The food business is about to face disruption of the sort that technology has forced on all other industries. "The role of food in our society cannot be understated. It is so much more than an energy source. Food (culture) defines us, bonds us and regrettably it also causes divisions - social and financial." This according Jake Dubbins, founder, Media Bounty, who along with experiential agency Hot Pickle and food & drink specialist PR agency Story brought together a panel earlier this week to delve into the future of food.
Panellists included Rob Woodall, chief executive of the Meatless Farm, Fozia Ismail, founder of Somali supper club Arawelo Eats, Ollie Lloyd, chief executive of Great British Chefs and Michelin-starred chef and nutritionist Nurdin Topham. The panel was chaired by The Drum associate editor, Sonoo Singh.
The session was kicked off by Dubbins who introduced key trends from the social listening platform Linkfluence. Social mentions of CBD oil, plant-based diets, insects as food and concern around food prices caused by Brexit are all on the rise especially in the last two months.
Here are a selection of the themes covered in the session:
We need to move to more of a plant-based diet. Our planet cannot sustain the impact of increased meat production and it has been shown that eating a richer plant-based diet is not only better for the environment, it’s better for our health too.
Woodall talked about the disrupters in the system like The Meatless Farm can be agile and produce plant-based mince and burgers that the big companies simply cannot because of their capital legacy. The only way big businesses can get in on the act is by buying these high-growth food tech startups. For example, Unilever has recently bought The Vegetarian Butcher.
There is a tension though. Eating meat is seen as a status symbol in many countries like India and China - a statement of affluence and growing prosperity. This is a significant barrier to entry for plant-based foods.
Ismail talked about the need for us to relearn our relationship with food. Where it comes from, how it is grown and prepared. She said: “We are never closer to our environment than when we eat it.”
Topham discussed Japanese food culture, where the relationship with the food is astonishing: “In Japan they’ve made nutrition and food the same thing.”
Ismail added that we need to be talk about climate change which is here now and affecting people in other parts of the world and the food supply. She talked about the devastation brought by droughts to the livestock owned by her aunt in Somalia. Threats to food security are here right now but we are only talking about it from a western point of view: “We are in an incredibly privileged position to be able be able to choose between plants and meat.”
The panelists felt that the industry needs to avoid being too broad brushed in its analysis of the data/trends around food. Of course, there are some macro global trends but often the interesting movements are happening in pockets (geographies/demographics). The UK food scene is complex, diverse, nuanced. Lloyd hit the nail on the head saying: “What goes in Islington doesn't necessarily apply in the rest of the country. 30% of the UK define themselves as foodies. The other 70% really do not.”
Woodall also talked about the inherent conservatism in our food, saying: “No one wants to learn a completely new way to cook. They’re too busy.”
Choice and personalisation are wonderful and exciting trends but they are driving complexity and waste in our system. This level of personal choice creates real challenges in the supply chain.
Global food distribution is deeply inequitable. For instance, businesses like Rubies in the Rubble are working wonders with produce that would have gone to waste to create products that taste delicious - and help to provide a more efficient food chain.
Crickets were being served as part of the Chirashi bowl breakfast from Japanese restaurant, Omoide. Topham was asked if insects were the future of food. “I do hope not,” he said. Having travelled extensively and tasted bugs all over the world he is not convinced.
The obvious big and exciting trend is how tech is both changing and enabling food delivery. Being able to get a meal at the click of a button from a "dark" kitchen, for instance or how in China/Asia technology is driving radical change in the way people shop and consume food with the use of VR enabling consumers to walk a store without leaving the four walls of their homes/offices or indeed the ability to shop digital screens and have your deliveries on your doorstep within two hours.
It has undoubtedly fuelled a greater interest/understanding in food but the obsession of capturing the plate has taken something away from the eating experience. Food can be beautiful but it’s not an art form, it’s there to be eaten, a lubricant for conversation. Screens can get in the way of the communal experience of eating. Ismail talked about wanting to show the "messiness in food". Food is not the final beautifully constructed plate, "it is the mess, the joy, the work that goes into creating tasty foods," she said.
‘End of life’ food
What do you eat if you can't chew? When you become seriously ill and nearing the end of life, your body’s need for food and end-of-life nutrition is also altered. Has the food industry started looking at providing options for end of life food?
Lloyd, meanwhile, added he wanted to kick off a campaign to counter new products like Huel - a nutritional powdered food - for the younger audience: “Do we really not have enough time to chew?”
Finally, the panel was asked for their what would go into version of "Room 101". Rob answered artificial sweeteners, Ollie went for vegan cheese, Fozia banished Instagram and Nurdin slammed button mushrooms.
The future of food? There will be change for sure. A closer relationship between healthcare and food (nutrition) with tech (wearables) playing a greater role. More transparency and efficiency in the supply chain. Less meat, more plants. Greater variety and choice. Perhaps less people cooking themselves as the delivery system becomes even more efficient.