Our current food system is toxic. We’re too focused on how many calories we’re consuming rather than eating a nourishing diet that fuels our long-term health. While millions go hungry every day, we throw out an estimated 20% of all food produced in Europe. Households generate more than half of all food waste because of a myriad of issues from overproduction to inefficient shopping and inadequate storage. This is not healthy for us or the planet.
We have a significant opportunity to change the status quo with digital technology; agrifood is one of the least technologically-enabled sectors in the world. Yet investors are more excited about investing in cultured meat companies and 10-minute grocery delivery — technologies that perpetuate these problems — rather than investing in viable solutions that will help restore the balance between food, nature and the planet.
Faster groceries and industrial cultured meat are not viable long-term solutions. These innovations continue to separate us from the culture of food. Eating groceries brought straight to our door by a delivery person makes us even more divorced from where those groceries were packaged or where the ingredients were made. Cultured meat may please vegetarians, but it tries to solve an ethical dilemma by taking nature out of the equation. These technologies will only exacerbate the disconnect that is at the root of our unsustainable food system.
Faster groceries and industrial cultured meat are not viable long-term solutions... These technologies will only exacerbate the disconnect that is at the root of our unsustainable food system.
We need to focus on the technologies that bring us closer to our natural world to create a sustainable future of food.
Biotechnology, not fertilisers and fungicides
The rise of chemical agricultural inputs is one of the most significant indicators of how damaging, broken and literally toxic our current food system is. The overuse of fertilisers and fungicides is destroying our soil — the UN FAO believes that 33% of land is moderately to highly degraded partly due to chemical pollutants — and ecosystems like the Atlantic Ocean because of dangerous algae blooms.
Luckily, advancements in biotechnology enable us to produce new solutions that increase soil and ecosystem health and ultimately make us healthier along the way. These new technology developments are ushering in a new form of agriculture that is regenerative instead of extractive.
There are a few companies here in Europe tackling this issue. Potsdam’s Stenon is taking soil analysis out of the laboratory and giving it directly to farmers in the field. Its accurate, real-time soil technology gives farmers insights in seconds into how the soil is functioning and what needs to be done to improve it using more than 5,000 data points per measurement.
Ireland-headquartered MicroGen Biotech is developing technology that uses natural microbes to block the uptake of heavy metals by crops on land. The product works to break down pollutants and support the growth of good bacteria to revitalise the land, without the use of destructive chemicals.
The power of data
We have sophisticated data measurement, collection and analytical capabilities now to cut down on food waste and grow better and more efficiently.
A great example is the automated vertical farming startup iFarm that powers local and hyperlocal farms inside venues such as supermarkets, restaurants and cafes. The company’s farms use data to optimise the growth of a variety of vegetables, berries and herbs. The Swedish company recently teamed up with Poteha Labs and developers from Catalyst-Team to create a bot using vision analysis technologies to identify any problems at the plant growth stage, so staff can simply snap a picture of an issue and have it diagnosed by the bot quickly.
Then there’s US-based Trace Genomics which has built a scalable soil microbiome test to help farmers predict soil health and crop quality, using a combination of DNA sequencing and machine learning. These insights empower growers to better understand the parameters affecting production, helping them to make better decisions and get more value out of their land.
This could not have been possible 10+ years ago, but the development of data processing and machine learning across the agrifood system is powering this new future.
Another, perhaps surprising, driver of transformation in the agrifood sector is social networks.
Technologies like machine learning and biotech can help us create more efficient food sources and minimise the impact of the food industry on the planet. But social networks are vital to restore the connection between culture, food and community.
Demi, a social network founded in Denmark and one of our portfolio companies, connects chefs directly to customers, creating new communities built on the conversations and connections food brings us. The platform allows people to connect and share tips around cooking, ideas and events, spreading culinary art and knowledge across the globe. UK-based social media platform REKKI is being used by chefs across Europe to source ingredients, helping them to reduce waste, minimise mistakes and speed up the purchasing process.
The time is now
If we don’t invest in technology that restores the connection between humans and the earth, we will end up sipping ready-to-drink meals designed to deliver the exact number of calories we’re told we need, delivered by robots and all so that we can spend more time immersed in our artificial lives.
Instead, in order to build a truly resilient food system, we need to seek inspiration from both nature and culture. The truly disruptive innovations that will transform our food system are those that look to nature with biomimicry in mind. And by reconnecting food with culture, we can stand a chance to reconnect ourselves and our culture to the natural world while still leveraging technology to deeply change our ultra-efficient food systems, currently optimised for delivering cheap calories, not cheap nutrients.