Is a revolution under way in the food chain?

“From field to table” – “from supermarket to fridge” – “around the same dinner table” – that’s how we are used to talking about food. Now we hear about food without fields, do our shopping from the sofa, and eating together doesn’t necessarily mean enjoying the same food and meal. What is going on in food production and distribution? While considering this issue at VTT, we came up with some change paths which, we hope, will point the way to a better future: VTT’s Food Economy 4.0 vision has been released.

Kaisa Poutanen VTT

Food is important, but consumes less and less of our money

We cannot live without food. It also brings us together. Food is an important source of wellbeing: “You are what you eat”. Food also displays your values – how well you take account of the welfare of livestock or the environment. Food is a subject of enjoyment, fear, admiration, indignation and debate. It therefore seems strange that, as our living standards have improved, we have spent less and less money on food, relatively speaking.

In Finland, we use only 12% of our income on food. Choice and the possibilities are growing and we are demanding about our food, but take it for granted.

Personalised food – global responsibility

We live in an age of individualism. We want to be individuals who express this via our choices. Meat-free, dairy-free, carb-free, fat-free, free of packaging, free of additives – there is already a large market for ‘free’ products. I’ve even heard someone on the radio demanding ‘gene and chemical-free’ food! Almost everyone wants a choice of food that promotes their health while titillating their taste buds.

Social responsibility is a big issue, in addition to individualism. We have again heard how our eating habits are burdening the Baltic Sea and hastening the destruction of the rain forests. Each year, around 173 kg of food is wasted per person in the EU. How will we ensure that there is enough food for the world’s growing population? How can the world’s water resources be made to suffice?

Last year, Earth Overshoot Day – the day on which people have used up the renewable natural resources produced during the year – was in August. Finland was faster – we ‘achieved’ this in April. How will this year go?

Which direction is technology taking food and eating?

Our Stone Age ancestors spent almost all of their waking hours hunting and gathering food. As agriculture developed, food became plentiful enough to store, but its sufficiency was still a key issue in everyday lives. Food was local and the entire production chain was the work of people’s own hands.

Due to industrialisation, food production moved to factories – and into larger and larger units during the 1900s. Food now travels around the world, wherever we are to be found. In addition, 84% of Finns live in towns and cities; most of these people are both physically and mentally distant from primary production. The unknown causes fear, mistrust and confrontation.

Services based on the industrial internet and artificial intelligence can make food shopping easier in our busy everyday lives, help us to choose based on more precise information, and broaden our food-related experiences. This can provide more opportunities for enjoying food.

Intelligence in food production and consumption!

In the future, food will be produced in a way that respects individuals, the planet and its natural resources. Raw materials will be used more wisely: side streams will be exploited and processes will be designed for a range of end products, from the very beginning. The use of vegetable protein will increase and microbes, insects and plant cells will be used to produce new raw materials. Food, energy and chemical production processes will more effectively use different parts of the same raw materials: circular economy concepts will minimise waste.

The internet is bringing devices, machinery and people together. This is also revolutionising food production and turning it into an ecosystem where traditional and new players are connected to the end user. New, agile technologies will make food just for you; here and now. The use and combination of production, product and health data are taking service businesses to a new level. Robots are coming, reality is being augmented, artificial intelligence is growing and services are in the cloud.

The new is often viewed as a threat. Food, in particular, often involves nostalgia for granny’s home cooking – if not for the Stone Age.

We now need to use human intelligence to harness the power of developing technologies to produce food that delights and satisfies the consumer, while ensuring that there is enough for future generations. Trust and taking broad account of consumer wellbeing will be important during these technological leaps ahead.

Let’s roll up our sleeves and place VTT’s varied-expertise powerhouse at the service of a positive food-chain revolution. Let food triumph!

Reading tip: The Food Economy 4.0 roadmap published by VTT on 7 February 2017 describes a new way of thinking about and implementing the production, distribution and purchase of food. Roadmap online: http://www.vtt.fi/inf/pdf/visions/2017/V10.pdf

Kaisa Poutanen, Research Professor
@Kaisa_Poutanen, LinkedIn

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