What is the role of digital technology and innovation in food system transformation?
January 5, 2021, 7 min to read
Not a day goes by without the worry of food’s impact on our health and the environment. First, there’s the waste: nearly 10 million tons of consumable food are wasted in France each year, or the equivalent of 150 kg per inhabitant (source : ADEME). Health is another primary concern, since obesity is on the rise across all socio-economic levels of French society, with the poorest being the most affected, as shown in the graph below:
And then there’s the environment: twenty-four percent of the French population’s carbon footprint comes from their diet, two-thirds of which is attributable to agricultural production, mainly due to methane (CH4, primarily from ruminant digestion) and nitrous oxide (N2O from the production and spreading of nitrogenous fertilisers).
Numbers and negative externalities such as these paint a bleak picture of the agri-food industry. But pointing an accusatory finger at the system is decidedly insufficient. And it would mean forgetting the considerable progress that has been made since WWII. In 1960, a person making minimum wage had to work 4 hours and 24 minutes to buy 1 kg of chicken, compared to only 1 hour in 2018. And the same worker had to work 3 hours and 27 minutes to buy 1 kg of pork, as opposed to 50 minutes in 2018 (source : Alimentation : le confinement va-t-il vraiment booster le local ?, Bruno Parmentier). At the same time, wheat yields per hectare have tripled, moving from 2,500 to 7,500 kilograms, thanks to developments in chemistry (fertilisers and pesticides) and mechanisation.
The food system is neither good nor bad. It functions at optimal efficiency in terms of what it was designed to do: i.e., produce a few large-scale, specialised crops and market them through industrial-scale processing and distribution networks. Today, the risk of famine has disappeared from the Western world’s collective memory thanks to the considerable progress made over the last 50 years.
Thus, the question is neither to accuse nor defend a system that has proved its worth over half a century, but to understand and initiate its necessary transformation, to respond to the challenges and realities of our time. We have identified 3 transformation issues that highlight the critical role of digital technology and innovation:
- Improving our knowledge of living organisms and making said knowledge readily usable for agriculture
- Increasing the desirability of plant-rich diets in order to reduce meat consumption
- Engaging in the large-scale distribution of sustainable food
Issue # 1 — Improving our knowledge of living organisms and making said knowledge readily usable for agriculture
Although conventional agriculture has made an important quantitative leap thanks to both chemistry (fertilisers and pesticides) and oil (mechanisation), it nevertheless remains reductionist in its approach. Plots are considered as uniform units, and the soil as an inert substrate. Knowledge of living organisms and their role in soil fertility is still fairly limited. Today, in order to determine the state of a soil’s health, one must take a physical sample, send it to a laboratory and analyse it. This is a complex, costly and ill-suited process for decision-making in the field. Similarly, in order to find out the state of water stress in a given field, you have to visit it and take discrete measurements. Scaling up is crucial if we are to make extensive use of existing knowledge about a field’s state of health.
But things are beginning to change: progress in spectral imaging, artificial intelligence, satellites and drones can be exploited for agricultural use and is already making it possible to create new applications. The startup Cloud Agronomics, for example, is developing applications to determine the state of plant health and growth using spectral imagery collected from aircraft and analysed by AI algorithms. Such information can be used to optimise crop treatment.
This is a food sovereignty issue, because those who master these technologies (and the underlying data) will have better knowledge of and control over soil fertility. The author Bruno Parmentier, a specialist in agricultural and food issues, rightly asks a question as fascinating as it is terrifying: will we have to go to the Silicon Valley to beg for basic information on the fertility of our fields in Beauce? (source : Des robots vont gérer les champs plante à plante)
Issue #2 — Increasing the desirability of plant-rich diets
Who hasn’t seen the French National Nutrition and Health Programme’s various Manger Bouger campaigns, with the famous slogan: eat at least 5 fruits and vegetables a day? It must be said that these campaigns haven’t significantly affected the average diet. This is because food is deeply rooted in culture, and a campaign is not enough to produce real change, regardless of its quality. Nevertheless, all future-oriented studies advocate moving towards a more plant-based diet: in 2050, the average recommended diet is expected to include lighter foods and more plant products, as shown in the graph below:
Changing one’s diet is extremely complicated. However, we are convinced that digital technology can help. By facilitating access to nutritional information, Yuka has empowered eaters and forced retailers to redesign product formulations in order to improve their ratings. By making meatless dishes “sexy” and desirable, Instagram may prove to be more successful than the National Nutrition and Health Programme campaigns.
And ultimately, couldn’t the principles of behavioural economics – so brilliantly used by GAFA to get us hooked on their interfaces (e.g., “likes” or the infinite scroll) – be used to design services that facilitate dietary change? This is exactly what Foodvisor does, by putting a nutritionist embodied in a smartphone application into everyone’s pocket. This app uses AI to automatically recognise photographed foods and provide users with personalised nutritional advice.
Issue # 3 — Engaging in the large-scale distribution of sustainable food
We must avoid deepening the food divide at all costs, either by making a healthy diet accessible only to those who can afford it or by defending a caloric diet that is harmful to both human health and the environment. The key to transforming the food system is large-scale distribution, affordable to all.
Although short supply chains are making headlines – and indeed have many benefits, such as reconnecting city dwellers with their food and offering farmers a better distribution of value – they will never be able to supply an increasingly urban population on their own. For instance, it would take around 4.7 million ha (including 5% for organic production) to feed the entire Ile-de-France region, whereas there is only 580,000 ha of available agricultural land (source : calculateur Parcel). In order to feed cities, with their ever-increasing population, the food system’s industrial organisation remains essential.
Once again, digital technology can contribute to the development of new models. A short supply chain does not necessarily mean that one must “produce food within 150 km of the place of its consumption”. Instead, it refers to reducing the number of intermediaries. As can be seen below, the value of €100 worth of food purchases is very fragmented, with the downstream part of the chain (restaurants + services + shops) capturing 43% of it.
Promus, for example, is developing small local storage units for fresh produce in containers. This will make it easier for producers to distribute their products to restaurants and supermarkets. These units are connected to online interfaces, making it possible to manage interactions between producers and restaurateurs and supermarkets.
With the advent of Taster, and other dark kitchens (a type of restaurant that exclusively sells take-away meals through one or multiple delivery platforms), the transformation of catering models will also spearhead change, improving the quality of prepared foods. Chefs, who were once pre-packaged food assemblers, will increasingly work with raw food products.
Brillat-Savarin, a French gastronome who lived in the 17th and 18th century, said that “The destiny of nations depends on the way they feed themselves”. This quote is more relevant than ever: food is at the crossroads of many major 21st-century issues. Innovation and digital technology are catalysts for the transformation of our food system. The future here is still largely to be invented and built.
To explore it, we are launching a series of articles that will elucidate each of the issues discussed here, as well their challenges, limitations and solutions. These publications are available here below.