How Food Tech is changing what we eat (hopefully) for the better

I had the chance to attend the Future of Foodtech event organised by the UK HEC and ESSEC Alumni network. It was a great panel discussion. Here are my key takeaways and my ‘So What?’ Grocery e-commerce is reducing waste… E-commerce can massively reduce food waste because retailers can better predict what consumers will order through AI. For instance, Ocado is close to zero waste: leftovers are either given to charities or to the zoo (animals also need to eat!). Just Eat is also giving away food surplus to Foodcycle, a charity cooking and serving meals to hungry and lonely people across the UK.

… but we still need to change our shopping habits. Salads grown in supermarkets thanks to Infarms technology is more than a shopping experience.

For a similar price, consumers can have a tasty, super fresh produce with lower waste and no chaptertransport. But food e-commerce market share is only 6-7 % in the UK. So we will need to change our shopping habits: we love to see full shelves of beautiful produce. Food standardisation (straight cucumbers and prepacked apples) also generates massive waste. Supermarkets will have to promote ‘not so perfect’ food shelves, highlighting their environmental benefits.

Technology is transforming the takeaway industry behind the scene. Gone are the days where take away was a weekend treat.

Customers are visiting less restaurants and the takeaways business model is radically changing with the ‘black kitchen’ phenomenon. Honest food is a high tech virtual restaurant created in Vienna and launching in London. Each kitchen receives mostly pre-assembled dishes if not frozen – and prepares orders at high speed. Hopefully, higher quality and authentic cuisine will help traditional restaurants survive, but only if their customers can notice the difference and give them higher ratings online.

Accept to wait to be more sustainable.

Oddbox – the sustainable ‘wonky’ produce box scheme- is supply-driven vs demand-driven. To be able to offer a fruit+ veg box for less than £15, they can’t offer next day delivery. Instead, they deliver once a week per postcode to rationalise cost and reduce the transport CO2 impact.

Shoplifters – beware of AI cameras.

Shoplifting is up in most countries ( automated checkout, less staff in stores,..). VaakEye AI security cameras can spot fidgeting, restless behaviours typically demonstrated by shoplifters around shelves. Stoplift compares at the checkouts what goes in the basket vs what’s registered and paid for.Plant-based meat is booming, who will lead? Creating tasty ‘fake’ meat with the right texture is notoriously difficult. Most startups raising funds are claiming to have a unique technical IP. But VCs see so many of these that they are actually doubting if it’s that complicated! A brand launched in 2019 to follow ‘This is not Chicken/Bacon’ ( they are available through Ocado, Waitrose, and selected restaurants like PHO, Coco di Mama,..).

So What? We are again in a Dr Jecklyll and Mr Hyde situation around the benefits of science.

On one side, food tech is clearly helping us waste less food and sort out pressing sustainability issues (food waste, plastic reduction). All this without asking us to become more frugal or drastically change our habits. But at the same time, do we want to be constantly watched as we shop, or be served food that only pretends to be restaurant grade ( but isn’t), and see small restaurants disappear from the high street? Those dark kitchens are also probably tempted to use lower quality meat while we should be promoting animal welfare in farms as we did for free-range eggs.

At the age of ‘consumer empowerment’, we need as consumers AND citizens to share the burden and accept to change our habits and expectations.

This also means accepting to pay the extra cents for more sustainable food.Plant-based meat is not the silver bullet solution and people will continue to eat meat, especially in the developing world as their living standards improve. So legislation promoting regenerative agriculture, or ensuring ethical practices in animal farming and slaughtering remain necessary.

Vanessa Mayneris (H.93)

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