For years, the most important food technologies were all about scale. How could we feed a fast-growing population at less expense? By doing everything bigger: food grown on bigger farms was sold by ever-merging global food giants to grocery chains of superstore proportions.
Many of today’s food technologies seem to be moving in the opposite direction, toward methods and products that are economical for small farms as well as large corporate ones. This does not mean an end to big food: with the planet’s population projected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050, agriculture and food production will still have to achieve a massive scale, with help from technology and innovative research. Still, evolving technologies, including inexpensive sensors, mobile devices, and data analysis, have helped an increasing variety of food companies, retailers, and producers lower their costs and compete in many specialty markets.
This could be the start of a new food economy—one that reflects more competition and more innovation, provides opportunity for a broader group of investors, and is more dynamic and responsive than the industrial model that has dominated for decades.
This Business Report explores the implications of that shift—for financing food startups, for the development of new foods, and even for how we shop and eat.
Between January 2013 and December 2014, 47 funds launched with plans to invest in food and agriculture, as tallied by the online publication Food Tech Connect. Venture investment in food-tech startups climbed to more than $1 billion in 2014, according to CB Insights—a significant increase from $288 million in 2013. One focus of Google Ventures and other Silicon Valley investors has been companies taking creative approaches to producing new foods such as vegetable-based beef substitutes, protein bars made with cricket flour, and other products aimed at small but valuable groups of consumers.
Regulation is pushing some of these food innovations as well. In Vevey, Switzerland, the world’s largest food company, Nestlé, is using techniques to trick the palate into finding products delicious even with 10 percent less salt and sugar. Several European Union–funded programs are using genetic and molecular research to find new ways to confirm food safety and authenticity.
On the farm, software and data analysis could make agriculture more affordable for operations of all sizes. Today every John Deere tractor, sprayer, and combine comes equipped to wirelessly communicate information about where it is, what it has planted, and more. By combining this information with data generated by soil sensors and weather reports, farmers could find ways to use water, seed, and fertilizer more efficiently, lowering their costs enough to more than pay for the technology investment while maintaining or even improving yields.
Small-scale livestock producers have been some of the earliest supporters of Vital Herd, a technology in trials that measures and transmits key metrics of bovine health every 15 minutes—heart rate, respiration, temperature, and the contraction rate of the animal’s rumen. All this is measured by a four-inch-long “e-pill” the cow has swallowed. Today a herd’s health is monitored largely by farmer observation. But with this new flow of data, farmers might be more likely to identify a sick animal before illness spreads, thus minimizing the use of antibiotics. Henden Manor Estates, which keeps 500 milk cows and younger Holstein Friesians in Kent, southeast of London, is an investor. Says its owner, Roni Lovegrove: “If they get it right, it will be so transformative.”
New technologies are being tested in parts of the food chain closer to our kitchens, too. They form the basis for meal-prep sites like Plated, HelloFresh, and Blue Apron, which offer recipes and doorstep delivery of ingredients. These sites are competing with established supermarket giants, forcing them to rethink how they sell food.