While “the future of food” could mean any number of things, the common denominator is the challenge underpinned by several of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals: to feed the world in ways that are more equitable, healthy, and sustainable.
From how food is grown to the ways it is distributed and packaged, sustainable food technology may facilitate progress toward that future.
The close correlation between agricultural processes and natural conditions makes climate change a key consideration for farmers. As global temperatures rise and weather patterns become harder to predict, farmers are looking to technological innovations to adapt.
Some are seeking protection from the elements with the help of enhanced greenhouses and vertical farming setups that can grow indoor crops year-round. Others are using “smart farming” tools like big data, the internet of things, and the cloud to navigate climate-related challenges. Combining sensors with data analytics can give farmers insight into soil quality and a lead on variables like temperature, water, light, and humidity. Drones allow farmers to survey large swathes of land more quickly and then use this advanced data to help optimize fertilizer levels and potentially improve crop yields.
Blockchain technology has been gaining ground in the food industry in recent years, as it can help solve the challenge of tracing the complex and sometimes opaque journey of products throughout the supply chain, from farmers’ fields to supermarket shelves.
Blockchain firm Provenance has assisted a variety of food producers and other retailers in promoting transparent, sustainable goods. For example, as fisheries seek digital proof that their fish is sustainably sourced and free from forced labor in the supply chain, Provenance’s technology has been used to track the distribution of yellowfin and skipjack tuna fish in Indonesia. Similarly, one Canadian coffee producer has used the platform to give their customers a granular view of the small-scale producers behind their product.
The authors of a paper published in Trends in Food Science & Technology identify several obstacles to scaling the use of blockchain, including accessibility and governance. Still, they call it a “promising technology towards a transparent supply chain of food.”
The food industry faces increasing pressure to reduce the ecological impact of packaging, with major issues like marine plastics pollution making headlines. It is challenging to find materials that can replicate the properties that give plastics their commercial advantage, such as keeping food fresh for longer and withstanding heat.
That said, food producers are considering other viable options. Biome Plastics is developing “natural plastics” as an alternative to the standard variety made from oil-based polymers. Instead, these bioplastics are created with biological materials, including potato starch, cellulose from trees and straw, and sugarcane.
Sustainable food technology can be deployed at key points along the food cycle, and it has the potential to promote a world with less hunger, better employment opportunities, and responsible cycles of production and consumption.