As humans our strong bond and romantic relationship with food often clouds our judgement when it comes to what we eat, where it comes from, and the impact it has on our health and planet. More and better data is the key to lifting the lid on our food production and consumption habits and giving us the tools we need to shake up food systems and address the food-related challenges we face.
We need to fundamentally change how we produce food; we also have to recognize that climate change presents a massive threat to our food systems, meaning building in resilience is a must. More and better data will be critical to tackling these challenges and increasing the efficiency of food production and processing.
In the last few decades, we have seen massive technological advancements in virtually every area of our lives, yet primary food production is still a relatively low-tech arena, heavily governed by rules of thumb as opposed to the kinds of precise, systematic processes, sensors, and measurements we see in industrialized food processing.
When deciding what to eat, how much, and when, we are still slaves to our literal gut feeling. As well as being hungry for food itself, we should be hungry for data related to that food because, right now, many of us make poor choices about what goes into our mouths.
We also often make poor choices when it comes to where our food comes from. It’s understandable to think that buying locally produced food is better for the environment, but that is not necessarily the case. Transport and packaging play a tiny part in a food’s carbon footprint when compared to the energy and other resources, like water, needed for actual production. Thus, what you eat matters more than where it comes from.
People feel that sustainably produced local food is nice and wholesome (and it is!) and that industrially produced food is worse; they also feel that dairies and bakeries are “nicer” or “better” than factories when in reality both bread and cheese are heavily processed.
Finding what you are looking for on a today’s food labels, be it fat content or allergy-related information, can be an exhausting task. Simplicity is a must, especially if we want to find better ways to quantify and communicate the impact of food production from farm to fork.
I can see a future where every food item we buy comes labelled with a simple number to indicate its carbon footprint, like the A–F energy consumption rating for household appliances. Clearly communicating this kind of data is key if we want to know how to change our habits, but we are not there yet. Calculating such a figure is still very complicated and the standards are not in place. The increasing popularity of digital grocery shopping provides new opportunities: we could receive a monthly report on the carbon footprint of the last four weeks’ purchases with figures to indicate its environmental impact. And not only carbon, but also water and land use and impacts on biodiversity! This will require measurements throughout the whole supply chain, and the data needs to move in both directions, from production through processing and on to consumption and back.
Calculating the real climate impact of the food we produce and consume is an incredibly complex task; we can accurately measure and calculate how much energy or water was used to produce a ready meal from ready ingredients, for example, but calculating its overall climate impact of growing all those ingredients is a whole different ballgame with a vast number of factors in play. How was the energy produced, what kind of water was used, how many kilometers was it transported and by what method? And more importantly, how was the field managed, what kind of fertilizers were used, was a forest cut down to make space for the field? The more we can measure throughout the supply chain, the more we will understand where improvements can be made.
New tools and technologies can help us to gather the data we need to better understand what is happening in our fields, livestock sheds, and fisheries. For example, the very thin layer of earth’s topsoil contains more carbon than our atmosphere, and by measuring and monitoring it we can use this information to encourage farming practices that help to keep the carbon where it is and sequester even more.
In the next part of this article I’ll discuss the future of food and the role that technology has to play in helping us to find new ways to satisfy our appetites and safeguard the planet at the same time.
Dr. Lauri Reuter is an expert in the future of food, and the person to ask if you’ve ever wondered what we are going to eat in the future, and how all that food is going to be produced. He currently works in investments in bold Nordic innovations that aim to transform the global food system. Dr. Reuter has a PhD in Biotechnology and is a former Senior Specialist of Disruptive Technologies at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland as well as an alumnus of the Singularity University Global Solutions Program.
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All these and more is covered in an intensively visionary panel discussion. Together with Dr. Lauri Reuter, Ph.D. a visionary biotechnology scientist of Singularity University and Vaisala's Jutta Hakkarainen & Maria Uusimaa, directors of Liquid Measurements and Industrial Instruments, respectively, talk about tackling the megatrend-level challenges facing not just the food & beverage industry, but all of our planet.