Technology to feed the world

With the right policy and innovation our food can be better for the planet, healthier for us and more delicious

Hi, it's Chris from the Tony Blair Institute. In this edition we’re looking at the future of food, to coincide with today’s release of our new policy report on the food tech revolution.

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by Benedict Macon-Cooney and Chris Yiu

The speed, scope and scale of today’s technological revolution blows the 19th century industrial revolution out of the water. Thus far politics has been slow to catch up, but for progressives there are significant new opportunities on the horizon.

One such political opportunity relates to food. Breakthroughs in software, AI and biotech mean that food is increasingly an engineering and digital discipline. Our entire food system – how we produce, process and consume food – is being fundamentally transformed by new technologies. In the future, many of the biggest players in the food system will likely be tech companies at their core.

This disruption will enable us to radically improve our food system, so it works better for both people and the planet. It will help us bridge the gap between what we have today what we aspire to for the future: a system that provides increased choice, with high nutritional value, so people can live long and healthy lives; that promotes biodiversity, preserves our natural environment and reduces the threat of climate change; and that ensures nobody in the world should ever go hungry.

Rising opportunity

This 21st century food technology revolution is emerging from frontier technologies that enable us to significantly improve our methods for food production, increase the quality of the food available to people, and ensure that no food goes to waste.

Precision technologies, powered by the availability of data we have never had before, are changing the face of farming. Satellites in the sky can survey crops and manage plots, while robotics and computer vision on the ground can kill weeds and plant seeds. Together these technologies make it possible to reduce overreliance on agrichemicals, improve soil quality, and make foods more nutritious.

Advances in biotechnology like new gene editing techniques will change our food system in ways that were unimaginable ten years ago. As a direct result, foods that are tastier, healthier and more resistant to difficult growing conditions are now achievable. Unlike GMOs, modern gene editing techniques are based on a process that can happen in nature, and open up multiple opportunities for both producers and consumers. Cacao trees, for example, could be protected from dangerous viruses to protect the global chocolate supply.

And completely novel methods of producing food have also been developed. Pioneers in food technology are growing food in computer-controlled vertical farms, producing meat in labs and making eggs without chickens. These innovations hint at a profound ambition to improve how we feed the world, radically increasing choice and reducing humanity’s need to raise animals for food.

The multiplier effect of this shift could be massive: 50% of total habitable land on earth is used for agriculture, the majority of which is for livestock. These new ways of producing food will be good for consumers too; the meat you buy today is what it is, but the alternatives entering the market now will continue to improve – and in time be tailored to your own personal tastes and preferences.


Progress with purpose

This disruption to our food system is inevitable, but the impact it has on our lives is a question of politics and policy as much as it is one of technology. Progressives must therefore be prepared to shape this change, embracing progress and giving it purpose as part of a wider mission to build a better and fairer society.  

Some jobs that are seen as part of the lifeblood of many nations will cease to exist. The lessons of recent years show the need for people to be helped through periods of upheaval, not simply ignored as some of the casualties of change. In particular, there needs to be a focus on creating opportunities in the jobs of the future – which combine both the traditional and the frontier skills that will be essential in the modern world.

But jobs are just part of the answer. Making the food tech revolution work for everybody – from Cairo to Cardiff and as well as for California – will be a significant challenge.

The decisions governments make today will be critical. Innovators must be supported by investment in basic science and R&D, and new infrastructure must be developed to scale up new technologies. Agricultural sectors the world over will need new strategies for change, with new opportunities for farmers at the heart of the reform agenda.

Change will touch all of us, and so the future of food should be pushed to the forefront of our political debate. Ultimately, political leaders have a choice to make: they can watch this transformation happen from the sidelines, or they can step up to harness its potential for the greater good.

Properly harnessed, the revolution in technology can help us feed the world. In the end there are few forms of progress more profound than that.

Read the full report