As businesses turn to technology to fight inflation and improve efficiency, food tech is reshaping the food industry using the latest technology to manage production, distribution and consumption.
The food industry is worth more than $1 trillion in the U.S. gross domestic product, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. With an industry this large, there are several challenges, including food sustainability. Food tech is leading the way in transforming the global food sector.
What is food tech?
Food tech is any technology that improves food production, distribution and supply, and it affects the way people sell, produce and distribute food.
Even though this term may sound new, technology and food have been connected since the Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s and early 1800s. This period led to the emergence of industrialized agriculture and set the standards for farming. During this time, industry leaders and inventors worked together to help increase food production and quality. Major developments included the use of artificial fertilizer, creation of pesticides, development of electric power, and the start of horse-powered and then steam-powered machines.
But in the last few years, food tech has become its own sector with the rise of big data, AI and the internet of things (IoT). Food tech helps the food industry to be more sustainable by using IoT in all stages.
Challenges of food sustainability
Food systems are responsible for nearly one-third of the world's greenhouse gas admissions, according to a study by Nature Food. These emissions continue to rise due to land-use change, waste management, raising livestock, production and packaging.
The world also wastes about one-third of its food, according to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Even with all this food waste, the World Health Organization estimates that nearly 828 million people don't have enough food.
Farming, the food industry and people's diets affect the environment with the energy consumed for food production and waste generation. Farming affects the land and strips it of its nutrients. Along with water shortages, the world faces a reduction in arable land to produce food.
Food tech is looking to address some of these issues. Startups are taking the newest technology and applying it to various points of the food cycle to create jobs, reduce hunger, and promote responsible production and consumption.
Impact of food tech
The global food tech market was worth $220.32 billion in 2019, according to Emergen Research, and is estimated to grow to $342.52 billion by 2027.
Food tech is increasing food production to help reduce the rate of hunger and feed the world. Agriculture is becoming more automated by using digital and advanced technology to produce food and raw materials with smart farming. Some uses of technology in food production include the following:
- Genetically modified organisms. GMOs are inserted in a plant's genes to help it become disease resistant and grow in areas not favorable for production. GMOs are used in large crops such as rice, wheat and corn.
- Drones. Drones can provide satellite imagery to monitor crop growth and deal with problem areas.
- Meat industry technology. AI is effective in poultry production where it helps detect health issues with birds by the sounds they make. AI robots can work at poultry farms to collect eggs or assist with butchering.
- Crop monitoring. Along with the use of drones, AI can detect pests and diseases in crops. Digital apps -- such as AgroPestAlert, Farm Scout Pro and IPM Toolkit -- can help detect pest infestation and changing soil conditions to prevent large losses.
- 3D food printer. Food printers can create food -- such as pizza, snacks and candy -- at a faster pace. AI helps design the layers and structure of the food by placing one ingredient at a time. This could eliminate waste, as leftover ingredients can be reused.
Various sectors in food tech
In addition to lab-grown meats and vertical farms, food tech is a broad ecosystem of technologies that can be divided into subcategories for each food cycle.
Startups work to increase the quality of crops with technologies such as sensors, drones and software that replace manual labor. AI and machine learning are used to understand how plants and fungi grow and how they can grow effectively. Other parts of ag tech include fertilizer management, automated machinery, soil sensors and water solutions.
Ag tech can help farmers practice regenerative agriculture, which goes beyond preserving the environment and aims to actively improve it through agricultural practices. With enhanced data and automation provided by ag tech, regenerative agriculture can mitigate climate change, restore biodiversity and improve the work environment for farmers.
Startups are researching new ways to develop products that are both environmentally friendly and can address health concerns. Plant-based meat substitutes -- such as Beyond -- are an example of a recent product in this category. Scientists work with high-moisture extrusion and shear cell technology to find meal replacements -- such as using vegetable proteins in place of meat -- for individuals with health issues, and to find ways to remove common allergies such as lactose intolerance.
Food-related businesses -- including restaurants, cafeterias, hotels and cafes -- are looking at automation to help them run more efficiently. Robotics is being researched for use by restaurants of the future to help prepare and serve food, such as at the 2022 Beijing Olympics.
Restaurants are also using IoT technology to manage supply orders and track ingredients from initial order to arrival. Using sensors, restaurant owners can track the temperature of storeroom shelves and delivery trucks. They can watch the entire journey to ensure all safety standards are followed.
Smart appliances help make cooking easier with the use of meat temperature sensors and set-and-forget technology so staff can maximize their time while they wait for items to cook. Kitchen automation systems can also help chefs manage time and orders by tracking what needs to be cooked or how long something has been in a hot bin.
Businesses face the challenge of transporting food due to supply chain disruptions. With the growing demand for direct delivery to consumers, including restaurant and grocery delivery and meal kits, technology is needed to track and ensure food is packaged and delivered safely.
Consumers are looking to technology apps to improve diets, find restaurants, search for recipes, and track allergy or specialized diet information. For example, there are apps to find restaurants that meet certain dietary requirements so consumers can avoid allergens and follow their diets.
There are also startups working to educate people on their food choices and the benefits of proper nutrition to manage chronic health conditions and other personal fitness goals.
Technology can help restaurants, grocers and other food suppliers manage the shelf life of food. This includes using technology to trace ingredients and check for recalls.
Some businesses are turning to blockchain technology to manage their supply distribution. For example, a grocery store can track a package of chicken to ensure it came from an antibiotic-free supplier.
Surplus and waste management
Technology is working to help reduce waste and improve sustainability in the food industry. Technology -- such as LeanPath -- combines software, smart scales and cameras to monitor and calculate food waste in kitchens. Staff uses the scale to classify and weigh all food thrown out, and the software identifies patterns to help minimize waste.
Manufacturers are turning to more sustainable packaging made of biopolymers that can also help extend the shelf life of a product. Drones and smart sensors can oversee display shelves and take inventory in real time to track product movement and shelf life.