There’s a battle coming for food and drink. Disruptive new technology like lab-grown meat and 3D printing is rewriting the rules for how food and drink products are made - and who makes them.
Already, food tech ‘unicorns’ like plant-based burger wonder Beyond Meat are redefining what a modern food company looks like and the level of investment it can attract.
No wonder some of Silicon Valley’s sharpest and most ambitious minds are increasingly turning to food as the next big tech frontier.
There are good reasons to be cheered by this: the world faces huge health, nutrition and sustainability challenges - the kinds of challenges that will take the very best minds, science and technology to solve. It won’t do the food industry any harm whatsoever to have some fresh, aggressive talent light a rocket under its collective behind. Too much of what passes for ‘innovation’ today remains complacent and derivative.
At the same time, tech’s growing role in food and drink - and the associated influx of talent from sectors outside the food industry - isn’t without its risks. The biggest of those is an erosion of consumer trust.
It is wrong to stoke irrational fears of technology or suggest food production today should look like it did 50, 100 or 200 years ago. But food is a special case. The emotional connection we have with it is fundamental. And the trust we therefore need to have in those who produce it is of a different calibre to what we demand from the tech sector. A data privacy breach pales in comparison with the horrors of an unsafe food harming a child.
New players looking to disrupt the food industry therefore need to prove not just their ability to innovate and use exciting tech; they must be willing to be open and transparent about their sourcing, their ingredients and their production processes.
In cases where proprietary IP is key to companies’ ability to compete, that can seem like an impossible ask. But as food and drink becomes ever more tech-led, it must be careful not to compromise its integrity at the altar of progress.