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Part 2 Feeding the Future: Tony Hunter, the Food Futurist

Welcome back to the Food Futures blog, where we continue our captivating journey with Tony Hunter, the renowned food futurist. In Part 1, we dove into the exciting world of food innovation and how groundbreaking technology is poised to revolutionise our culinary landscape. Now, in Part 2, we embark on a deeper exploration, venturing into the realms of cutting-edge technologies, the vital role of consumer education, sustainability challenges, the influence of policy and governance, and the invaluable advice Tony imparts to startups and visionary entrepreneurs in the ever-evolving food industry.

Technological Triumphs: Exploring Key Innovations in Food:

In the landscape of technological triumphs, Tony explored the driving forces propelling the food industry forward. He underscored the interconnectedness of these technologies with both consumers and manufacturers, acknowledging that certain technologies exert a more profound influence than others. Tony identified three pivotal manufacturing technologies: alternative proteins, cellular agriculture, and synthetic biology. Among these, Tony's personal favourite - is plant molecular farming which he tongue in cheek refers to as "growing animals in plants", illustrated by companies like Miruku and Nobell foods which are growing milk components in safflower and soy respectively. He also drew attention to precision fermentation, exemplified by companies like ‘Perfect Day’ and ‘The EVERY Company’, as noteworthy innovators. Of these technologies, according to Tony, synthetic biology is poised to become the new frontier, as Tony amusingly quips that it's not rocket science; it's "synbio." For consumers, the microbiome takes a central role, particularly from a nutritional standpoint. Tony cited a study conducted at the Weizmann Institute in Israel, where individuals were given identical food items, such as cookies and bananas. Surprisingly, each person's blood glucose response differed significantly, some spiked from the cookie, the others from the banana, highlighting the individuality of our reactions to food. Tony envisions a future characterised by "hyper-personalisation," where consumers seek food tailored precisely to their unique requirements. He emphasised that genetics, on their own, account for only about 35% of our food reactions, with the microbiome playing a pivotal role. For consumers, the microbiome takes centre stage, particularly from a nutritional perspective. Tony anticipates that within the next 10-15 years microbiome analysis will become much more commonplace. He mentioned companies like Brisbane based ‘Microba Life Sciences’ which already provide microbiome analysis and personalised diet plans. This emerging trend will significantly impact consumers' expectations regarding food, food companies may have to offer more personalised foods. However, Tony acknowledged that challenges in establishing causality remain, but he anticipates that the next decade will bring a deeper understanding of the intricate relationships between our microbiomes and food responses.

Consumer Education: The Critical Ingredient for Accepting New Foods:

Effective consumer education is undeniably significant in driving the acceptance of new food products, but Tony emphasises the necessity of a strong foundation: taste. He candidly states that "if your product doesn't taste good, it does not matter how much you educate people". According to Tony, a successful food product must prioritise four key attributes: taste, easy to use and find, cost competitiveness, and healthy for the individual and the planet (TECH), with taste taking precedence. Once a product achieves an exceptional taste, Tony acknowledges that consumer education can play a pivotal role in furthering its adoption. However, he underscored the need for a broader and more macroscopic approach to education. He states, "once taste catches up, it can then be supplemented by consumer education". Tony firmly believes that while educating consumers, it's imperative not to lose sight of the intrinsic motivations behind people's food choices, including their values and belief systems. As he succinctly puts it, "education is one thing, but don't lose track of the reason people buy food, including values and belief systems." This nuanced understanding guides the framing of education in a way that aligns with prevailing consumer food trends and fosters greater acceptance of innovative food products.

Equity and Sustainability: Food Future Challenges:

When it comes to sustainability in the food industry, Tony provided us with a comprehensive global outlook. Tony's perspective centres on the idea of optimising resource allocation for the greatest positive impact. He says, "as far as Australia, the US and South America are concerned we have missed the boat, people are eating a hundred plus kilos of meat per year so my view is that, from a global point of view, we should be concentrating on Asia and then Africa as the next frontiers for food". He believes in helping developing countries leapfrog the challenges faced by more developed food systems by providing them with innovative food technologies. While recognising the cultural significance of meat consumption, Tony urges a shift toward alternative methods of protein production to meet nutritional needs in a sustainable manner. He elaborates, "resources are far better off going into helping developing countries to develop food systems with a range of protein sources.”

In essence, Tony's perspective emphasised the need to do more in developing countries to ensure resources are not depleted while encouraging a behavioural shift towards a more healthy, sustainable and equitable global food future. He emphasises the extensive variables at play in food consumption and highlights the need for personalised nutrition tailored to individuals' unique microbiomes and genetics to achieve their health goals. In his words, "it is hyper-personalisation of everything we do." Tony's viewpoint offered a holistic approach to global food sustainability, with a focus on resource allocation, technological innovation, and individualised nutrition to shape a more equitable and sustainable future.

Policy and Governance: Steering direction of food systems:

In shaping the direction of food systems, Tony emphasised the vital role of government, stating that "the role of government is essential to create an environment for innovation." However, he also acknowledged the challenges inherent in this role, pointing out that "we have powerful lobbying interest groups for current technologies" and that regulatory bodies often lack the resources required for efficient approvals of new food products and technologies. From a legislative perspective, Tony shed light on the resource constraints faced in coping with new technologies and food products, noting a "dramatic under-resource" of government food review organisations in this regard. Tony underscored the rapidly evolving landscape of emerging technologies in the food industry, noting that new companies can no longer afford to endure lengthy two-year approval processes.

He also highlights promising developments in the agricultural sector, explaining, "we are now seeing good progress in domestic value adding of plant proteins, providing an opportunity to maximise the value of what are currently commodity crops." Tony highlighted the impact of legislative timelines on the introduction of new products and technologies, while also emphasising the growing trend of embracing value-added approaches within food systems.

Impact of Startups: Driving Food Innovation:

Tony underscored the vital role of startups in driving innovation within the food sector and provides valuable advice to entrepreneurs and innovators. He states, “The future is going to be built around startups”, highlighting their pivotal role in shaping the food industry. Tony also expresses concern about the innovation stagnation among large corporations, noting that “many large corporations are basically innovation bankrupt”. He emphasised the need for corporate venture capital companies to engage with startups, recognizing that “startups have an enormous role to play in the future of food, in new products, new technologies." Tony's advice to startups centres on identifying their unique a competitive advantage: “focus on what is the main technology point of difference of a startup in a space compared to everybody else”. He further distinguished between two types of investors—explorers and followers—and encouraged venture capital companies to deeply understand their invested areas. Explorers are exemplified by firms like Big Idea Ventures, which Tony explained, employs PhD students in their investment domains. Followers invest from a FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) perspective, copying the explorers without the explorer’s deep understanding of the technologies in which they’re investing. Tony observes a trend toward more selective funding, with investors seeking startups that clearly demonstrate a unique value proposition as they continue to shape the future of the food industry.

AI’s influence: The Future of Food and Personalisation:

Tony delved into the profound influence of AI on the future of food systems. He stated, “AI is going to have an enormous influence on the future of food, both for consumers and industry which will feed into personalised nutrition”. Tony highlights the growing prevalence of personal health trackers and underscores the indispensable role of AI in processing and deciphering the extensive data that will be generated by these devices in the future. Particularly with the advent of more advanced technologies like tattoo and even embedded sensors. Tony underscored AI's necessity in processing complex metabolic reactions, emphasising that “the computing power required to monitor all these reactions and permutations will surpass the present capabilities of even our smartphones”. Tony presented an illustrative instance of AI-driven technology known as AI Pin from the company Humane. It’s a portable device that can offer tailored dietary advice based on it simply scanning a packaged food product. It aids people in making these informed food selections by factoring in their individual responses to specific foods. Tony accentuated AI's pivotal role in new product development by employing generative AI as well as machine learning to analyse and identify optimal ingredient combinations. His insights demonstrated AI's indispensable contribution to customising food choices for individuals, establishing it as an essential element in the future of the food industry.

Conclusion: Shaping a Sustainable and Personalised Food Future:

In conclusion, Tony Hunter's insights into the future of food revealed a dynamic landscape. He emphasised the significance of taste in successful products, advocates for sustainability in developing countries, underscored the role of government and startups, and highlighted AI's transformative potential. Overall, Tony offered a comprehensive perspective on the multifaceted and ever-evolving food industry, highlighting the need for innovation, sustainability, and personalisation in shaping a more equitable and sustainable food future.


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