The Future of Food: Farming It, Processing It, Packaging It, Selling It, Eating It


by futurist Richard Worzel, C.F.A.

Food is that stuff that comes wrapped in plastic from the store, right? Obviously not, but it’s easy to forget that in the blur of daily routine. In fact, food is immensely complex – and the future of food is even more so. Just about every aspect of human endeavor that is related to food is about to change in radical, yet often invisible, ways. Let’s start with the basics, and work backwards.

Why do we take food? Well, we need it for fuel, to provide energy to act on a conscious level, and energy for our bodies to operate, repair, and defend themselves beneath our awareness. But that’s not all that food is to us; it’s a matter of taste, choice, and enjoyment; it’s a matter of culture, celebration, devotion, and ritual; it defines where we’re from, what kinds of choices we make, and speaks volumes about who we are. That’s food’s present and past.

Why Food Will Change

The future of food is that it’s about fine-tuning our bodies and our health, and allowing us to become more than we are right now – without giving up any of that other stuff.

We’ve known for centuries that certain foods don’t agree with certain people. We’ve known for decades that some people are allergic or have an intolerance to specific foods that can dramatically affect their health and well-being. Examples include peanut allergies, which can lead to anaphylactic shock, and kill by suffocation in minutes, and gluten intolerance, which can lead, over a period of years, to depression, inability to concentrate, loss of energy, loss of weight, a weakened immune system, and ultimately death by malnutrition.

In the future, we will know how each individual’s genome will interact with different foods in unique, individualistic ways, so that the food that nurtures one person can drag down or do active harm to another. We are learning that the old folk saying, “One man’s food is another man’s poison” is literally true, but now we’re going to be in a position to know and specify which particular foods are good for each person, and which are bad. Indeed, I suspect that once the data are crunched, each person will have four lists of foods: foods that are optimal for us, and that we should eat consistently and in quantity; foods that are good for us and that we should eat regularly in reasonable amounts; foods that aren’t particularly good for us, that we should eat sparingly and infrequently; and foods we shouldn’t eat at all. And each person’s lists are going to be different, although with overlap. (I suspect that broccoli, for instance, will be on most people’s “A” lists, and chocolate fudge sundaes on most people’s “C” lists.)

And this knowledge will refashion the food growing, processing, packaging, and retailing industries. It will almost be as if every person on the planet will have a unique set of food allergies, and needs to know and gauge everything they eat. But how in the world will anyone, on either side of the serving table, be able to cope with this level of complexity? Answer: computers.

Computer Genies

One trend that I’ve been watching and expecting for more than 20 years is the emergence of smart computer companions that will handle matters for us in cyberspace, plus issues involving enormous complexity and detail. These computer companions might be called genies, avatars, butlers, or something else. For simplicity, let’s call them computer genies. And the odds are pretty good that you already own the precursor to such a genie in your smartphone.

Smartphones are going to continue to blossom, and may develop personalities. I’ve always expected that, but I may not be right. It’s not so much whether the technology can support computer personalities – it can – but whether we want them to do so. I can demonstrate this quandary by pointing to two such computer personalities already in the marketplace, albeit in different niches.

The first one is Apple’s Siri, which inhabits recent iPhones. Siri started as a supercharged speech-recognition system, and is, with Apple’s diligent support, en route to becoming an all-around computer genie. As computers get more powerful, software more sophisticated, and Siri gets more proficient at doing what people ask her to do, she’ll become steadily and rapidly more effective. Do people like Siri? That’s controversial, and, at times, also rather amusing. My wife can’t stand her. I like what Siri does, although I don’t yet use her as much as I eventually will. If you haven’t experienced Siri, then go to YouTube and look at some of the demonstrations – and also some of the parodies.

The other computer personality that has already been revealed is IBM’s Watson, which made its (his?) public debut by beating the two human champions at the television game show, Jeopardy! in 2011. Of course, IBM didn’t create Watson to play game shows. That was just a demonstration of principle to determine whether Watson was capable of coping with human natural language, in all it’s idiosyncratic complexity, and answering complex questions that require assessing vast quantities of information. It passed by beating the two human Jeopardy! champions.

IBM’s first intended serious application, I understand, is as a diagnostic assistant to physicians. Watson can perform highly sophisticated analyses of Big Data to come to a quantitative assessment of the probable cause of particular symptoms, supporting a human doctor’s qualitative judgment and experience. But there have been rumors that IBM is considering putting Watson on a smartphone, to work its wonders for the general public.

Whether this happens or not, the path seems pretty clear: computers will increasingly become our friends – or at least, highly sophisticated companions that can serve us in a myriad of ways. And one of those ways is by assessing what our genomes indicate we need in the food we eat, and comparing it to what is available in specific foodstuffs. Hence, you might be in a supermarket, pick up a food that you’re uncertain about, scan the barcode or QR code, and have your computer genie analyze whether it fits your nutrition profile or not, and whether there are any ingredients that you should avoid. It will also be able to keep track of how you’re doing at eating the things you should, and avoiding the things you shouldn’t, and providing a running tally of where you are on a daily basis. Precisely how this is presented remains to be seen, because this could either be really, really annoying, or greatly encouraging.

Customized Food in Practice

As an example of how it could be encouraging, consider the electronic displays on hybrid cars that show how much fuel efficiency you’re getting given the way you’re driving. What has happened is that, just by seeing their miles per gallon (or liters/100 km) displayed, many people adopt far more fuel-efficient behaviors, accelerating slowly away from a stop, easing up on speed on a superhighway, and so forth. This happens without coercion, but just by offering feedback. The same should happen with nutrition if the user interface is designed properly (say by Apple).

The same kind of feedback will be available in a restaurant. Again, each menu item may have a bar code to scan – or the restaurant’s computer may transmit information about the menu items by Bluetooth to your computer genie, which will then display red lights, yellow lights, and green lights next to each item on the menu, indicating whether you should avoid an item, eat it sparingly, or dive in.

If you take this a step further, restaurants could receive a list of food do’s and don’ts from each customer’s genie, have their chef computer automatically match that with the ingredients they have on hand, and come up with menu items from those ingredients that work best for you. In effect, this collaboration between a restaurant’s computer and your genie would create a unique menu for just for you. This might not happen in a fast food restaurant, but would be more likely in a high-end restaurant, or in a captive customer setting, such as on a cruise ship or in institutional kitchens, where they see the same customers on a regular basis.

How Food Processors and Packagers Will Respond

Now let’s move up the food chain, and look at what food processors and packagers will need to do in order to respond to such changes. First, they will need to both know, and be able to specify precisely what’s in the foods they process and package, and in much more detail than they do now. Indeed, once consumers have the ability to handle this level of complexity through their computer genies, food processors will start to compete on the depth of detail in their descriptions, and how good the nutrition is in their foods. Hence, two brands of breakfast cereal, let’s call them Flin and Flon, might aim at different price points. Both may offer similar granolas, but up-market Flin may provide a much more detailed profile of the quality of the nuts and grains in their granola, while more budget-minded Flon may feature cheaper, but lower quality nuts and grains. Hence, while today both might list identical ingredients, and both might show identical nutritional profiles on the mandatory labeling printed on today’s packages, in future Flin may be able to charge a premium precisely because it can document the nutritional superiority of its ingredients compared to Flon’s.

And taking that a step further, this nutritional profile might be different for every single box of Flin (and Flon), based on the actual nuts and grains that went into that specific box of cereal. What’s published on today’s cereal boxes represents an average or a minimum level of nutrition of the ingredients. When we have this level of detail in the system, we will be able to assess on an individual box basis, not just at the brand level.

This could conceivable, but not necessarily, lead to pricing every box uniquely. Imagine searching through a shelf of cereal boxes, for instance, all apparently identical, looking for the freshest and most nutritious ones. And if that sounds crazy, remember that we already do that (or try to) with fruit and vegetables. Or, more likely, our computer genies will indicate which box to buy, based on our nutritional needs, individual budgets, and taste preferences.

And, of course, if this happens (or rather, when this or something like it happens), then processors and packagers are going to have to (a) know the quality of the ingredients of each box, (b) be able to assess the nutritional quality of such contents, and (c) embed that information with the box so that it can be released to those consumers who are interested. Whether this is through a matrix code, or some kind of RFID remains to be seen, but we will live in a world where our computer genies talk to our cereal boxes below our level of awareness.

The Future Farmer

Now let’s take the next step up the food chain, back to the farmer. For this level of information to make it to the food processor and packager, a farmer will need to know quite a lot about the agricultural produce he (or she) grows and delivers to market. He will need to be able to make a close estimate of the nutritional value of everything he grows or makes, whether it’s grain, fruit, mushrooms, eggs, or meat animal. He will therefore need to know a lot about the specific nutrients used to raise these produce, the soil where it was grown, the growing conditions it experienced, any stresses it may have experienced that might affect its nutritional value, and the fundamental genetic qualities of the seeds (or equivalent) from which the produce started.

All of this can be accumulated by computers watching and assessing the development process, combined with spot checks of the quality of results afterwards to confirm these assessments. Such computer assessments will come from sensors and computers on tractors and other equipment, possibly combined with new kinds of equipment, such as aerial drones equipped with different kinds of sensors that assess moisture, soil fertility, pest infestations, and more. These combined with the listed values of inputs, such as pesticides, feed, and fertilizers, will be summed up in small batch assessments for grains and fruits, quality assessments for individual eggs from specific hens, and unique judgments for individual meat animals.

And farmers are also going to be able to use these developments to improve their yields and profits. Not only will they be able to optimize the treatment – and yield – of each acre, but they’ll be able to plant seeds that are most suitable for each acre.

One of the coming developments in farming is the ability to customize seeds for smaller and smaller areas of the country, eventually down to an individual field, and potentially to a subsection of that field, according to its assessed ability to produce. This will partly come from farm equipment that not only plows, harrows, and so on, but also uses sensors to assess moisture levels, ph balance, and nutrient content on a square foot by square foot basis. Add to this the ability to first read, then to optimize the genetics of a particular seed, say of wheat, in the computer, based on our expanding knowledge of plant genetics. Once an optimal seed has been designed in computer, it can be produced in the laboratory, and the put into production in the field. We’re approaching this capability right now in the lab, but in future we will be able to put it into full production, using the detailed information available about both field and seed.

All of this will also combine to produce dramatically increased traceability. Gone will be the days of anonymity, where a farmer’s produce blends with similar products from tens, hundreds, or thousands of other farmers. A given small batch of wheat, eggs, or an individual piece of meat will be traceable back to the farm, and almost every conceivable detail about how it was produced will be available. There are precursors for this right now, as with the Sea2Table website, which links fisherman directly to restaurant chefs, and allows dinners to know where and when a given fish was caught, and by whom, along with how long it was stored and how it was prepared.

When Will This Happen? And What Will It Cost?

The cost of these measures will vary, and it won’t be borne all at once. Instead, developments will evolve, starting with increasingly smartphones at the consumer’s end, and traceability issues at the farmer’s end, and then working both ways towards the middle. The smarter smartphone won’t cost extra – it will be included either as part of the basic software (as Siri is with the iPhone), or as an app (which means it probably won’t cost all that much). Traceability will be more expensive, and smart farmers will use it to aim for premium market niches, allowing the higher prices to pay for the increased costs involved.

As for timing, let’s look at a likely timeline:

Within 5 years, by 2018 – Smartphones will have evolved personalities, and be well on their way to being full-blown computer genies, although those genies will continue to evolve indefinitely. Eventually they will be smarter than their users. Foodservice people will respond rapidly, because of the competitive nature of their industry, and will have customizable, or finely segmented, menus well before 5 years. Farmers will start incorporating more sensors and more sophisticated analysis of available data within five years, but as this will largely involve changes in their equipment, this will happen gradually.

Perhaps slowest off the mark will be food processors and packagers. In effect, they will wait for evolving needs and data to permeate to them from consumers at one end, and farmers at the other, so mostly they will lag. However, within five years they will be providing far more information through barcodes or QR codes on packaging.

Within 10 years, by 2023 – Consumers will be deeply engaged in “eating right for their genotypes”, and their computer genies will be the vehicles that enable them to do so. Foodservice organizations will differentiate themselves by how finely they can accommodate consumer differences: from major food preferences (kosher, organic, gluten-free, etc.) down to the rudiments of individual genetics. Menus will be dynamic, not static. Food processors & packagers will be deeply engaged in facilitating the transfer and use of data from farmer to consumer, and packaging will also become dynamic in facilitating the data projected. And farmers will be deeply engaged in exploring what they can do, both to improve results and yields with more information, and how they can best exploit the conveyance of such information to improve profits – or minimize traceability costs.

Within 20 years, by 2033 – Almost all of the developments I’ve described for all participants will be fully available and engaged, and new developments and applications that I haven’t thought of, and that seem beyond our horizon will be in prospect.
Whether my timelines are accurate or not, the application of Big Data and Analytics is accelerating towards the world of food, from farm to fork and every stage in between. Those who will benefit most from these rapidly approaching trends will be those who are stay close to – but not quite at – the bleeding edge of change. One of the world’s oldest industries is about to experience the one of greatest changes since the invention of agriculture – and the world, and our lives, will never be the same.

© Copyright, IF Research, January 2013.