FoodTech: Feeding the 8 Billion

Innovation Disrupting the Food Industry and Beyond

Fuelled by advancements in technology, the importance and scope of FoodTech is growing. Over the course of this year, FoodTech expos like the Future Food Tech Summit will be held across the globe in Mexico City, New York, San Francisco and London. Providing sustainable food has long been a concern of governments and research teams. As the world’s population is set to reach a staggering 8 billion by 2024, this task has become all the more important. From gene editing to 3D printed pizza, tech is already disrupting the food industry. The rise of FoodTech has led food administrators to re-evaluate the way they handle edible products. In January, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed a set of new guidelines for genetically modified and laboratory grown food. How will this impact the production and manufacture of what we eat, and how have regulators responded to disruption in such a vital industry?

Technology and innovation in the food industry
Food and technology isn’t a new idea. For example, the debate over genetically modified (GM) crops has raged on for years. But with innovative new tech comes a whole range of disruptive developments. Now, it’s not just the genes of plants that are being edited. Using CRISPR, scientists have created hornless cows which are easier to farm. Some innovative companies are completely foregoing traditional farming. Memphis Meats, for instance, grows chicken from cultured animal cells in order to remove the breeding, feeding and eventual slaughter of animals. Their proteins will go on sale in 2021. This ‘lab meat’ is an especially grey area for administrators because it’s debatable as to whether it’s ‘real’ or not. Even less controversial developments like 3D printed meals and robot chefs are changing the way we think about food. A combination of these techniques could have the potential to turn food production into a sustainable, environmentally friendly, on demand service. It’s clear that technology has removed some of the traditional obstacles to food production, but it’s also making it difficult to keep track of food management. The FDA has suggested that approval should be given for each alteration to an animal’s genome. This might seem pedantic, but considering the continuing discussion over GM crops, there’s a need to meticulously test new products to make sure they’re suitable for the consumer market. That’s why the FDA is proposing tighter regulations – to reassure the public that innovative food practises are safe, whilst ensuring that they actually are.

The impact of FoodTech regulations
Nobody likes rules, especially when they seem to have a negative impact. The regulations forwarded by the FDA have been criticised as making it harder for smaller organisations to continue their research, whilst advancing larger, private companies with greater access to resources. However, even bigger firms will be disrupted by a loss of control over what they can and can’t do. Despite this, regulators have a necessary role to play in managing FoodTech. Even the term itself doesn’t have a clear definition, which sums up just how much work there is to be done. Then there’s the simple fact that people deserve information about the food that they eat. If GM and lab grown products aren’t properly tracked, we could be eating them without even knowing. Although the dominance of fast food chains and convenience food remains, there’s a clear trend emerging that favours ethical and nutritious foods. If a product doesn’t meet these requirements, it will be far harder to use tech to feed the 8 billion. The grey areas within FoodTech have caused debate over which governing body should be responsible for certain products. There will also be implications on a societal level. Will vegetarians and vegans be able to eat lab meat? Will people reject ‘fake food’ and opt for locally grown produce instead? The answers to these questions will determine the success of innovative food, but there’s no way of knowing until regulations are put in place.

Regulations might not always be popular, but they’re necessary. When it comes to the food industry, ensuring that products meet certain requirements is especially important. Future considerations include convincing consumers to adopt FoodTech – marketers are going to need a more appealing term than ‘lab meat’, for example. There’s an employment angle, too. Automation in food production is going to threaten even more jobs. Businesses in the industry now have to make the choice between pursuing new methods or trusting traditional processes. Ultimately, regulations may appear to present an obstacle to technological advancement in the production and distribution of innovative edibles, but adoption simply can’t happen without clear guidelines. It’s still uncertain as to what rules will be set out, and when they will take effect. None-the-less, regulatory agencies and all stakeholders in the food industry need to recognise and prepare for mass disruption.

Could FoodTech alleviate world hunger? Will tighter regulations help or debilitate the adoption of innovative food production? How will society react to food created in laboratories? Share your thoughts and opinions.