Five Key Trends Driving the Future of Food

02 January 2020

Our blogs highlight a range of consumer issues from different perspectives. Unless otherwise stated they do not represent the position of Consumers International.

Food systems are in crisis: while overweight and obesity are on the rise (and currently affecting two billion people globally), one in nine people in the world remain undernourished, and over 600 million people have fallen ill due to unsafe food. The food system is accountable for one quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions and 70% of biodiversity loss, and yet a recent survey by WWF showed that 91% of respondents did not realise the extent of the threat of food systems to the planet.

To face these challenges, we need to look at the broadening spectrum of opportunities and innovations available to us: on one hand, technology will play an essential role in how we produce, distribute and consume food - with personalised foods and high-tech precision agriculture as key examples. Whilst at the same time we will also see a surge in more 'traditional' approaches to food, with a focus on the intelligence of the land, ancestral production methods and regenerative farming, as well as an increase in demand for local and sustainable products.

In the face of systemic and local challenges, consumer organisations will have a key role in promoting consumer awareness, in engaging with new developments before they reach the market, and in ensuring that food is safe, nutritious and affordable.

In this blog, we highlight five key trends and innovations that could shape the future of food:  

1. Food and genetics

Genetically engineered crops have been around for decades, but new gene editing technologies - which are simpler, cheaper, and faster than GMOs - are bringing a whole new range of opportunities to the table. Aside from creating products like reduced-gluten wheat and parasite-resistant crops, gene editing technologies such as ‘Crispr’ are accessible to individuals with basic lab facilities, and could allow developing nations to grow drought-free crops or nutrient-fortified vegetables without having to rely on costly seeds from large multinational firms. As with all innovation, it will be important to engage consumers early in the process of development and assess the impact of such technologies on individuals and groups. Above all, consumers will expect a rigorous safety assessment and the precautionary principle to be applied where evidence is not available.

Recent advances in human genetics could also affect health and nutrition in a variety of ways, opening the possibility for personalised diets based on DNA.

2. Reducing food waste locally and globally

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) estimates we waste about one-third of the food produced for human consumption. To tackle this monumental challenge, we will need to mobilise tech innovation and shift our behaviour on an unprecedented scale. By utilising the agility of digital marketplaces, retailers could reduce the cost of products that are close to their ‘best before’ date and use data to keep stock levels closer to demand. Tech-enhanced traceability systems could also improve waste management and promote waste reduction, helping bring about systemic change. On the consumer end, apps can help individuals and businesses swap or give away surplus food. But we could also see an increasing variety of grassroots initiatives focusing on smart design and behavioural changes: in Saudi Arabia, where the average citizen wastes 250kg of food every year (one of the highest rates in the world), entrepreneur Mashal Alkharashi designed a variation on the traditional Saudi rice plate that makes food portions appear much larger. The innovative design, which reduces waste by 30 percent, was adopted by multiple Saudi restaurants in recent years, and has saved more than 3,000 tons of rice.

3. Improved traceability systems

Distributed Ledger Technologies (DLTs) such as blockchain have the potential to improve product traceability and create more transparent, efficient food supply chains. When combined with other technologies and tools like AI, smart labels and GPS tracking, blockchain could help tackle food fraud, identify sustainability gaps, increase the precision and speed of product recalls, and improve wages and working conditions. Pilots using the technology have been successful with consumers so far, however blockchain solutions are far from being suitable for all food supply chains and present a number of legal, technological, environmental and privacy-related limitations. Consumer organisations can play a vital role in shaping the design and implementation of these new traceability systems by keeping consumer rights at the forefront of this shift.

4. New proteins

According to the FAO, nearly half of the worldwide harvest is required to feed livestock. Creating animal protein substitutes from plants, producing dairy products through fermentation and growing meat in ‘breweries’ could provide us with more sustainable alternatives that limit environmental damage while still offering nutritional value and taste. Even though consumer acceptance of ‘lab-grown’ meat is likely to be low at first, increased awareness and dropping costs (with the price-tag going from £192,000 to £8 for a burger in just five years) are predicted to result in a spike in demand. While plant-based meat alternatives have been around for many decades, on the other hand, they are just getting started – the next generation of plant-based meats is designed for meat eaters and will most likely appeal to a much wider consumer base.

5. 3D printed food

Our relationship with food could be transformed through robotics and 3D printed meals. Because it is assembled ‘layer by layer’, 3D printed food can be designed to have textures and flavours never experienced before – for example a burger that is crispy both on the inside and on the outside. 3D printing could also offer new opportunities for personalised meals; a Japanese company has created technology that analyses the saliva and urine of diners and then 3D prints sushi pieces tailored to individual nutritional requirements. Aside from offering unique sensory experiences, 3D printing is predicted to have a broad range of applications in mass manufacturing, catering, and even at the household level with the increasing use of fresh ingredients in printing ‘cartridges’.

The global food landscape is likely to change drastically in the next few years, as technological innovation meets mounting pressure around sustainability, health, and nutrition. The consumer movement can play an essential role in the construction of more sustainable, safer and fairer food systems, ensuring that the consumer voice remains at the very centre of the transition.