How “Food as Software” Will Disrupt the Food Industry

Exploring the innovations and shifting consumer preferences behind the coming food revolution.

Recent developments in food-related technologies promise to address the ecological and practical challenges of feeding a mushrooming world population while offering compelling incentives to business. These food and agriculture industry advances — encompassing such innovations as cultivated meats, precision fermentation, and 3D food printing — are poised to shake up food and  agricultural ecosystems, from production to delivery, while driving massive change on a global level.

“Food as software” involves more than just new forms of meat. The term refers to using technology to radically change the way food is produced, manufactured, and delivered. While present food-production models are resource- and labor-intensive, food as software seeks to deploy new paradigms that integrate cutting-edge science and technology to make it easier and faster to produce food on both mass-market and individual scales.

Precision fermentation, for example, involves using microorganisms to generate a particular organic molecule. Take a microorganism that is programmed to create a beef molecule. When the base components are put together with the microorganism, it builds (“ferments”) the beef molecule from those components.

Industrial-scale fermentation bioreactors could eventually produce high-quality proteins and other basic ingredients using far fewer resources than traditional food production. Plus, global databases of engineered food molecule “recipes” — ingredient lists and fermentation and 3D printing plans — could be made available for downloading to individuals, with basic ingredients also accessible for purchase on an individual level.

Those recipes and ingredients could then be used by consumers in a home-based 3D food printer to “print out” foods — creating an exact taste and nutritional profile, such as that of an Angus beef short rib or Kobe beef New York strip steak. So, someone could have a precision fermentation vat located in their garage or basement and pull plans from the global database to 3D print their own top-quality steak.

Changing consumer preferences are helping to drive the shift to alternative food resources. Increasingly, food choices are being shaped by a focus on health, the environment, and cost. Many are opting for a plant-based or flexitarian diet as an effective means to address these pressing concerns. In fact, a recent Nielsen survey found that 39% of Americans are trying to eat more plant-based foods.

Food as software will be increasingly important to the food industry. In fact, 2018 sales growth in plant-based foods outpaced that of overall food sales by a factor of five. Many forecasters — such as RethinkX, a think tank focused on technology-driven changes, and the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit working to promote alternatives to animal products — expect this expansion of market share for alternative foods to continue for the foreseeable future. Indeed, the market for meat substitutes alone is expected to top $6.4 billion by 2023, according to a report by ResearchAndMarkets.com, comparable to the $6.5 billion cited by Food Business News for all organic dairy and eggs sales in 2018.

SUSTAINABILITY AND FEEDING THE HUNGRY

Another distinctive feature of the new food model is that the basic ingredients are typically not derived from livestock. This is critical for consumers who are laser-focused on sustainable and socially responsible sourcing of their food. It’s also key for the venture capitalists, other investors, and businesses interested in this emerging industry, who see meat — with its costly, labor-intensive and pollution-producing aspects — as a “problematic technology.”

Perhaps meat’s most “problematic” factor is its sizable contribution to global warming. The New York Times found that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from livestock account for up to 18% of such emissions globally, whereas plant-based and cultivated-meat proteins are expected to produce just a fraction of that, and reduce the overall carbon footprint of what we eat.

And then there are the direct implications for people struggling with poverty and hunger. Because food as software is predicted to reduce food costs, simplify production, and eventually put food production in the hands of the individual, it should lead to increased food equality and food security.

“Agriculture has always gotten more efficient over time, feeding more and more people per acre,” explains Matt Ball, senior communications specialist at the GFI. To that end, the GFI works with businesses, including restaurants, grocery chains, and food services, to help them develop and market products that will be a success with consumers on key metrics such as price and flavor.

SEISMIC SHIFT

The resulting changes in the agricultural, transportation, restaurant, and grocery spheres will lead to major shifts in the existing agriculture industry, and in all those industries reliant on agriculture and food production for their existence.

In our current food system, immense farms and intricate, extensive logistics and transportation networks feed our collective appetite for meat. Now, cultivated meats and local 3D food printing could spell the end of beef and other livestock farms. These sweeping transformations will create an adapt-or-die scenario for those networks. Given the World Health Organization’s findings that meat production accounts for up to 80% of antibiotics consumption in some regions of the world, the pharmaceuticals sector is yet another industry that will have to grapple with substantial changes.

But while the ag industry wrestles with its new reality, consumers will reap huge benefits. RethinkX predicts that plant-based and cultivated proteins will be 10 times cheaper than existing animal proteins by 2035. Moreover, such proteins will be healthier for humans, require less transportation, and consume fewer natural resources.

In a food-as-software context, the capacity to alter a formula instantly and on an ongoing basis will drive rapid improvements for business while facilitating nimble scaling. Constant evolution toward better taste, nutrition and affordability, along with reductions in waste, pollution, environmental degradation and antibiotic use, will become the norm.

Many plant-based, cultivated, and/or precision-fermented foods are currently time-consuming and expensive to produce. However, companies in the food-as-software space are working to get prices down and production up, as well as to nurture the crucial B2B connections that will facilitate those advances.

Christie Lagally, founder and CEO of plant-based meats innovator Rebellyous Foods, is one visionary hoping to do just that. Her team is developing ways to boost manufacturing efficiency on their plant-based products to drive accessibility and profits. At the same time, they’re using clean ingredients and state-of-the-art tech to sidestep the social and environmental costs and risks associated with livestock production.

For Lagally, there is plenty of room for startups in the food-as-software space to work on taking market share in the vast meat industry, which was estimated at $945 billion globally in 2018 by business data platform Statista. But companies looking to make headway face significant challenges – including regulatory, tech, and industry hurdles. The biggest challenge right now, though, is the need to build scale to bring down costs. “The future of food is plant-based, and we will arrive at that future only if we create the technology to produce plant-based options at scale,” she says.

Transformations in B2B relationships will be inevitable — and necessary. Biotechnology companies are positioned to surge forward with a variety of food-as-software offerings. That growth will be fed by supply-chain pioneers who seize opportunities to develop and contribute key components, along with agile software operations and distributors that are ready and willing to adapt. For traditional agriculture enterprises that could be replaced, it requires a radical rethink of their operations and their future.

But further down the supply chain, there are already compelling incentives for companies to embrace this change. Notes Ball, “Just about every restaurant chain in the United States that has introduced a new plant-based meat option has found it increased their bottom line.” Burger King’s Impossible Burger, for example, fueled the chain’s best quarter in four years, according to CNN Business.

Driven by competition, pricing dynamics, and consumer demand, food as software is impelling participants to innovate in ways that contribute to both business growth and quality-of-life improvements worldwide. This approach to food production thus holds enormous promise for global growth and progress and highlights the enormous potential inherent in truly novel solutions to global challenges.