Join us on a thrilling journey into the future of food as we engage in an enlightening conversation with Tony Hunter, the distinguished Food Futurist. In Part 1 of this captivating series, we unravel the intricacies of food innovation and transformation at the intersection of technology and culinary art.
Unveiling the Food Futurist: A Glimpse into Tony's Vision
When asked to define his role as a food futurist, Tony offered an interesting explanation: "What I do is I look at all the different technology and consumer trends that are coming into food, synthesise all of this, and produce for my clients alternative futures that could reasonably come into being". In essence, he's a visionary who navigates the complex web of emerging food technologies to craft alternative food futures. Consumer preferences in the realm of alternative proteins span a broad spectrum, from those embracing only 10% meat in their diets to others seeking a whopping 90%. A future somewhere between these extremes is likely, yet the food industry must adapt to cater to whatever future becomes reality. Tony underscores the role of "critical uncertainties" in shaping these futures—variables that could lead us down vastly different paths and “tell us what the future is likely to be". In his strategic foresight work Tony employs scenario planning utilising this concept of critical uncertainties. These key variables determining the future of an organisation or industry are used to produce the alternative futures mentioned previously. The progress of these uncertainties is then tracked and when the actual future appears 90% certain action can be taken early enough to gain a competitive advantage.
Tony also highlights the significance of Gen Alpha, those born from 2010 to 2024. By the end of 2024 they will number some 2 billion, the largest generation the planet has ever seen. They wield unprecedented current influence in shaping food choices through their access to vast information and their influence on their parent’s purchasing habits. This underscores the importance of catering to Gen Alpha’s needs in planning for the long-term future of food.
Tony's Journey into the World of Food Futures
Tony's journey into the world of food futures is fascinating. His background in food science and technology, coupled with a career in general management in the food industry, provided a strong foundation. However, it was in 2017 that he noticed major technology changes entering the food sector. Driven by his appetite for knowledge and a desire to explore emerging food technologies he attended the September 2018 Good Food Institute conference in the United States. It left an indelible mark, convincing him that "The world of food was never going to be the same again".
The conference unveiled a profound truth to Tony—a small group of individuals driven by unwavering convictions could catalyse significant change, irrespective of the timeline. It was this realisation that fuelled his determination to venture into the realm of the future of food. Tony's innate curiosity, coupled with his deep-rooted passion for change and technology, made this path an ideal fit. As he puts it, "this is right up my alley. Every morning I get up and I wonder what I'm going to come across, who's raised more money, what new technologies have emerged and then new developments I haven’t heard about". The pace of technological advancement in the food industry today, as Tony sums it up, "will never be slower than it is today. The amount of technology in food now compared to 20, 30 years ago is immense; there is just no comparison. It is the most exciting time to be in the food industry I’ve seen in over 30 years".
Pioneering the Future: Plant Molecular Farming
When it comes to groundbreaking innovations, Tony's eyes light up with enthusiasm as he delves into the realm of plant molecular farming. This transformative technology has the potential to revolutionise the way we produce food. In Tony's own words, "plant molecular farming is where you take the gene for something like casein and insert it into a plant, such as soybeans. These soybeans are then cultivated, and from them, we can extract casein to craft cheese while efficiently utilising the rest of the soybean". The genius behind plant molecular farming lies in both its scalability and sustainability. To increase production capacity, cultivation can be expanded, resulting in a sustainable and highly adaptable means of generating essential food components. Tony envisions a future where plants like lettuce can be engineered to produce flavours and natural colourants like vanilla and anthocyanins by activating specific genes through application of specialised compounds. This emerging technology, as Tony tongue in cheek describes it, of "growing animal parts in plants”, represents a remarkable synergy between nature and technology, showcasing a future where our food systems are not only sustainable but also incredibly adaptive.
Shaping Food Trends: Societal and Cultural Shifts
Tony emphasises the intricate relationship between technological innovations and societal shifts that shape food trends. He highlights, "as new technologies emerge, almost a virtuous feedback loop occurs, where a product is launched into the marketplace, and the consumer finds a use for the product, which may not have been the original ideation". This dynamic cycle of adaptation and invention thrives when technology acts as a catalyst for fresh ideas that align with consumer preferences. However, the challenge of embracing change persists, as Tony explains, "our general problem, I think in advanced food system countries like Australia, the US, and the UK is we have no concept of food shortage, so consumers may not see the immediate need for these new technologies". Tony further emphasises that while animal agriculture will remain key for at least many decades to come, relying solely on existing systems won't meet the escalating demand for food. With arable land and freshwater resources stretched to their limits, we face a daunting task—producing an additional 50 to 70% more food within planetary boundaries. He believes in the potential of pioneering technologies that demand fewer resources to address this challenge, stating, "we need to use additional new technologies that don't require the same level of arable land, freshwater, and particularly nutrient inputs that we currently use to make our food".
The Protein Landscape in a Decade: A Remarkable Transformation
Tony envisions a protein landscape a decade from now marked by a remarkable expansion and diversity of food products that “we have never seen before". He anticipates supermarket shelves brimming with an array of options, stating, "I think the variety of products available, from animal to all the alternative proteins, is just going to be enormous". Tony is particularly excited about the potential for innovative food products, many of which are currently just ideas in the minds of future startup founders. Within the next decade, these concepts are expected to become tangible, offering consumers an unparalleled variety of choices. This transformation promises to revolutionise the way we approach food shopping, introducing a level of diversity and choice that was once inconceivable, as Tony explains, “the future promises an exciting and inspiring world of food".
Exploring a Technological Utopia for Food
Tony Hunter envisions an ideal food system driven by technology. He believes that "there is not a problem on the planet that can't be solved, by the proper use of technology". In this vision, Tony believes that we possess the capacity to produce food that can sustainably nourish a global population of 10 billion people without exceeding the ecological boundaries of our planet. However, Tony's view of this utopian food system is not without an assessment of our current food landscape. He recognizes the strengths of our existing food systems but is acutely aware of the imperfections, particularly in addressing issues like hunger, starvation, and the unsustainable utilisation of arable land and freshwater resources. Tony highlights that "it’s not sustainable in so many ways to just keep doing more of the same, we need to have food systems that avoid those problems as much as possible". To illustrate the path towards this utopian food future, Tony highlights technological solutions that are already reshaping agriculture. For instance, he mentions companies like Pivot Bio and their innovative soil microbiome products that reduce nitrogen usage by up to 20%. This not only benefits farmers economically but also minimises harmful runoff, exemplifying how technology can enhance sustainable farming practices. Another remarkable example is Solar Foods, a company pioneering technology that utilises air, solar energy, and microorganisms to grow food without relying on arable land or freshwater. These real-world examples demonstrate how technology-driven solutions are already addressing resource constraints and offer a glimpse into the transformative potential of future food systems.
The TECHXponential Model: Charting the Course for Future Food:
Tony is explicit about the inseparable fusion of technology and food. In his words "food and technology are inextricably linked and they're growing exponentially, not linearly". Adopting this concept as a mindset offers a different perspective on the future of food.
Taking a comprehensive look at the journey of food from farm to fork, Tony focuses on five key technologies propelling this transformation: "alternative proteins, cellular agriculture, genomics, microbiome, and synthetic biology, which are driven by three accelerator technologies; AI, sensors and quantum computing". While traditional crops and agriculture remain essential, they'll play less of a role in addressing the 50 to 70% food deficit, with new technologies set to take centre stage. As a food futurist, Tony deciphers these shifts and constructs a model that charts the path to the future of food. This model outlines alternative futures and how they can become reality.
Conclusion: Pioneering a Sustainable and Ever-Emerging Food Future
Tony provided remarkable insights into the exponentially growing technological advancements in food systems, underlining the undeniable evolution of the food industry. The combination of food and technology as a guiding mindset promises a sustainable and ever-emerging future for food.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of the Food Futures blog featuring Tony Hunter, where we delve deeper into these technologies, explore consumer education, tackle sustainability challenges, navigate policy and governance, and offer guidance to startups and entrepreneurs.
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