12th March 2019

Tech will make changing food habits easier to swallow

telegraph

Daily Telegraph, Dateline February 25th, 2019 

“The world faces a ticking time bomb when it comes to food supply. By 2050, the global population will have ballooned to more than 9bn people. Demand for protein globally will have increased 80pc from today’s levels. If we are going to feed the world’s population without destroying its natural resources, the way we source and consume food has to change.

Put that way, it sounds like an almost apocalyptic vision. But these pressures will be what force all of us to think about food differently. Food has a profound environmental impact on the world around us and will define the future more than any other sector.

The question of how to create a healthier world and population while being more sustainable and economically robust has to be the priority for our sector. As the head of a company that serves more than 5bn meals a year, it is a challenge I want every one of the 600,000 people who work for Compass to be mindful of as we evolve and grow our business.

The good news is that awareness of the challenges of feeding the future is already growing, and in many respects,  consumers are driving the change. In food more than any other industry, trust is key. This has always been the case, but never more so than today.

Younger generations of consumers are more thoughtful about what they eat, more health-conscious and more obsessive about authenticity than older people. Concepts such as clean eating, freshness and localism are an expression of a growing desire for transparency in the food industry.

We see all these exciting trends being played out in the offices of some of our most progressive clients. Companies see food as playing a central role in their culture; fuel for innovative thinking, collaboration and productivity within their offices. Concepts such as teaching kitchens and “farm to table” help both colleagues and wider communities make better-informed food choices.

Initiatives like these and the rise of trends such as veganism into the mainstream show the journey towards a more sustainable future food industry is already under way. But I believe the key to the future of food lies with digital innovation and tech. As an industry, food has been a laggard in how it employs technology, but things are starting to change fast.

Robotics are still in their infancy but are starting to become sufficiently sophisticated to radically change how we operate as a business. Take Mr Flippy, our robotic hamburger flipper, which is more efficient than a human. Initially too slow and unreliable, we now have six Mr Flippys in the Los Angeles Dodgers stadium, speeding up service while freeing up our people to interact with customers. But that’s just the start. Technology in food is moving from being about convenience and efficiency to an enabler of profound change through the industry, deepening connections through the food chain – or even disrupting it entirely. Memphis Meat is a start-up developing beef, chicken and duck grown directly from animal cells, and Edenworks uses waste to grow vegetables that are 40pc more nutrient dense than standard produce. 3D printing will also infiltrate food; if it can be puréed, it can be printed.

One example is the potential of tech in improving diets and reducing disease. It’s not hard to see a world where personalised diets supported by DNA profiling and nanotechnology facilitate a personalised “prevention” rather than “cure” approach to health and nutrition. Augmented reality could be deployed to give consumers visual and audio information, enabling them to choose meals, understand ingredients and portion sizes.

Artificial intelligence may be further away but it’s not beyond the realms of possibility to see a scenario where we could all have a “digital self” who knows more about us than we do today, understands our food choices and how these change based on the weather, environment and mood. It could be programmed with all our medical and dietary information too.

This may all sound a long way off, but there are many great examples already of how suppliers are harnessing the potential of technology. A total of $2.2bn (£1.7bn) in venture capital money went into food start-ups last year, and disrupters are emerging across the industry.

One of the areas I’m most excited about, where tech could be applied to the food industry and make a genuine difference to the environment, is in the use of big data to manage food waste. This is one of the most pressing challenges our planet faces, and is something Compass is trying to take the lead in addressing through the Stop Food Waste Day held every April.

Big data has the potential to give us much more specific forecasting of expected demand, and take the industry to a demand-led approach to supply of food rather than procuring an abundance of food, much of which is wasted. Connected into the farming community, precision agriculture will boost productivity and reduce waste, benefiting all participants in the food chain – not least, the planet.

Confidence in this technology will be key. None of this works unless consumers can be absolutely confident their food is safe, and their data is being handled in a way they are comfortable with. However, done right, the food industry can continue to grow choice while helping consumers live healthier lives and build a more sustainable future for the planet. What it does need is all of us with an interest in what we eat to work together to build that future.”

Dominic Blakemore, CEO, Compass Group plc

The good news is that awareness of the challenges of feeding the future is already growing, and in many respects,  consumers are driving the change.

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