The future of food starts here - Op-Ed by Jacqueline Chow

Fine dining delivered straight to your doorstep. That’s just one of the many trends we’re seeing in the food industry at the moment, with UberEats the latest restaurant takeaway delivery service to launch in New Zealand this month.

At the other end of the scale, there are billions of consumers around the world who struggle to get a meal, let alone home delivery.

How we get food to people is one thing, but the bigger question is whether or not we can farm and grow enough food to meet demand in the future. If current trends continue, by 2050, food demand will increase by 50%. Although sizable productivity improvements over the last 50 years have enabled an abundant food supply in many parts of the world, feeding the global population has re-emerged as a critical issue. 

The challenges facing the future of food are without historical precedent. We’re starting to see climate change actively working against productivity improvement. And sadly, around one third of food is wasted globally. This is fairly consistent between the third world and first world but for different reasons, from lack of refrigeration and poor supply chains to overabundance that leads to consumers throwing away food.

Opportunity for change

There’s no doubt we are facing big issues, but the opportunity for positive change in the global food industry is arguably the greatest it has ever been.

We’re witnessing an inflection point in robotics, machine learning and automation. Technology is transforming how we grow, make, buy, prepare and eat food. It’s also enabling good ideas to be turned into actions faster than ever.

Take the ‘Lucky Iron Fish’ project for example, which provides such a simple solution to tackle iron deficiency that it seems too good to be true. A social enterprise in Ontario, Canada, worked out that by cooking with a piece of iron in a pot, families could gain up to 90% of their daily iron intake. Starting in Cambodia, where fish are a symbol of luck, the blocks were fashioned into “happy fish” so people were much more eager to plop them into their cooking pots. The result has been a huge decrease in anaemia. A simple idea that has gone global and might just overcome one of the world’s most common nutritional deficiencies

Connecting people with their food

As we work to deliver nutrition to the world, food safety has become an increasingly important issue for consumers, food companies, and nations. Providing healthy, nutritious, great tasting and safe, secure food is at the absolute heart of what we must deliver.

Launched late last year, the Trusted Goodness quality seal is Fonterra’s promise that when people buy our products they are buying some of the world’s finest dairy. Trusted Goodness has credibility because of our farmers’ good environmental and animal welfare work on-farm, combined with New Zealand’s natural grass-fed advantage and our focus on traceability as well as food quality and safety.

Fonterra is the only dairy company in the world with an end-to-end innovation dairy chain. This provides complete control over the supply chain but also enables us to innovate throughout the chain. We’re working to have world-class electronic traceability of all products from the farm to the shelf by 2020 – this includes every ingredient in every product sold in every market. It means we can electronically trace ingredients anywhere in our supply chain within three hours. Traceability provides consumers with reassurance.

Milk fingerprinting also ensures a safe supply of milk. Like human fingerprints, each milk sample is different and unique. New diagnostic tests can be carried out on hundreds of samples in seconds to establish the composition of milk – for instance how much fat and protein is in it, which varies between seasons, farms and regions. We can quickly determine what product different milk is suitable for, and send it to the relevant manufacturing site to deliver the best products more efficiently. From this month, Anmum™ infant formula products feature QR codes which consumers can scan from their smartphone to confirm authenticity, see where the product was manufactured and packed, the expiry date and a picture of what the product should look like.

Meanwhile in Ethiopia, we’ve worked closely with the country’s Food and Nutrition Society to create a fortified milk drink, which provides more than 30 nutrients that are essential for a child’s growth and development. It comes in a variety of sizes including a 32 gram single serve sachet, making it an easy and affordable option for Ethiopians – one third of whom live below the poverty line, earning less than $1.90USD per day. 

Challenging the norms

Barriers to innovation have never been lower and we’re seeing more and more industries being disrupted. The world’s largest taxi company, Uber, owns no vehicles and the largest accommodation provider, Airbnb, has no real estate. As we look to the future, we could see radical transformation in the world of food and agriculture – from cellular agriculture to genomics, from vertical farms to industrialised cloning. 

To get the best results when it comes to game-changing ideas that prepare us for the future, we need to harness creative, unconventional thinking from diverse groups of people. This can be challenging, especially in large organisations.

One of the ways we’re addressing this is by having a dedicated team tasked with driving disruptive innovation. Fonterra Ventures oversee a number of initiatives such as Disrupt – an internal programme for staff to develop start-ups that could become standalone ventures – and Co-Lab – a platform that provides entrepreneurial individuals, small businesses or large corporates around the world to collaborate with Fonterra on disruptive ideas for mutual benefit.

With diverse groups, we can think differently about how to do things better and faster so we can provide affordable, quality and safe nutrition to feed the global population.

New Zealand is an innovative food producing nation with a proud agricultural heritage. Whether it’s delivering to people’s doorsteps or finding the next big innovation in the supply chain, we have an opportunity and responsibility to make sure our nation is part of creating the future of food.