If there is one industry that is guaranteed to grow year-on-year for the foreseeable future, which the world depends on, and is hungry to embrace new technologies to optimize production and processes – it is food.
As the world’s population continues to grow exponentially, so does the global demand for food. Back in 1987, the world’s population was at around five billion. Today, the United Nations forecasts that this is set to increase to nearly 10 billion by 2050. Alongside environmental pressures such as water scarcity, climate change, and the limited land available for growing crops, the conditions are now ideal for innovation and investment in the food industry.
Leading the global advancement of technologies to achieve future water and food supply security, the UAE’s Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) Strategy sets out a clear roadmap for development under ‘The Security of The Future’ pillar. The strategy aims to achieve security of food and water supply through advanced technologies, renewable energy, and bioengineering sciences.
Part of the 4IR Strategy, and setting a global precedent, is the first phase of the UAE’s ‘Food Tech Valley’ in Dubai, launched in 2021. This ambitious initiative focuses on both strategic food production to achieve food self-sufficiency, and the long-term solutions to conservation and sustainability of resources. It is envisioned as an integrated modern city that will serve as a hub for future clean tech-based food and agricultural products and an incubator for researchers, entrepreneurs, start-ups and industry experts involved in developing solutions that have the potential to shape the future of the food industry.
So how is innovative tech such as the photonic integrated circuit (PIC), artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and bioengineering helping to feed the food production revolution?
Catalysed in part by the pandemic, grocery and food delivery has become the largest market for food tech – alongside a huge uplift in private investment and meal ordering startups. However, challenges such as scalability, freshness along the supply chain, and consumer trends for eating locally produced food indicate a shift towards more innovative approaches to food processes and production.
But what are some emergent technologies in the food industry? In which areas can we expect to see vibrant growth now and in the near future?
Together with a pressing global need to optimize food production for generations to come, consumer tastes are guiding the growth of meat and protein alternatives. Labelled variously as plant-based, animal-free, and meatless, the market is open for associated products and services that broaden the reach of these alternatives.
The fast-food sector is already opening its doors to the emerging market by offering ‘meatless’ options on its menus. Innovations are also arriving in the form of other protein-based products seeking to appeal to preferences of people seeking a more plant-based diet, without compromising on flavour and nutrition. There’s also the potential for smarter nutritional supplements that are more sustainable.
Around the world, there is a hive of activity around innovative ‘agri-tech’. With an ever-increasing population and a finite number of acres on which to grow crops and graze livestock, there’s a fundamental need for change.
According to research, agriculture is responsible for 70% of the world’s freshwater usage. Coupled with the threat posed by water scarcity in certain regions of the planet, the imperative to find smart farming solutions becomes clear.
One technology which offers huge scope for the food industry, and the planet, is integrated photonics. Harnessing the power of light instead of electricity, photonic integrated circuits are driving innovations in highly accurate, yet cost-effective sensors.
This technology enables farmers to give plants optimum amounts of water, nutrients, and light, while saving resources – ultimately optimizing yield. Leveraging huge amounts of data, this also points towards further streamlining automation.
As part of smarter farming, emerging food tech also presents opportunities for reducing waste and optimizing for quality in food production. This area of agri-tech is also seeing an influx of solutions, from advanced satellite imaging to online marketplaces that level the playing field for smaller farmers.
These advances can help growers get more from their land, and create a sustainable and responsible model for future generations. For example, satellite and drone technologies enable farmers to manage the variability of their land by mapping and monitoring it, so they can make optimal use of their acreage.
There are also innovative solutions targeting increasing food wastage, such as marketplaces for imperfect produce, as well as data-driven software which gives farmers an overview of their business in the same way as retailers.
Sensors, grading technologies, and food preservation technology can also deliver improved safety within the supply chain, minimizing wastage and ensuring safety and quality of food products during transportation. Sustainable innovation marks the way forward, with consumer demand strong for traceable and sustainable food sources.
The key drivers here are improved freshness and waste reduction, so this has also created space in the market for packaging that keeps the product at its optimum condition but is also reusable or recyclable.
As you can see, through the deployment of smart technologies, there is huge potential for optimizing the food industry to yield better quality produce, reduce wastage, and increase food safety. To meet exponential demand for food, smart solutions are needed to optimize farming and food production processes.
We have only just begun the journey towards a digitally transformed food industry, where precision agriculture and food processing are enabled by sophisticated monitoring and sensors that dig deep to provide valuable data insights. As the technology advances, food production will become more streamlined and increasingly automated, driving efficiencies, and delivering healthy and sustainable food to the global population.
It is an industry with tangible appetite for new and innovative solutions to the world’s growing demand, and a global imperative to give the world’s food systems the overhaul they need to ensure food security and nutrition for all, especially the 750+ million people living as ‘undernourished’.