The Future of Food, Part Three: Food.
"The future of food will always be food." So proclaimed venture capital investor Steve Case in a widely-cited post published June 8 on Re/Code. Case’s manifesto was on my mind two days later as I was chatting with the founders of Kite Hill Foods, a plant-based alternative-dairy company. Kite Hill’s cheeses are made from almond milk, and while their soft-ripened cheese won’t exactly fool anyone who thought they were taking a bite of brie, the taste and texture is pleasant enough to make this lacto-lover seriously think about adding some non-dairy cheese to my diet. But then what about Bitty Foods’ cookies made from cricket flour, or moringa superfood bars from Kuli Kuli?
What makes the things we eat capital-F Food, and how can we tell what their future will look like?
On June 10, over 200 people gathered at PARISOMA to get a taste of this future at Think&Act. Representatives from ten startups innovating across all parts of the food supply chain spoke about their work and demoed products ranging from logistics solutions to prepared foods to food preparation robots. A diverse crowd of entrepreneurs, chefs, freelancers and foodies gathered to discuss and sample the offerings. When PARISOMA reached capacity, many continued to wait in line until the crowd thinned and they were allowed admittance. The commitment demonstrated by these latecomers - who were all able to get in eventually, we are happy to report - points to the intensity of the food startup scene. Food entrepreneurs stand out as some of the most passionate members of the startup community, a space that is notably intense to begin with.
Perhaps this is because the future these founders are shaping is growing ever closer. Perhaps it is because they feel keenly how important it is.
One common theme among all of the founders at Think&Act: The Future of Food was a passion for the ethical implications of their work. In the first post in this series, we looked at three startups innovating at the in-between: Sourcery, which provides a payments solution tailored to the complexities of the perishable food industry, and Pantry, which offers a next-generation refrigerated kiosk to increase food availability while decreasing real estate overhead, are both driven by a passion for making sustainable food easier to access. Revive Foods, which salvages edible food that would otherwise go to waste, repurposes fruit into jams to keep it out of landfills.
Similarly, when asked about the work they do at Kuli Kuli, cofounder Lisa Curtis wasn’t content to leave it at a description of the benefits of “Moringa Superfood.” Moringa oleifera, according to Curtis, is native to West Africa, and a core part of Kuli Kuli’s business model is sustainable sourcing from the native region, which includes paying fair prices for the nutrition-packed greens and also being careful not to buy out entire harvests. Kuli Kuli wants to bring better nutrition everywhere, but they're determined to do so without depriving the communities that provide it in the first place.
When we talk about the Future of Food, we’re often imagining future-food, like Soylent, or meals delivered in pill form. After all, one of the ways science fiction creators convey the dystopian removal of the futures they project from our own existence is through food, whether the portrayal is one of a near-starvation economy or a posh future in which Taco Bell has gone fancy, where technology offers us exactly what we want (to the point of exhaustion) or utterly fails to do so.
In the second post in this series, we looked at the more futuristic vision for a future of food: Robotic home-cooking solution from Sereneti Kitchen, a smart-kitchen platform from Orange Chef, gluten sensors to keep celiacs safe on the go from 6sensor labs, and soil sensors from FarmX to monitor moisture levels and help farms of all sizes run more efficiently. This is a lot closer to The Jetsons than artisanal jam made from bruised plums, but the food they provide is still pretty recognizable (though maybe if we hooked up Chef Watson…)
Last fall, Time asked sixteen “foodies and futurists” how food will change going forward. Food thought leader Marion Nestle predicted “a two-class food system,” one divided between those who can afford local, sustainable choices and those who will be relegated to “industrialized food produced as cheaply as possible at the expense of its workers and natural resources”, while celebrity food writer Mark Bittman dismissed high-tech food and despaired at a continued dependency on highly processed foods that “barely sustain basic nutrition.” But while a few cynically predicted food dystopia, most of the food thinkers Time questioned looked not to the growth of our current food system’s problems but rather optimistically to the possible outgrowth of trends that have emerged in the last several years: half of the thinkers identified meat as a pivot-point, whether because we’ll all be eating less of it, and that sustainably raised, or because science will have enabled us to grow it in the lab without the material or ethical concerns of feeding and butchering animals.
If you think lab-grown hamburgers sound like the stuff of sci-fi, you’re not alone. If we want to avoid the mass famine many experts predict for our planet before the end of the century, however, we may indeed have to start thinking hard about alternative proteins. Bitty Foods brought cookies to Think&Act made from cricket flour: crickets, dried and ground up, make an incredibly sustainable source of protein.
Food is a particularly intense subject about which to prognosticate, perhaps because it is so fundamental to our existence. This is Case’s real point: I think he’s less interested in rejecting nutritionally-optimized food solutions than the lifestyle choices that go with them. His big takeaway is really that we should make time in our lives, on a regular basis, to eat real, recognizable food.
It just so happens that the realness and deliciousness of food is the main motivator for the startups that presented at Think&Act: The Future of Food. In the words of Revive Foods' Zoe Wong: "it has to taste good. Taste is the first and foremost thing."