Disruption has become a common refrain when it comes to technology within any particular industry. But the word “disrupt” itself can give an inaccurate impression — it excites and motivates technology advocates and can put traditional businesses on their heels. But when it comes to the food industry, technology disruption is a development on which all sides can agree. The food industry needs disruption in the worst way, because The United Nations projects that the global population will increase from 7.3 billion in 2015 to 9.7 billion in 2050, and food production will need to increase a whopping 70 percent in order to feed the growing population. We need disruption — and we needed it yesterday.
Luckily, there are smart people in the food industry with some amazing ideas. Here are a few companies and programs that are using technology to revamp (and yes, disrupt) the food value chain.
1. Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA)
For far too long have uncontrollable factors, like droughts and storms, created volatility in our food supply. Eliminating this volatility is one of the core reasons that make controlling the environment of our farms so fascinating. They also happen to be far more efficient with the natural resources required to produce our food when compared to traditional, open-air farms. Our friends over at 80 Acres Farms are a prime example as they grow flavorful produce using 100 percent renewable energy with 97 percent less water and zero pesticides.
Farming is often described with phrases like “manual labor,” “hands-on,” and “dirty work.” In addition, because of its close ties to human labor, it has also made the industry prone to human error. Robotics is changing that throughout the entirety of the food supply chain from robots that automate weeding on farms to ones that are flipping burgers in our restaurants (Flippy). These technologies are becoming increasingly efficient and lend a robotic hand in eliminating errors and food waste.
3. Internet of Things (IoT)
Perhaps the most promising of technologies being applied to food is how we connect the technologies themselves. Autogrow is a producer of hardware and software that supports indoor growers and resellers in over 40 countries. Using hardware such as controllers and sensors, Autogrow is able to automate crop monitoring to achieve an ideal climate that positively impacts crop yield and quality. Without accurate measurement of the climate attributes touching farmers’ crops, it is nearly impossible for farmers to identify how climate may have impacted the finished product that is ultimately sold to the end consumer. This is a major issue as having no data affects customer satisfaction and the probability of repeat business.
At NATIVE, our agriculture technology is helping farmers and other stakeholders track their produce from seed to sale—helping them maximize the value of their crops and using precision-matching to find the perfect buyer. This results in fresher, personalized food for end consumers and more revenue for farmers.
By connecting the internet of things (IoT) and technologies at the farm-level, NATIVE allows buyers to access food before it is harvested and with unprecedented insights like future yields and predictions on crop quality.
As technology continues to seep its way into the food industry, humanity will continue to unlock efficiencies that were once impossible. The key to ensuring that technology works for us and not against us will be continuous innovation and connectivity. Troves of data have been harvested but the raw data alone has little impact on the sector. We need to focus our energy on cleansing and translating raw data into actionable insights. Without it, the data will remain useless.
A connected and transparent food value chain lends itself to food safety, waste mitigation, increased quality, and more informed consumers. These innovators don’t all have the same answers, but they are all chasing the same questions — what can we do to improve the future of food, and how can technology get us there?
Frank Pica is the co-founder of NATIVE, a food technology company that connects farms with buyers, maximizing value for both parties. NATIVE integrates cloud-based technology throughout the value chain, providing seed-to-sale traceability, waste mitigation, and return on investment.