The world population is building toward 9 billion, our available land is shrinking, and our communities are growing more connected, leaving one increasingly important global issue hanging above our heads: food security. Fortunately, technology is allowing us to track, analyze, and understand the way our food system works to help reduce the amount of food waste and carbon emissions, and ultimately, feed the 842 million people who don't currently have enough to eat.
And food startups are leaving everyone salivating. Research from CB Insights showed that VC funding for food delivery companies was at an all-time high in the first quarter of 2014, hitting more than $200 million. But using smartphones to order Thai takeout at 11:00 p.m. is only the tip of the iceberg. Here are 10 ways tech is changing our food and the way we find, consume, and get rid of it.
The biotechnology used to create genetically modified organisms (GMO) is critical in food technology, and also notorious. A GMO is something that has been genetically engineered to have certain traits, like herbicide resistance, pest resistance, and increased nutritional value. In 1994, the first modified tomato, the Flavr Savr, was approved by the FDA and put on the market. It quickly led to the development of other seeds, and by 1999, one hundred million acres were farmed with genetically engineered crops.
In 1997, just three years after the first genetically modified food hit the grocery shelves, Europe made GMO labels mandatory, but the US still hasn't made a federal regulation. Currently, there are crops in development that are genetically modified to grow in habitats besides their native ones, to increase yield productivity to feed more people. Examples of this include wheat, rice, and other grains. Fish, poultry, and beef are also often modified to increase the quantity of meat by quickening the rate of growth of an animal or by adding proteins or other nutrients to the meat.
2. Precision agriculture
Precision agriculture is often called satellite farming, and refers to the use of GPS tracking systems and satellite imagery to monitor crop yields, soil levels, and weather patterns to increase efficiency on the farm. Precision technology is increasingly important as the issue of feeding 9 billion people by 2050 becomes more apparent. The technology was adopted in the early 1990s, and started with crop yield monitors. Now, there are tools such as weather analysis software and soil testing kits to monitor nitrogen and phosphorous levels.
Using these precision technology systems, farmers can pinpoint an exact location in a field to determine how productive the area is. Before, the entire field was treated as one unit, but now, farmers can find out which areas are more suitable for which crops so they don't waste seed, fertilizer, or pesticides. It is also important from an environmental standpoint — farmers can have more sustainable practices and use less resources such as water to tend their fields.
Farms often span large distances, and farmers need help to monitor the productivity of the areas. Drones are becoming a popular alternative to extra farm hands or satellites, and advanced technology is making the drones more productive. With drones, farmers can locate precisely where a diseased or damaged plant is, more accurately release fertilizer and pesticides, or take photos and have immediate information about a certain area of the farm.
A report released in March by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International said that drones could create 70,000 jobs after the Federal Aviation Administration approves commercial drones. But in farming, drones may replace more jobs than they create.
4. Internet of Things
Sensors are (and will continue to be) very important to food technology. The Internet of Things has already come to the farm in the forms of irrigation technologies, crop yield monitoring. A system called WaterBee collects data on soil content and other environmental factors using wireless sensors to reduce water waste.
Sensors in grain bins allow farmers to monitor the temperature and moisture levels remotely. John Deere added sensors to some of its equipment to monitor soil moisture or productivity to increase or decrease speed or prevent overlap of fertilizer or seed. Another example of IoT use on farms is Z-Trap, a device used to monitor insects and analyze data on crops remotely using GPS coordinates and wireless sensors. The base station targets specific destructive bug species, but the tool has its own communication network between all the traps on a certain field and uploads the data to a cloud.
5. Food waste tracking
We know that 40% of America's food is thrown away each year. With the help of social media and new technology, this number can be drastically reduced. Strides are being made with apps and web platforms to put the food to good use. Leloca is an app that helps restaurants minimize waste by allowing people to get deals on food (ranging from 30 to 50% off usually) within 45 minutes of a posting at nearby restaurants. Another app, 222 Million Tons, gives a suggested grocery list with a user's selected household size and meal preferences. A particularly innovative platform called LeftoverSwap matches people with leftover food to others in their area who would like to purchase cheap food and pick it up, and they offer anything from pizza to produce.
Food-centric hackathons are popping up around the globe to improve the food industry. It is a movement that is gaining traction. Food+Tech Connect held the first food hackathon, and continues to host them annually, including ones that have tackled the Farm Bill, and the meat and restaurant industries. The Future of Food Hackathon and Forum is an assembly of the leading food innovators, chefs, entrepreneurs, and designers to create solutions for the future of food. The Rural Advancement Foundation International and Farm Hack, an open source community for agriculture projects that lists local hackathons and innovations, have launched a collaborative campaign on Kickstarter for Growing Innovation, an online community to share agricultural innovations and maps of sustainable farms.
7. 3D printing
The idea of 3D printed food isn't exactly mouth-watering, but the technology stands to disrupt the food industry on at least some level. Right now, the most talked-about 3D printed food is 3D Systems' candy, which is made of pure sugar with the ChefJet, but the leader in the 3D printer industry recently teamed up with Hershey's to print chocolate. Startups like Modern Meadow are trying to save cows and help reduce carbon emissions by creating meatless meat. NASA used a 3D printer to make a pizza, possibly a step forward for astronaut meals in space. The Foodini is a 3D printer designed for the home kitchen. The user prepares the ingredients with a food processor or blender, and the 3D printer can print shapes out of the mix. It's meant to take out the time-consuming process of making things by hand. The Foodini has created food items such as burgers, pizza, and desserts.
8. Farm locations
As farmland becomes less available, we must come up with innovative places to grow food. The latest trend is underground; in London, a hydroponic farm was built in abandoned underground tunnels that were once air-raid shelters, so that local restaurants and stores can have fresh produce and herbs. Hydroponic technology is growing in popularity because food can be grown without soil using a nutrient-rich water solution. Philips is working on creating special LED bulbs that produce specific wavelengths to appropriately grow plants indoors for Green Sense Farms in Chicago, which is a one-million cubic foot growing space. Since LED bulbs don't get hot, they can sit closer to the plants and can produce lights particular to different species of crops.
9. Access to recipes
AllRecipes has been around for many years, and the platform is extraordinarily popular. In 2012, on its 15th anniversary, the site conducted a survey, asking users questions about their use for their recipe services. It found, of course, that our smartphones and tablets are changing the way we prepare and cook food. More than a third of respondents said they use phones to look up recipes and cooking techniques, according to the survey.
Recipe sites have well surpassed cookbooks and magazine recipes in usage. From gluten-free to vegan to paleo, we can find guidelines for just about any type of diet or lifestyle on the internet today. With blogs, Pinterest, food-centric Twitter accounts, and Facebook groups, sharing recipes across borders has never been easier. And with video sites like YouTube, we can learn how to chop up an artichoke in a matter of four minutes.
10. Promoting local food
The farm-to-fork movement is strong. People want to know where their food comes from, and as industrial agriculture, GMOs, hormones, and carbon emissions become increasingly concerning, it becomes more important to know the lifecycle of food. Websites like Farmigo offer a place for people to find local harvest from farmers in their region, creating an online farmer's market community, of sorts. Farm to Table is a web service that distributes locally grown produce, grass-fed beef, and cage-free chickens to restaurants, independent grocery stores, and cafeterias. There are profiles of the farmers and the farms they tend, as well as detailed descriptions of the food that is available for purchase. The company is based in Austin, Texas, but services like these are growing around the country.
- Photos: How tech is shaping the future of food
- How big data is going to help feed nine billion people by 2050
- Photos: How big data is changing the modern farm
- How social media rerouted over 400,000 pounds of food waste in a year
- Photos: Technology saving food waste
Lyndsey Gilpin has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Lyndsey Gilpin is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers sustainability, tech leadership, 3D printing, and social entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the upcoming book, Follow the Geeks.