What the hell is foodtech and what’s so great about it?
It seems a wave of innovation is coming in food, propelled mainly by web technology and by companies intent on ‘disruption’, says Kester Muller.
What do you think of when you hear the phrase ‘food tech’? It is likely to conjure up any number of mental images, perhaps not all of them particularly appetising. As Tessa, Co-Founder of the food sharing app OLIO, puts it: “I think one of the problems with the term ‘food tech’ is that it doesn’t sound particularly appetising! And if anything it also sounds a little Frankensteinian.”
Contemporary trend watchers, and those in the business, however, see a different picture and want to define food tech differently. Who better to ask than Nadia El Hadery, the founder of YFood, which acts as an industry hub connecting London’s food tech startups? “Food Tech is innovation across the whole food value chain, from farm to plate to bin and everything in between - production, transportation and storage, processing, marketing, distribution, consumption and ultimately disposal,” she says.
‘Food tech is innovation across the whole food value chain’
Where is it that food tech is really going to change things? Nadia’s view is quite unambiguous: “The biggest shift, and easiest for people to comprehend, are the huge developments in transparency.” Reflecting an increase in ‘conscious consumption’, there is a cluster of organisations that, using blockchain technology (a system for generating a secure, unchangeable digital ‘paper trail’), aim to make it easier for shoppers to establish the origins and impacts of products. They include Provenance, which promises shoppers a “secure digital history, along with verified claims, enriched with content from along the supply chain.”
The fight against food waste is another area bursting with innovation, from companies who make products from food waste, like BioBean, which uses coffee grounds to make biofuels (see cover feature in issue 53), to the various groups that are providing platforms and tools to reduce waste systematically.
There are also those working on products to replace something that is proving environmentally or ethically problematic. Everyone’s heard about lab-grown meat (see this article), but what about Skipping Rock Lab, which has designed a water bottle made of natural materials that is not only biodegradable, but is even edible!
As well as these more cutting edge approaches, more familiar web technology has unarguably transformed food and eating in the last decade, with the streamlining of online shopping resulting in a boom in the takeaway business, and allowing for some radical changes to the supply chain. Damian Hind, from the online grocery company Farmdrop, says “our technology allows us to pay producers roughly double what they’d get from the supermarkets, giving farmers the financial breathing space to farm sustainably and produce food that is better for our health.”
But might the hype swirling around food tech result in those revolutionary intentions getting a bit overcooked? Cesar Rizzo, from Article Number 25 (who, amongst other things, grow mushrooms on coffee waste), is aware of the dangers of getting too caught up in the seductive excitement of the ‘tech quick fix’: “We believe that the important bits are the goals and the ethos behind the company using the technology. Food tech is a means to an end, not an end in itself.”