Tasty tech: how food innovation is overcoming a world of turbulence

Food innovation: Global inflation, a COVID-crisis, war and climate change. These are just some key challenges bringing food innovation to a snail’s pace worldwide. 

With inflation showing no signs of slowing down, the food tech sector has had to develop rapidly to help supply meet demand. According to figures from the Food and Agriculture Organization, food prices globally increased by 12.4% in March 2022 from February alone this year and by 33.6% compared to just twelve months ago. Despite so many curveballs being thrown at innovation, figures from Emergen Research show the global food tech sector looks set to be worth 301 billion euros globally, meaning there is room for some tasty tech advancement.

One person who knows a significant amount about food innovation and the challenges currently facing the food tech sector is Barcelona-born Patricia Fernandez de Arroyabe, Director of the Master of Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Gastronomic Management at BCH. We spoke to the passionate globetrotter about the industry’s turbulence and the many ways food tech has changed how we live.

What, in your opinion, are the biggest challenges currently facing food and technology?

I believe the biggest challenge is maintaining a swift response for the future of food systems which continue to change rapidly. We need to accelerate speed to boost entrepreneurship and find real solutions. While we have been aware of all challenges our planet faces for years, it was covid that set off alarm bells for many. Before the pandemic, we only talked about the word ‘waste.’ Today, the term should not exist, and I feel that almost any product that can be reused is a resource. Garbage is still a resource! I also believe that our food value chain system needs to be revised. 

One excellent example of food being repurposed is bagasse, which we obtain after the beer fermentation process. We have been throwing away bagasse for years when we should have considered it a value-added resource for its outstanding nutritional values! A few years ago, it was considered waste; however, today, some companies worldwide use it as flour to make bread, cakes, or energy bars for human consumption.

Do you believe inflation will have an impact on food tech?

Without a doubt, it will, but given the current inflation situation, many issues must be considered. The first is how long companies and consumers can sustain the impact of inflation on our pockets.

The second is that we don’t really know which products will fall out of this wave of inflation and which won’t. Undoubtedly, we will see products that will fail to return to their price prior to this situation, but many others will since their price is the result of oversupply and not due to a shortage.

I think a potential future decrease of certain products and even products with structurally high prices provide a clear opportunity for food tech. For example, if there is a lack of sunflower oil (80% is produced between the Ukraine and Russia), why don’t we make sunflower oil without sunflowers, as we are already innovating by making palm oil without palm? Think about it this way, it’s still possible to eat cellular fish, caviar or foie; however, at the moment, the scalability of innovation does not permit low prices. Will it be in the future? Of course, I do not doubt that in the medium and long-term future there we will be able to choose between 2 different products: the real and the cellular, being the second one the cheapest option for our pockets. 

The main challenge, however, is the order of that tempus. While those innovations need investment in the short term to develop a parallel food system for the medium and long term, companies nowadays focus on margin. Thus inflation could stop investment, making this change take longer than expected. It is for this reason that we need to focus on long-term innovation.

food innovation
Photo by Jeff Sheldon on Unsplash

How has AI helped the food industry?

Foodtech is the new internet, and artificial intelligence is the spearhead.

Artificial Intelligence requires data, but it is not generated from today to tomorrow. It takes at least two or three years to collect and start working on algorithms to improve tasks. In a short time, some methods used today will seem prehistoric.

We are facing consumers who are looking for more customization than ever in this new environment. The data collection will allow us to go from macro to micro. It will be like exercising precision operations where customization will play a fundamental role.

Can you please tell us about some of the ways that AI has helped real-use food companies?

Absolutely. Regarding information, AI will change the way we collect it across the food sector. Until recently (even today), collecting consumer data was through surveys and focus groups. Today, AI has already allowed the world to know what we eat and what we will eat in each city or neighborhood in the world. Several companies are already developing solutions that will allow us to talk about trends in food with a micro-local focus at an affordable cost. 

Regarding marketing, there are already solutions whose algorithms are capable of helping restaurants to order their menu based on the prediction of the number of reservations or product stock. In the back office of the food value chain, AI will make it possible to predict demand millimetrically. 

I also feel the word waste will eventually disappear. What three years ago was destruction has turned into resources. Today, everything that can have a “next life” is a resource. Clever tools are already being developed in kitchens that allow us to know, through AI, what we throw away. The next step is helping consumers and companies recirculate those.

Last but not least, personalized nutrition has been boosted through AI. I believe a food tech revolution is brewing here by startups and large companies. 

What other exciting developments in food technology can we expect to see in the future?

I think we will see three main developments, including robotics, the metaverse, and new energy sources.

Robotics will be a consequence of the lack of personnel, which is already a harsh reality in most countries. Meanwhile, I think the metaverse will position itself as the fourth channel (retail, food service, delivery) that will be added to the current so-called omnichannel (being in several or all channels). It will be a new channel for sales, promotion for brands, and, therefore, new business opportunities.

Finally, I believe we will experience a revolution in energy. There are already companies that are transforming the organic waste from home into cooking gas.

Rebecca Lee is a journalist and broadcaster of over 23 years. She also works in tech communications with ClearStory International. To date, she has written for and continues to contribute to The Business Post, The Irish Times, The Irish Daily Mail, The Sunday World, and, most importantly, European tech publication 4i Magazine. Rebecca also worked as a radio presenter for 13 years with leading Irish stations Q102 and FM104. Alongside balancing her PR and journalism work, Rebecca moderates events, WebSummit 2022 and Dublin Tech Summit being the most recent.