Trend Spotting from Milan’s Seeds & Chips Conference
By Bandana Kaur, Graduate student at Babson College.
The world we live in today is ridden with so much negativity and fear that finding simple pleasures in life is becoming harder and harder. And that is why I absolutely love working with food because, as simple as it sounds, food is an extremely powerful tool to drive happiness and connection. Yet, despite this fundamental importance of food in our lives, the industry is hindered by slow technological advances. I believe that if we truly want to eradicate poverty and food-related diseases, we have to start embracing technology through the value chain. It is this desire that attracted me to the Seeds & Chips Conference. Held in Milan this year, the second Seeds & Chips Conference brought over 200 companies, 50 events and over 10,000 people together to talk about a matter close to all our hearts: food. A spin-off from the tremendously successful World Food Expo 2015 also held in Milan, this event focused on the relationship between technology and food, and the numerous start-ups disrupting the industry.
The food ecosystem is in need of a dire change – the UN predicts that we will have to produce 60% more food to feed 9 billion people by 2050. Yet today over 40% of the food we create goes to waste, and illnesses like diabetes and heart disease cases are higher then ever before. So how do we bring balance in this ecosystem? Most panelists at Seed & Chips agreed that it is only through innovation, technology and entrepreneurship that the entire value chain be revolutionized. Hence, divided into three key themes – food production, waste management and nutrition & health – it was fascinating to see so many companies out there who are using science and software to create healthy, wholesome food. From data-driven decisions of what to produce in the kitchen, to tailored farming that optimizes water usage, and re-distributing waste via real-time apps to edible packaging, I was most inspired by how individuals from all over the world with vastly different skills (a mathematician and a chef for instance) are coming together to seriously tackle the issues of food production and distribution.
Most prevalent were the devices that defined the Internet of Things like the smart kitchen stove and 3D printing. Yes, 3D printing! Companies like Foodini are bringing people back into the kitchen by giving them a tool to ‘print’ quite literally anything. Simply fill the canisters with real, natural ingredients, input your desired outcome (eg. a wheat tortilla wrap) and press print! Big companies too are riding the wave, with the world’s largest pasta maker Barilla releasing the Cucina Barilla. In partnership with Whirlpool, Cucina Barilla is a ‘smart’ microwave that literally puts together a dish from raw ingredients by adding the right water content. Just scan the packaging on the screen of the machine, put the ingredients in a bowl and watch the magic happen!
Another big theme at the event was the integration between food and nutrition. This included applications and software that integrate with wearables like the Fitbit to provide customized food recommendations based on individual fitness and goals. Several spectrometers that can tell the key nutrient values of ingredients and dishes were also showcased, and panelists expressed confidence that once produced on a large scale these will help everyday consumers make more informed decisions about what they are eating and cooking. In the long run, the data itself that is collected will be extremely valuable, which was another major umbrella of discussion at the conference. Studying and making sense of such ingredient databases as more and more information gets collected is a huge opportunity for nutritionists and food scientists to understand food relationships better, for health and even taste. In fact, the company Food Pairing has already started profiling ingredients based on compatibility, and today work with over a hundred restaurants to optimize recipes. In line with the global movement of going back to the basics, urban hydroponics and wall farming were also popular product showcases at the fair.
Finally at the end of the food value chain were wonderful companies trying to manage and reduce waste. In particular, nonprofit Food Cloud based out of London really stood out to me because in the face of complex technological infrastructure that many seem to be chasing, they found a way to create a simple platform that bridges food vendors and nonprofits. All vendors have to do is fill in a simple form if they have leftover produce, and as soon as the post goes live nonprofits in the database get a message. Interested nonprofits can choose to accept the offer and go to the vendor directly to pick the food up. Vendors pay a small fee to Food Cloud monthly for unlimited posts. What’s incredible about the model is that Food Cloud is simply the bridge between the two parties, and therefore incurs much less cost then traditional food rescue organizations.
Ultimately, the possibilities are endless. Like Uber disrupted the transportation industry and Airbnb the hospitality industry, it’s only a matter of time before a company finds a way to shake up the food world, and frankly, I can’t wait. The world and eaters everywhere need it! Visit the Seed & Chips website for more information about the event and a full list of exhibitors.