Innovations in food production, processing and storage have always been part of the landscape, evolving the way people interact with food. Think irrigation and selective breeding, pasteurisation, fermentation, canning, and refrigeration. Innovations will continue to be driven by issues like food security, safety and convenience. That said, our recent unprecedented experience with COVID-19 will no doubt disrupt and drive change in several key areas.
Labour shortages were already problematic in certain areas of food production and processing and border restrictions have further limited labour movement between countries. Combined with consumer preferences for reducing human handling of produce, this could accelerate the rise of automation, speeding the uptake of existing technology, and spurring new applications. Robotic harvesting is one possibility (notably, T&G achieved a world-first commercial robotic apple harvest in 2019). Likewise, automated grading systems that select produce based on a range of attributes, along with automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS), may become more common. Robo chefs, on the other hand, are probably out of the picture for now.
Ecommerce and blockchain
Global lockdowns have driven a massive rise in e-commerce for food supplies. Direct online consumer offerings are now essential for producers and retailers. This will probably continue as sections of the population minimise in-store shopping. Data shared by retailers with food producers and manufacturers will continue to ensure quality products at competitive prices. Increased consumer awareness around food safety and contamination could also spur the move to blockchain, enabling almost instantaneous tracing of supplies. Food giants like Walmart are already working to apply blockchain to their food supply chains.
The pandemic has highlighted weaknesses in global supply chains with shortages experienced in some regions. This has put food security on the agenda for many governments who will increasingly look to support onshore production. New Zealand could easily fix its own supply issues but China couldn’t. As countries resolve their supply issues New Zealand’s food exports could face increased competition. Will concerns around food security prompt an acceleration of innovations in vertical farming and lab-grown meat? Both provide sustainability benefits along with the capacity to provide produce year-round. Additionally, controlled farming systems located close to their markets could appeal to consumers concerned with sustainability, food safety, and minimised product handling.
It is likely consumers will continue to choose foods based on health attributes. This could include food handling as well as products. New technologies that reduce human handling of food may be more rapidly adopted. For example, high-pressure processing (HPP) offers a means of dramatically extending shelf life without chemicals or irradiation while still maintaining the nutritional and taste attributes of foods. Novel food products that deliver health and immunity benefits may also appear on the market, including convenience products with high nutritional content.
The trend towards sustainable packaging is likely to continue with innovations using food waste streams to replace petrochemicals – although safety is also likely to be a feature. And what about the trend towards plant-based proteins? Could this be accelerated by recent events? With the link between COVID-19 and a Wuhan meat market, along with shortages of animal protein in some regions, consumer demand for plant-based proteins could increase. Additionally, economic downturns and tighter household budgets may spur a preference for plant-based proteins.
Professor Richard Newcomb is chief scientist at Plant & Food Research overseeing all aspects of science quality, strategic science, capability development and collaboration across the institute. He is also an honorary professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Auckland.