Skip to main content

6. The Future: New Roots and Routes Ahead

Published onApr 16, 2020
6. The Future: New Roots and Routes Ahead

Writing a book now, in 2018, about the future of the global food supply chain, sometimes feels fruitless. As we’ve seen, the ground is shifting every day: large food distributors are setting up their own startup incubators or investing in those already working on our new food supply chain. Startups are continuing to come up with ideas for tracking food, extending shelf life without artificial preservatives, and connecting local producers to regional markets. Our old institutions, such as the USDA and the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) are finding it difficult to remain relevant in the current, fast-paced, improvisational business cycle. Big Food, Big Agriculture, Big Anything, is feeling the pressure to look small, transparent, and trustworthy. Fissures in the established health industry reveal the imminent breakup of manual record keeping, and institutions that are professional gatekeepers are showing signs of becoming marginalized. The ripple effects from these changes are seeping into the way we produce, prepare, and deliver food. By the time this book appears in a bookstore, its expiration date may have passed.

We recognize the emergence of a new food system. What was only a suggestive shape with vague contours in 2018 has by now become a system with a distinctly different topography that will change the way we feed cities around the world. Key components of the new food supply chain will include personalization, localization, and transparency. Convenience will endlessly spar with social values in any product or service within the new supply chain. The intersection of health care and our food system will cause one of those contests against the traditional knowledge of owners and individuals who will demand more control over their lives. Promises of access to our own health data and the means to manage our own bodies are emerging from below, not from above. The American healthcare system is still in the process of its own remaking.

The means for moving our food will exist within new networks, some distributed, some centralized. Vehicle manufacturers are announcing their commitment to electric, autonomous trucks and cars. Small, new companies are tracking, tracing, and optimizing our food shipments. Drones and robots are seeking and sometimes finding opportunities to make food deliveries in the Last Mile in cities all over the world. And standards-making, open-systems-oriented groups are making progress toward a shared and open system for food. These networks will transport more of our food as energy, in digital form rather than physical.

Technology continues to inhabit our food culture, and we are struggling to find a way to have our cake and eat it too, embracing automation while preserving the sensorial, social meaning of mealtime. We will continue to seek a balance, and we are only now discovering the complexities of reengineering our food system in this digital age. Will traditional dirt farms disappear? Probably not, but look for ways they will change, along with the new farmers who operate them.

In spite of the rapid-fire technological advancements that are changing every aspect of our daily lives, we still run into logjams that require us to handle things “the old-fashioned way.” We continue to deal with paper jams in our office printers. Google Maps still directs us to dead-end roads. And Siri insists she can’t understand us. And in many ways, our food system stalls as the established logistics system hangs on and innovations lag behind other industries. Most of our food system is still rooted in the traditional practices of soil-based agronomy and animal husbandry.

We’re seeing this transformation while still encumbered by old technology and infrastructures, not to mention global political and economic instability and environmental uncertainties. Our global transportation infrastructure, for example, is stressed—literally and figuratively. Trains are slow to adopt GPS tracking systems. An Amtrak collision in early 2018 could have been avoided with existing GPS technology for “positive train control.” Truckers who resist the electronic logging devices that track their movements reluctantly accept the trackers while finding ways to spoof the devices or just ignoring the law. Predictions are that, despite their potential safety benefits, the devices will lengthen delivery times and raise food prices.

While our old work cultures and systems linger, younger generations want meaning, action, transparency, and convenience. They have little patience for old, opaque institutions, and they thrive on collaboration and move toward the new sharing economy. Try to find a millennial or Generation Zer who is excited about the notion of having our food produced by one or three global companies that operate with little transparency.

The global structure of the food industry is changing. Car companies announce AVs for food delivery, grocery chains gobble up logistics companies, and AI and blockchain technology find new applications for tracking and tracing even the smallest crumb on the way to our plates.

As we seek the human-digital balance in our food system, we observe the acceleration of change with the hope that what lies just beyond the next few years is a new food system that rights all the wrongs we’ve learned of during the past decade: food waste, harmful additives, unfair labor practices, harm to our environment, famine, and obesity, for example.

Hang on to your forks, as we’re about to receive reimagined food in unimagined ways. Imagine that.

Two Futures?

Although we can agree that the global food system is changing, our visions for its future vary widely. Some of us desire a leveling of Big Food, a redistribution of land and ownership that enables small farmers to remain on farms, and food that is fresh and free of industrial processing. The futures outlined here focus on how technology will impact the future of food, deferring social and political change for another discussion. Tech-driven changes that impact how we feed ourselves won’t be easy to accept. They will challenge us to reconsider time-honored traditions of what it means to sit around a table and enjoy a good meal with friends. The changes ahead will also radically transform developing countries and underserved populations that have struggled to feed themselves for centuries. For the first time, we may see how technology can enable these groups to produce, access, and consume more food at lower costs . . . a long-term goal, but one that has up to now been elusive and frustrating.

What will future look like? While we can (and will) speculate based on what we know about today’s food system and the developments in progress, all we know for certain is that we don’t yet know for certain. While it may be exhilarating to envision a future that includes a twenty-first-century version of the Jetsons’ Food-a-Rac-a-Cycle (a food-synthesizer), we may experience one of two futures: one evolutionary and the other revolutionary.

Food Systems 2.0 and 3.0

We need these two views of our future because it’s unclear how successful technology will be in replacing humans while providing convenient, safe, and affordable food. After all, we know that we humans are wary of who makes, prepares, and delivers our food. And if the years ahead bring an economic crisis, an outbreak of food-borne illnesses due to terrorists, or cyberattacks on supply chain industry companies such as Maersk or DHL that halt efforts to be transparent and open, all these hypothetical events could significantly alter any path we may take today toward one future or another.

Or consider that instead of having the luxury of choosing between these future scenarios, we may discover that our choices will be made for us. The evolutionary model may continue until that tipping point arrives and the food system as we know it suddenly leaps into the revolutionary model. Imagine a time when there’s just enough AI, IoT, machine learning, networks, and smart devices that they suddenly gang up on us and we find our plates are unrecognizable. This scenario isn’t meant as a doomsday forecast but rather as a reminder that change doesn’t always follow tidy timetables.

Remember the pizza from Pizza Suprema in New York in 2018? That shop will look and act differently in our two imagined futures. Since we’re allowing for two futures, one that is more dramatically different from today’s food system than the other, we can take two runs at imagining Joe’s world in the future, allowing for two scenarios for the role of technology in our food system.

The first future, the evolutionary future, applies technology in more distributed networks to the friction points in our existing food supply chain. The technologies will be familiar to us, and we will already be adapting to their use in our existing food system. “Paper jams” will persist, causing friction in the movement to a new system. Some technological solutions may backfire, causing consumers to reconsider how much of their cultural connection with food they are willing to trade in for convenience. Of course, those who do not want to give up control of data will cause a lag in the adoption of these new systems. And some of us will persist with the belief that we shouldn’t hand off our food system to engineers and their new technologies. Those who resisted genetically modified organisms will find it difficult to embrace lab meat.

The second, revolutionary future, breaks from the past and delivers an entirely new food supply chain enabled by technology and designed by engineers. Our food system will include new tools that will appear to some of us as modern, highly intelligent variations of the 1960s Food-a-Rac-a-Cycle. Some of the technologies used in this future are today only discussed in labs and with a combination of nervous anticipation and wide-eyed wonderment. The Singularity of Food may have arrived.

In this second future, we’ve overlooked “paper jams” in much the same way as we have throughout the decades since digital printers arrived. In this future, few traditional farmers remain, and those who do have IT staffs. The food system consists of tech companies that use their digital tools to produce food, among other things. Expectations for farming have changed from subsidized businesses and nonprofit endeavors to financially sustainable, scalable enterprises. Many food companies have social values woven into their DNA and thrive within a shared economy.

Today, the food industry is struggling to make sense of new technologies, climate changes, and uncertain economic times. It is responding to consumer demands for healthier food at lower costs for more people. Big Food is worried and is pulling in startups in order to keep its own brands relevant. Some are setting up their own internal incubators, such as Chobani and Campbell’s Soup Company. Others are partnering with tech incubators and developing their own venture funds, such as Tyson Ventures. Startups are challenging the idea of being “Big” in the first place. The traditional competitive advantage of expensive, big supply chain networks may not apply in an era when startups can appear from nowhere and deliver fresh food directly to our plates.

Cities will become more involved, along with their humans, in the design of urban food systems. Silos will be emptying out as technology networks knowledge across business sectors. In our twenty-first-century business culture, a meditation app partners with a food supplement service that partners with a personalized nutrition app that partners with a network of healthcare services that partners with a network of urban farms. Change is happening from below, not from the sole survivors at the top—unless, of course, they have the smarts to integrate innovation from outside.

Let’s rattle our assumptions, hopes, and wishes for our future food system and expand our imagination.

The Evolutionary Future: Food 2.0

In 2018, we were being fed news about vertical farms, 3-D printed food, and blockchain technology. These developments were tantalizing teasers suggesting something new was about to arrive, but they were not quite ambitious enough to connect all the activities in our food system. Each idea had its own promise, but hardly anyone could think about how all these bits and bytes would fit together. And the food industry was slow in standardizing and sharing data needed to create an open network for the food supply chain. Some companies outright refused, frightened by incidences of cyberattacks and the specter of losing brand leadership based on sourcing expertise.

What We Eat

In this imagined future, Joe still uses foodservice companies such as Sysco, but Sysco now looks more like Cisco. Sysco bought a group of startups and began investing in technologies that enabled them to distribute food faster and at a lower cost while preserving freshness throughout its distribution system. About half of Joe’s produce comes from a nearby urban farm located in a group of shipping containers. But the urban farm can’t provide sufficient quantities with enough variety to fulfill all of Joe’s needs, and the container-grown food is more expensive since it specializes in small-lot production. Deliveries from the containers arrive on autonomous shuttles that specialize in Last Mile delivery routes.

Joe’s inventory system looks different now, too. He can keep more fresh food in stock now, since scientists have found more natural solutions for extending shelf life. And keeping plenty of fresh produce on hand is necessary now that half of Joe’s customers are vegetarians or vegans. Much of the land formerly used for livestock production has been converted to vegetable protein production to meet demand and lower food prices.

Joe has more options for pizza toppings, including some engineered, functional ingredients that promise more nutrition while maintaining the taste and texture of “natural” foods. Companies such as Memphis Meats and Impossible Foods that produce meat and other protein replacements have raised impressive funds and are providing protein at affordable costs through foodservice companies, grocery stores, and school systems. Tyson foods and other former carne-centric companies have pivoted to alternative proteins, making them some of the largest sources of engineered food on the globe. But a few of Joe’s customers still request animal-based pepperoni and are willing to pay a high price for their slices.

We have small, rural, soil-based farms, but they serve only the small fraction of the market that wants to pay a premium for traditionally produced food. Chefs and educators frequent these farms as a source for specialized crops and experiential programming for agricultural historians. Developing countries continue with regions of traditional farming, but urban centers now include vertical, urban farms for local distribution.

The robots have arrived gradually in this scenario. Joe interacts with fewer and fewer humans these days, and the employees that remain on his staff are paid more and aided by back-of-house robots for ingredient preparation. The repetitive tasks such as peeling, chopping, and mixing now take half as long and can be completed according to specific menu requirements, lowering the amount of food waste his shop produces. (In fact, the amount of waste in the food supply chain has dropped from 40 percent in 2018 to just 25 percent, thanks to more effective production, distribution, and portioning.) The few humans he retains work in the front of house, baking pizzas as a form of entertainment and as validation that Joe’s pies are still the authentic, Sicilian kind. One human lingers by the scanner that takes payments in case a customer has failed to recharge his or her iPhone or a “paper jam” occurs, such as a power outage. Everyone else was laid off when the robot food prep system was installed a few years ago, but Joe participates in a workforce-retraining program funded by a small surcharge for his pizzas. In most cases, his former employees have found work as coders at Sysco or in smaller companies that specialize in building robots for food service companies.

Joe’s dine-in customers demand more than just pizzas, now. They expect an experience, and the ambience inside evokes Sicily, with colors, music, and activities that create an environment consistent with Joe’s brand. But the experience consists of more than décor. In addition to enjoying their pizza, customers use digital devices, such as tablets embedded in Joe’s furnishings or their own personal devices, to buy transit tickets, order groceries, and send emails. They use VR headsets to visit with Sicilian pizza bakers or wander through the olive groves of Tuscany. They are immersed in the world Joe creates.

Some customers do still want a quick slice for their train rides to the suburbs. They order online through Joe’s shop portal, and the privatized train company that took over services from Amtrak has the slice delivered to the car assigned to the customer, packaged in self-reheating, bio-compostable containers.

Food Movements

Joe doesn’t have to worry about ingredients as much anymore now that he can get frequent, just-in-time deliveries at lower costs. Between the drones, AVs, and lighter-weight shipments available today, delivery vehicles have far more mobility and use much less energy. And those deliveries are safer, too, as each item is scanned multiple times throughout its journey, using predictive software to assure Joe that his ingredients meet food safety requirements and that producers grow food in response to consumer demand. This predictive approach will eliminate food waste, even lowering the amount of food that arrives in food banks.

During the past decade, new ways of managing temperatures in the cold chain became available, and these new, less costly technologies began replacing the diesel-powered coolers attached to trucks. Warehouse companies now have smaller warehouses closer to cities, a new generation of software and hardware (including robots), and renewable energy sources. Waste from the food prep station goes directly into Joe’s biofuel processor, which has enabled him to operate off the NYC electrical grid for three years now. Sometimes he produces more fuel and electricity than he needs, and he sells the excess to other power grids, augmenting his revenue.

Grocery stores are some of the biggest biofuel generation hubs, using organic waste to power their warehouses and distribution centers. Food banks are turning some of their inventories into electricity. All of these bigger players join smaller operations such as Joe’s in the quest for faster, cheaper delivery within an hour of purchase online. And recognition and sensing software is maturing to detect and monitor the quality and freshness of all perishables in their supply chains.

By now, Joe uses a tracking system provided by his suppliers, all of which have automated their warehouses and distribution centers. Almost half of the vehicles that deliver his ingredients and supplies are electric, a development that required him to install charging stations near his loading dock. Sysco and US Foods merged and now also operate a fleet of AVs that make weekly deliveries of flour, which is still grown in the Midwestern United States. At least one drone arrives on Sundays for both small shipments to Joe’s shop and pizza deliveries to his customers in the Manhattan high-rise buildings. Only one of these deliveries has been found lying in Central Park, misdirected by out-of-date navigation software.

Tracking Our Food

In this hypothetical, evolutionary future, our food chain has emerged from its industrialized, mostly invisible state into a chain of visible, blockchain-verified transactions. Shipping ledgers have been replaced by blockchain technology, and every basil leaf now has a digital ledger entry verifying its identity and status along the pathway from farm to plate. We are buying more and more food using bitcoins, although the traditional currency system is still in place, allowing those who are risk adverse to keep their dollars in bank accounts. Still, new apps are now available that allow us to identify our food, purchase it online, and direct it to our plates for delivery.

Siri, Alexa, or whatever we want to call our personal digital assistants, can arrange for just about anything to appear on our plates for lunch, including the pizza from around the corner. The integration of AI makes it possible for these assistants to predict what we’d like to order, when we should obtain more dog food, and which new products we might want to buy from Amazon or any number of global food shopping malls. At this point, participating in data collection is optional, except for those DNA testing services. Our desire to know just how much of a Neanderthal we are means we will need to surrender our genetic data.

But in spite of the industry-wide commitment to blockchain, there are problems. Some companies resist standardizing or submitting a full accounting of events. And some submit inaccurate, poor, or dirty data, polluting the chain, creating data swamps, and causing intermittent breakdowns within the digital ledger. Efforts are underway to incentivize cooperation, but the technology is falling short of its promise of total and complete verification and tracking of all our food within the global food supply chain. It’s one thing to synchronize all ingredients within the United States, but it’s a fool’s errand to attempt to implement the system for food produced in developing nations. While improvements have been made in the tracking and tracing of seafood across the globe, the chain of illegal fish landings persists, bound by porous trade policies and the lack of enforcement. Still, seafood is one of the first proteins that are traceable, at least through the legal supply chain. We have the capacity for tracking and tracing, but implementation is still incomplete and inconsistent.

Optimization, which we’ve identified as a goal for food logistics, falters despite some standardized processes that are embedded in technology. The electronic logging devices and blockchain record keeping require that we source and deliver our food according to some agreed-upon protocol. But they lack the intelligence of humans who know how to navigate a city in the early hours of the morning and are friends with the human who opens the door at just the right time, or the chef who knows a microgreen producer who just opened but is not officially in the database. What about those trusted relationships that permeated our food system in 2018 but were overruled by engineers who wanted consistent data over ad-hoc arrangements? Some engineers are pushing AI to consider real-time experiences so that exceptions can become the rule. But, in this future at least, that particular technology is still underdeveloped and remains in the lab. Scientists and engineers are beginning to realize that mapping the chemical compounds of proteins alone will take a lifetime.

The Revolutionary Future: Food 3.0

In this view, cities are smarter than ever, and Joe is living in one of the smartest cities in the world. Half of all buildings in NYC have been designed as enclosed farms. All new buildings must conform to the new specifications for rooftop gardens, integrated biogenerators, and food delivery networks. Smart kitchens are now in every kitchen designer’s portfolio. Amazon’s underground and blimp delivery systems are now available in four major metropolitan centers in the United States and in two cities in Asia. And Joe’s pizza shop has adopted its place within the smart grid—a grid that includes energy in all forms, including calories.

What We Eat

In this revolutionary future, Joe operates within a very new food system. All of his ingredients come from no more than fifty miles away. Most of his greens and herbs come from a rooftop farm only two blocks away. He has an assigned area in the greenhouse that grows his herbs and tomatoes according to the taste profile of his customers and the ebb and flow of seasonal demand. His grain comes from another growing facility, which is outside Manhattan but still within range. (Gone are the days when grains required acres and acres of land to produce.) Now, proteins from labs manufactured at scale, produce grown in controlled environments, and vertical, underground, and aboveground farms are the norm. Dairy or dairy-like products come from a local manufacturer that uses engineered plant material that Joe can track all the way from the company’s lab to his customers’ to-go boxes through an iPhone app. Trucks, now all driverless, are mobile data hubs, coordinating, optimizing, and controlling the movement of food around the globe.

We’ve also gotten smarter about how to produce food. Food companies work with farmers to plan the quantities and production schedules. If a farmer is hit by bad weather, the producer can work with customers to adjust marketing and sourcing plans together. This increased collaboration between producers and buyers means the supply chain has fewer gaps.

For the first time, Joe has the option of buying ingredients from an orbiting agricultural farm. Yes, orbiting in space. A global space program launched in 2020 for the purpose of growing food sends shipments of lettuce and tomatoes back to earth in cargo capsules near urban depots for redistribution to cities around the world. What’s more, a few artificial planets are completing their test protocols for low-altitude food production.

Back on earth, every aspect of life has become synchronized and personalized, providing entertainment and convenience at the same time. Everything is transparent. We can see our food—and ourselves—anywhere in the supply chain of everything.

Joe’s customers order online with a profile containing their genetic data, a new development that allows Joe to create pizzas with personalized ingredients at a new level of integration. These customer profiles include nutritional requirements, health history, and real-time integration of physical activity. A customer can indicate a desire to lose a few pounds, signaling to Joe’s system to use low-calorie tomato sauce this time. We swallow digestible sensors that monitor our own biomes, delivering information that we use to adjust our intake, eventually affecting our genetic makeup.

Pizza has always been personal, with shop menus suggesting sizes, toppings, sauces, and a multitude of additional ingredients. Personalized pizza is now precision food, designed with those same options and more. The micro-ingredient sorting is mapped to each individual customer’s metabolic and nutrition genome and verified and validated using blockchain and sensors. Our entire nutritional intake is now engineered, and global life expectancy has improved by ten years or more.

Our meals take advantage of Big Data, including the data we’ve been accumulating on wearable devices—from smart watches to shirts made of smart fibers. We no longer need to look like compulsive athletes to capture real-time health stats; our designer blazers and smart skirts now include invisible sensors. A few of us take it even further, opting for chips embedded in our bodies, much like the older chips inserted in our pets so that we could track and trace them. The chips are useful for identification and payment systems that carry our data though sensors in our city. Smarter bodies are taking advantage of the now sophisticated and even bigger personal data networks, and AI is gradually feeling more and more like what we thought was our own intelligence. Did I mention the Singularity of Food?

All that personalized nutrition isn’t limited to our pizza orders and other food we consume outside of our homes. The Big Data about health is now available to each consumer, enabling us to design our personal diets. Hospitals, clinics, schools, and other institutions that have traditionally collected and owned our data will now share it with us as our own data merges with data collected by others. We own the data and can selectively decide who uses it and how. And, for the first time, international standards making organizations have reached agreement across international borders for data gathering and processing of all food-related data, including databases that contain our health data.

We know what we can eat and how much to eat based on the activity stats in our health databases. One of the first companies to move in this direction was Habit in 2015. The startup, founded by Neil Grimmer, sent test kits to its customers that enabled them to capture information from DNA and blood samples. The data provided the customers with information about their personal requirements for nutrients, vitamins, and minerals, their ability to synthesize nutrients, and calorie requirements for weight maintenance, and it suggested meals that would fit their personal dietary profiles.

Precision agriculture has become connected to the precision health. A few of us who can afford it have personal acres on farms that produce food according to our genome and lifestyle preferences. On our iPhones, we can track our real-time health and food needs while communicating our upcoming supply needs to our producers. And those personal acres are viewable on our personal digital devices, so we can watch our own chicken as it progresses from a fluffy newborn to a nugget. We can perform a range of medical tests at home, too, now that the testing technology is easy to use, inexpensive, and practically error free. New developments in food mass spectrometry by companies such as Tellspec enable handheld scanning and testing of food. No more “best before” dates on labels, just real-time information that tells us if food is safe, authentic, and good for us.

Those of us who can’t afford personal acres—and many who can—are growing some of our food at home, too. If we don’t want to buy our pizza from Joe over the weekend, we may prefer making our pizza at home, from homegrown ingredients. Not a lot—just some mushrooms, microgreens, and juicy tomatoes growing in pods that fit like appliances in our smarter kitchens. They are colocated with the composting systems that turn our organic food waste into household energy. These new kitchen appliances are smart, predictive, and connected to our overall payment systems for household utilities.

It’s worth noting that the old-fashioned, animal-based proteins still have their place in this revolutionary future. Food producers such as Carghill, Archer-Daniels, and Campbell’s Soup Company have bought Go-Go Chicken and Cainthus, both of which brought out facial recognition for livestock in 2018.1 The ability to visually recognize individual animals in our global food supply chain has given animal-based protein a boost in the market by making it possible to verify the welfare of each animal as it passes through the supply chain. Ethics are defined and managed now, making animal protein more acceptable to those who prefer the taste experience of animals over engineered substitutes. The cost of producing animals for food has gone down since initial investments were paid back, so animal proteins are available to all income levels. Removing food production to newer, enclosed labs and farms has largely mitigated the environmental impact of producing food in the water and on the land.

But old-fashioned proteins are no longer the dietary staple they once were. As data, connectivity, and AI have converged, it’s not uncommon to find all sorts of engineered food in our food system. The anxieties over GMO foods that prevailed in the early 2000s were calmed by the arrival of gene editing technology such as CRISPR. Once consumers understood the technology as one that avoided introducing foreign genes into their food, they became comfortable letting CRISPR genetically engineer food. Once CRISPR entered the labs of food scientists and engineers, the food industry was able to adapt digital tools, including genome mapping and testing, to create foods that targeted smaller and smaller groups and ultimately individual consumers. Genetically designing and modifying our food has become the new norm, and foods can be designed in a way that makes them function more and more like medicine. If we have a disease that requires us to eat a specific ingredient, mineral, vitamin, or pharmaceutical, we obtain foods that are precisely personalized for our needs. Some would say that food is now pharma to table, instead of farm to table. As a result, our hospitals have transitioned to meditation centers, coworking spaces, and sports facilities. Chris Traeger, of the classic TV show Parks and Recreation, would be satisfied to know that he could live to the age of 150 just by consuming a few pizzas a week, as long as those pizzas were designed to add to his life expectancy.

Though CRISPR and similar technologies saw relatively little resistance, the big surprise is still how much food we engineer in 2030. We learned in the early twenty-first century that the demand for food, especially fresh and organic food, would outstrip our ability to produce it. For a decade, the Chinese and other countries bought up farmland in Africa and remote areas of Asia in an effort to produce enough food to meet demand. Ultimately, the startup costs were too big, the climate too changeable, and the transport costs too high to warrant a continuation of land-based food production. We moved on to engineered and manufactured food as we depleted wild resources and traditional farms.

Of course, engineered food had a rough beginning. In 2015, 3-D printed pizzas met skeptical consumers who informed hopeful engineers that printed pizzas would not be competitive with the human-made pies. People just lost interest in the thin, painted crust that lacked bubbly cheese, some laid down in irregular patterns, and the texture of tomatoes that were imperfectly chopped and processed into sauce.

Engineers sometimes forget that the complicated relationship of humans and their food includes sensation, emotion, and culture. Our relationship is not entirely rational, and thus a rational design for anything, even nonfood, in our food system often stumbles or fails to capture human trust and acceptance. Remember Soylent, the drinkable food created by engineers who couldn’t be bothered to stop working in order to prepare a meal? Instead, they argued, drinking a processed, nutritionally optimized beverage would satisfy us. Well, it worked for a few workaholics, but the market largely rejected it, and products pivoted to the emerging personalized health market with drinkable food matched to our genome. Even the claim that drinkable meal replacements such as Soylent are better for the environment failed to overcome the need some customers feel for a “real” pizza. Though, in all honesty, the notion of “real” has changed, too. The new proteins from labs—and even the insect- and algae-based proteins that remain a staple of our diets—have achieved a level of acceptance that makes them seem somehow “real.”

In this hyper-connected, engineered future, our personal health data and diets shape how everyone sells food to us. Groceries include smart—really smart—sensors that can drive us to the right food items that match our profile, not just in a demographic sense but in a medical and physical sense. Some grocery sensors know our emotional dispositions and suggest a pint of ice cream if we need comforting.

Food Movements

In developing countries, more well off than in 2019, mobile grocery stores have appeared, as have pop-up mobile storage and processing facilities that have made food more accessible to poor and drought-prone regions. The World Food Programme has begun to work as a network of pop-up microproduction and distribution centers, abandoning the food aid programs that had sent food in bulk thousands of miles to areas of conflict. Now, regions in crisis have begun to develop their own local sourcing areas in secure locations. Blockchain technology provides both secure identities and transactions for the procurement of food and distribution to refugee populations.

Food banks, long a fixture in developed countries as a way to distribute potential food waste to poor communities, have disappeared. Instead, predictive analytics and AI have enabled precise coordination among producers and grocery stores and the food service industry, eliminating the need for the food banks to collect and distribute food. As growers produce food in quantities more aligned with real-time demand, food service and grocery stores now do their own distribution of food to poor communities. Imagine Instacart or Postmates with delivery vehicles that contain food for both the rich and the poor, free or priced for both the haves and have nots.

In 2019, grocery stores, like shopping malls and other brick-and-mortar retail stores, were realizing that business would not be as usual going forward. They watched as their customers ordered more sugar and flour online and engaged Instacart and other delivery companies to deliver their orders. Some grocery chains had their own delivery services, but e-commerce forced them to rethink their business platforms and begin designing their physical shopping spaces as experiences rather than transaction spaces. Even clothing stores began to add their equivalent of “grocerants,” restaurants within grocery stores.

In the developed world, grocery stores were already well on their way to transforming their stores with additions of grocerants, cooking classes, and pickup boxes where customers could swing by to pick up their online orders. In our Revolutionary Future, those changes have become widespread, with grocery stores adding other experiences such as dry cleaning, spa treatments, and banking. Grocery stores become experience hubs. Places where families or groups of friends come to spend time together—and maybe pick up a loaf of bread and a case of beer. Grocery stores incorporate many of the old mall experiences under their own roofs, allowing for more social engagement, meet-ups, and performances—without the soulless feel of malls and with all the excitement of the old food halls of Victorian England.

In addition to enjoying the experiential treatment, customers now can shop in smart shops with heads-up displays that tell them about the food on the shelves: carbon footprint, nutrition, health, origins, producers, genetics, labor practices, and just about anything we’d like to know in the new era of ultra-transparency. Shoppers can personally select the items they want, and the orders will be picked, packed, and sent to their homes without any further action required—not even a trip to the checkout stand. That’s right, facial recognition and product scanners make it possible to eliminate all the old checkout counters. Amazon discovered that consumers would rather enter a humanless grocery store way back in 2016. So now we have Autonomous Stores (AS). Those stores that still serve humans in person will rely on our faces for scans that indicate our food preferences and the inventory in our kitchens back home. So instead of waiting in line, we can linger in the grocery’s spa for a pedicure. When we get home, we can bring our food in from its cooled container outside and give it a quick scan for safety unless the delivery service has already done that for us.

We can shop at farmers’ markets for those mushrooms grown by humans in spaces that operate with municipal funds from parks and recreation budgets. Those food producers don’t need to generate a profit since they are underwritten by the city for their contributions to the education and aesthetic environment of city dwellers.

Serious grocery shopping, though, is mostly done through delivery services. Joe’s patrons use specialized services for fresh food, meat, eggs, and produce. Each service utilizes personal data and provides convenience, transparency, and storytelling on an individualized basis. We want food designed for our own taste? These delivery services work through their own platforms or as part of a grocery chain that will aggregate fresh orders with the staples offered in brick-and-mortar stores. Consumers have choices for food delivered as meals, ingredients, or—for a steep premium—by a chef who comes to their home to prepare that evening’s meal.

By the way, all that packaging that once enclosed our ingredients, filled trashcans, and left environmentalists tearing their hair out? That’s changed, too. Almost all food packaging is integrated into the ingredients, protecting and conserving them all along the supply chain. Apples sealed in invisible edible skins impervious to contamination, meat packaged in protective edible sheaths. Edible packaging will mean that we can make other ingredients from the ingredients in the wrappers or compost them in our vegetable garden. The few packages that remain exist to contain bulk shipments and are fully repurposed in other food or animal products or, of course, integrated into an energy generation network embedded in our city. Portions are designed to fit demand, whether according to personal dietary needs or by market demand.

In fact, landfills are languishing as organic food waste is directed toward energy generation facilities and other compostable material, such as packaging, is repurposed into building materials and consumer goods. Garbage cans previously positioned at the end of our driveways are long gone, as composted organic material powers our homes. (By the way, these days, there’s not much food waste anymore. Just 10 percent of what we produce—and we reuse all of it to generate power and make new products like clothing.)

Localized warehouses will deliver bulk staples in a range of vehicles, from post office AVs to UPS drones. Consumers can also choose to drive by a store at their convenience to pick up orders that have been picked, packed, and placed in drive-through areas with accessible pickup boxes. These grocery stores left their large interest group lobbies, such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association, so they could act more independently to respond to the availability of new technologies and the rapidly changing marketplace. AVs have no need to park since they are designed to be always on the move. We (or our personal AVs) travel to grocery stores, or the AVs travel to us, eliminating food deserts by delivering fresh food customized to our neighborhoods when and where we need it. Some of the grocery stores are growing produce on their own flat roofs and in container farms in their abandoned parking lots.

Packaged goods and other goods and services flow smoothly into the online delivery supply chain, but fresh food has been sticky and complicated. Partnerships in Europe between food retailers and companies similar to Ocado keep Europe, Asia, and even Africa ahead of the United States with innovations for food delivery and supply chain innovations. Cities such as Singapore had been far ahead of Europe and the United States when it came to Last Mile delivery technology, and they now continue to pioneer the most advanced of food delivery technologies.

As grocery stores changed, so did the transportation infrastructure. Sometimes, the global food network is contained almost entirely in the cloud. For example, Joe now has customers in Hong Kong, Kenya, London, and Sydney, and he has Cloud Kitchens that can produce New York slices customized to local cultures and delivered by AVs within an hour of online ordering. These Cloud Kitchens enable food brands to extend their markets without building any dine-in structures.

Closer to home, over half of all vehicles now use electricity or hybrid electric/gas, and half the vehicles on the road are AVs designed especially for freight transport. The effect of this transition is enormous, and one impact is the changing role of gas stations. By 2018, Reebok and the design company Gensler had already reimagined how gas stations would become recharging stations—not only for vehicles but also for people.2 Reebok reconceived the old gas station as one that had a few gas pumps but more charging stations, a farm-to-table hub, an exercise center, a yoga studio, meditation spaces, and a coworking center for meetings and collaborative projects.

Truck drivers like the ones who drop off Joe’s ingredients no longer worry about the future of their jobs. In some senses, they were right in 2018: AVs, robots, and drones are commonplace as petroleum and coal supplies became too expensive—not to mention illegal—due to commitments made by the international community. Still, however, demand for drivers (though they might be more aptly called “vehicle supervisors” now) has actually grown along with e-commerce, and trucking companies are enlarging their fleets, driving in pelotons, drafting while conserving energy, and carrying full loads. In the past, governments had been trying to lubricate the adoption of technology by sidestepping the workforce implications of replacing human intelligence with artificial intelligence, but old industries—like trucking—with long histories of powerful labor unions continued to put up significant resistance. Unfortunately, in many cases, that resistance has backfired, as the more unions bargained for higher pay the more the industry moved to integrate robots into the food system. These unions have had better luck aligning themselves with regions and urban centers, finding ways to allow for innovation and technology while mitigating the issues of job loss and workforce fragmentation. Many of the unions are gone, realizing that the labor force replaced the bargaining power of unions in the past with new tech tools that have removed barriers between management and labor. Still, the effect of the transition from humans to digital tools has left many workers struggling to retool their skills for this future.

Though Joe sells more slices than ever, hardly anyone actually comes into his shop, except for a few commuters who use the electric car chargers at the new PennRecharge Center located in a transport hub that organizes the subterranean mobile system. The system, operated by a partnership between Google and Amazon, sends food, humans, waste, and energy throughout the city in an underground network. Those ugly dumpsters and double-parked tractor-trailers no longer infringe upon our enjoyment of our new, smarter cities. What’s more, apartments and condominiums are now built with integrated, temperature-controlled boxes that are accessible indoors and outdoors for food deliveries. Joe’s shop even has its own cold storage boxes that are accessible from the street and through Amazon’s underground food tubes and conveyor belts so delivery drivers no longer have to wander through the aisles in his back room to find the cold locker. The need for outsiders to enter our homes and businesses for food deliveries has gone by the wayside, so we can feel perfectly secure ordering that pizza in time to find it waiting for us when we get home from work. Energy-wise, the city is a closed, sustainable system.

Tracking Our Food

Joe’s Pizza Suprema remains in its familiar location outside Penn Station, a locus of charging stations, AVs, drone landing pads, and light rail service. New York’s power grids now include energy production through conversion of organic waste, water systems, and vertical farms. Joe can now track food shipments, adjust deliveries, and use sensors to detect concerns for food safety and allergens just before consumption.

Although truckers resisted tracking technology in 2019, the drivers who deliver Joe’s ingredients today now belong to an Internet of AVs (IoAV), which is informed by machine learning software. Over the past years, these new digital platforms for trucking companies have offered individual truckers the freedom to use data about optimum times for access to buildings, parking options, wait times, and demand for products.

The boxes that fill these trucks resemble the old shipping containers. But these are “smart” boxes that know where they are in real time and know how to keep their internal temperatures—all of them—at the right level, signaling when organic contents have begun to oxidize. These smart boxes travel on water, roads, and through the underground conveyors and tubes that operate beneath the city streets, but thanks to the enhanced connectivity of the IoT and the IoAV (the Internet of Everything, really), these boxes and their contents are visible onscreen every step of the way.

And tracking isn’t just for commercial food, either. At home, we now have very smart kitchens. If we’re in doubt about a food’s properties, we can test it at home a few seconds before we place that suspect shellfish casserole on our plate. AI and VR inhabit our kitchens, too. Our coffee maker knows when to order more beans. The fridge can tell us when an item spoils and when to order more milk. Our cooktop uses biofuel produced from our composter and will regulate itself according to temperature and time for the foods on the cooktop and in the oven. We shop in grocery stores that are virtually represented through flat screens projected on our kitchen walls, enabling us to meander through store aisles as we receive data about individual banana ripeness and related sensorial characteristics of fresh produce. We can order and interact with the store from our kitchens if we exist in both places at one time. All of this smartness creates a seamless, transparent supply chain, using both cryptocurrencies and blockchain to track food from around the world through the networks in our own kitchens.

Evolution or Revolution: Where Do We Fit In?

Still, the persistence of the human desire for connection through the senses and community could not be entirely replaced by engineered food, robots, and drones. The effect of the advances of more and more tech in food was an increase of the perceived value of low- or no-tech food. Handcrafted pizza, personal delivery, and the restaurant concierge who lingers over a description of wine or lamb chops have become the high end of food service. There still is some resistance by those consumers who desire the presence of humans and the organic substance of soil and the physical sensations related to the earth, plants, animals, and us. There’s still a market for those producers, and their customers pay more for the pleasure of human-grown food.

As they became detached from natural habitats, our food production systems moved closer to consumers, where they could take advantage of scale and customization and become much more environmentally sustainable. While it seemed at first that we were returning to Big Food and an industrialized food system, we realized that through technology that enabled full transparency and trust, bigness became an acceptable route to affordable and accessible food. Fewer big distribution centers serve more localized, regional distribution centers that send smaller shipments to individual customers.

In both futures, most of us live in cities, and our food system has had to adapt. Our homes are smaller, integrated into smart grids, and near localized distribution hubs. We have cold-chain storage in small spaces, like street reefers and condo cold chains, all with smaller footprints and energy consumption.

Not many of us have gone back to the kitchen in the way Alice Waters and Dan Barber had hoped. We cook, yes, but only once in a while, more as an experience with friends—a social activity. And most of our ingredients have been prepared ahead of time. Sliced onions, peeled carrots. Our ingredients are fresher than they were in 2018, since we now have better packaging and most of the food we get is grown locally, only minimally processed, and not stored for long en route. Convenience has trumped tradition in our return to the kitchen.

We now have many more options for food, and we use them all: one day we order out from our favorite fried chicken shop, using its private delivery service. The next, we join our friends at their house for hamburgers made of plant-based protein, which tastes delicious once grilled and placed between two buns made from potatoes and proto-grains. AI has enabled food shopping and delivery to sense our moods and inform our food choices.

All the scenarios included in both the Evolutionary and Revolutionary Futures point to a food system and supply chain that is digitally connected, sharing platforms and merging data into one Big Data system. Food is a complicated subject for futurists for all the reasons suggested in this book—its connection to our humanness, identity, senses, and social and cultural relationships. Because food bridges the boundaries between technology and art, humans and machines, we still need to think smartly about the consequences of these imagined futures for our food system. How do we preserve our individuality and humanness, and how can we opt out of the system and still operate within a highly connected society? As Art Markman once asked me, “What in our food system can’t be automated?” We wonder how important the five senses will be in our future. We’re about to enter unknown territory in terms of the latest Industrial Revolution. Major breakthroughs in biotechnology, AI, and machine learning are rapidly appearing, and we don’t have time to see how they will play out in our lives (except possibly on TV in Black Mirror). We can imagine the consequences but have little evidence yet of our new reality.

Will our engineered food miss a humanness that is imagined now but real in the future? We wonder how we will rationalize the move of technology into our food system. We’re already rationalizing CRISPR technology as an acceptable means for genetically engineering food; and making meat out of animal cells in a lab, perhaps the most extreme form of processing, is acceptable to those who eschewed processed food in their diets. The tools we will develop to make the food system transparent will provide trust to those who were skeptical of industrialized food. We know the engineer in the lab and have replaced the intimate relationship with a rural farmer with that of the young engineer who labors over a petri dish in Santa Monica. We write ourselves new stories to make our new food landscape compatible with our sense of ethics and humanness.

Many of the institutions and silos that exist today will continue their evolution from big to small, from centralized to distributed in how they perform their services and produce their products. Health care, finance, agriculture, and every traditional industry that has operated big and deep will finally have new communities, and the data that was traditionally guarded and developed within the boundaries of those sectors will begin moving closer to consumers. They have demanded more control of their lives in a society that has continued to be more fragmented and unpredictable.

But even the older technology miracles haven’t worked out all the kinks yet. Digital printers have been around since the 1950s, but we still stop to remove sheets of paper that jam our work progress.

What will be the “paper jam” in our food logistics’ future? Will terrorists benefit from full transparency of our food supply chain? Will our lives become overstandardized as we do the same things every day to accommodate the needs of our digital processors? Will AI and VR remove us from our present moment? Will our humanness eventually rebel against convenience? Probably.

Stand back. Our food is being rerouted.

No comments here
Why not start the discussion?