I felt surprised, then a bit foolish. The food supply chain starts with farmers; without them there would be no food on our plates. How naive of me to think that Jamie would love the idea of a revolutionized food chain if his perspective was not considered in the process!

We know that technology is inevitably going to transform the current food supply chain. Ideally, in the future, we will have a system that will be sustainable, ethical, and beneficial to all involved players. If we treat the transformation as a merger and acquisition deal, the shift from old to new may be contentious. However, if we treat the transformation as a collaboration, the change may be more amicable. I’m reminded of the African proverb: To go fast, go alone. To go far, go together.

Farmers are the foundation of the food supply chain. They possess important knowledge of the food industry that would undoubtedly benefit tech developers. If we want technological solutions to be implemented, let’s make sure that the farmers will actually use them. And if we want to really transform the food supply chain, let’s make sure that food tech works with farmers, and not against them. The bottom line is that collaboration will be the key to feeding the world in a sustainable way. To anyone that finds teamwork and the future of food enticing, bon appétit!

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