With AI and other disruptive technologies approaching our food system, the future of personalized nutrition is just around the corner. We can now debate about whether we need personalized meal plans in our lives, robot coffee makers, and blockchain-based transparency apps. On March 13th, the past TFF Ambassador Henry Gordon-Smith joined the “Future of Eating” panel at the South by Southwest (SXSW) event held in Austin, Texas.

At SXSW 2019 (photo credits: SXSW)
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Henry Gordon-Smith is the Founder and Managing Director of Agritecture Consulting and is co-organizing the AgLanta Conference on April 14-15, 2019 in Atlanta where TFF Founder and CEO Christine will be a keynote speaker. Below Henry shares some of his key takeaways from the panel at SXSW which he joined together with Max Elder (Research Director of the Institute for the Future (IFTF)), Art Markman (Professor at Psychology-University of Texas and Director of the IC² Institute), and the moderator Robyn Metcalfe (Founder of Food+City).

There is a broad consensus that, to be healthy, we should all be eating more fruits and vegetables, and eat less meat. These two recommendations, if followed, will have a massive positive impact on our health and our planet. However, currently living in an urban world with modern medicine, we have lost the connection that we used to have between nature, food and wellness. Technology could be used as a bridge and as an incentive to reconnect us to food and medicine.

On the contrary, not all of us will like the idea of being confined to personalized meals. Eating strikes deeply in people’s identity. For some, there are trust and privacy concerns. Health is not just physical, but also mental. If we can align the choices that we make with our values and our identity, we can create mental health along with physical health. Technology can be used to intermediate our consumption, and help us make more nutritious food decisions for ourselves – to enable us to both live our identity and also have enjoyable experiences in food.

Takeaway 1: The future of eating should be human centered but is at risk from technology

The application of technology helps optimize our food system. However, there are certain characteristics of the nature of food that cannot be replicated by machines or robots. First of all, the sensual experiences of food cannot be fully replaced.

“As humans and organic matter, we learn to taste things, and we need the sensual experience in order to understand what is palatable,” Max Elder, Research Director of the Institute for the Future (IFTF), said at the SXSW panel organized by Food+City.

Additionally, the social dining experience is difficult to replicate even with modern technology. Are you one of those people who need to have your smartphone on the dinner table? When was the last time you were fully present for your family for a meal gathering? In our society today, constantly being on our smartphones can be a distraction to our social lives, and we can lose the personal interactions with our families and loved ones.

The concern is that the same can happen with too much automation around food. As humans, we can negotiate with technology and automation without having to replace every aspect of food with technology. We need to think about the internal values that we want to set for ourselves and create our own ethical structure around how we use technology. Therefore, we should be thinking about “what design principles to embed in the technologies that are being developed today in order to create a more delicious, social dining experience for tomorrow,” as Max Elder suggested.

The consumption choices that we make are a reflection of the values that we have on the world. Technology should be created and used to support and add value to people’s goals, needs, and desires. After identifying the important values around food and the various tradeoffs associated with the application of technology in our food system, we can then find ways that technology can enhance our food experiences – robots are not always the answer. As Art Markman, Professor at Psychology-University of Texas, Director of the IC² Institute said: “people come first, then the technology second”.

Takeaway 2: The future of eating needs local agriculture

As smart cities are rapidly growing and emerging, it is important for our food systems to be integrated into those cities, and to create a circular economy. Affordable housing is an issue regarding one of the basic human needs, as well as food. We are seeing a rapid decline of rural environments and the livelihood potentials in those areas. Often, these areas around the cities have the flattest, arable lands which are being destroyed as we urbanize.

We should be protecting these peri-urban areas, and allowing housing and agriculture to develop there – together. We can’t talk about affordable housing without talking about affordable food. We should educate cities to plan for agriculture and create spaces that get people closer to the production of the food that they eat. Or, as Art Markman put it:

“This creates an appreciation not just for the food itself, but also for the resources used to produce that food and the degree to which the economy needs to be circular in order to continue the production of healthy food.”


Takeaway 3: The future of eating needs to be equitable

As we think about the roles that technology can play in the future of eating, we need to encourage the role it can play in the sustainability of food and the supply chain. To support that, we can start by seeking areas where we can contribute and give those areas the support that they need from technology. We need a value-based approach not only to food but of society. “Food systems and economic/political/environmental systems are not distinct,” Max concluded. “How we want these markets to operate – is what we should be thinking about.”

To strengthen the urban food system, we need to encourage diversity in a smart way. We should give additional support to smaller farms and marginalized communities by providing incentives to grow a product that compliments the food system in terms of crop types, nutrition, and affordability. In a capitalist world, it is very difficult to create innovation without any motive to be rewarded – even in the food space.

“To balance the approach, we need to figure out where we need innovations so that market forces will lead people to want to create innovations, and where the profit motive is not in a drive for people to do things that are not in the best interest of society and the planet,” said Art Markman.

In order to create a more equitable food system, we should first listen to the needs of those communities, and then ask ourselves: How does technology influence the way you interact with food?

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