Leaps of Faith: How Can Tech Improve Our Food Systems?

Apr 19, 2018

Many thanks to Lorin Fries for the following guest blog:

The stairs had writing on them. “A Compass for the 21st Century Food System,” read one step. “The most innovative food tech event ever,” said another. The landing opened to a room full of young companies buzzing with possibility, discussing robots described as the “WALL-E of farms” and the convenience of a kitchen-top yogurt maker. In the corner, a machine whirled as it printed selfie photos onto cookies on demand.

This was the annual gathering of FoodBytes! San Francisco, a platform created by Rabobank for promising food tech startups to pitch their companies and meet peers, investors and others. I had come here to see where this “compass for the food system” was pointing, and whether these innovative businesses might be part of the solution to some of our toughest global challenges, like nutrition and environmental sustainability. As an expert working on innovative ways to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, I believe that harnessing the power of technology will be essential to achieving the future we want, and that such innovation is too often a missing ingredient.

I started by speaking with Matthew Tolbirt, the CEO of BioFiltro and winner of the FoodBytes! Highly Commended award. BioFiltro is an infrastructure company with a patented water filtration system, and this was their first foray into the food tech space. I was intrigued by the triple revenue streams their approach offered: clean water, natural fertilizer from worm castings, and environmental services that could be monetized such as through the carbon market. “Usually being environmentally friendly doesn’t make financial sense, we just happen to,” Matthew said. “We’re a very practical solution.”

Next, I visited Farmer’s Fridge which had won the FoodBytes! People’s Choice award. “We’re asking you to join us to change the way the world eats,” the company’s founder and CEO, Luke Saunders, had challenged the audience. He described that America’s most convenient food option, after Subway and McDonald’s, is a vending machine. So, the company developed an Internet of Things enabled vending “fridge” selling healthy options like salads. It’s an ambitious and holistic business model, made more complex by the perishability of the product and the values-motivated choices, like recycling, donating and composting, that it integrates. Luke reflected, “If I’m going to build this whole company, it has to be a product I would want.”

I tried a quinoa puff and went to visit its maker, and winner of the FoodBytes! Judges’ Choice award, I Heart Foods. The company has created a variety of quinoa products for the US market, sourcing heirloom varieties of the protein-rich seeds from Bolivia through Fair Trade practices. I asked co-founder Sarah Chalos whether she was trying to impact broader health trends with her products. “Every little bit helps,” she said. “We’re all creating a hurricane through what we talk about and what we do. It’s a flywheel effect.”

These pioneers demonstrate proof of concept for how tech can help change our larger food systems for the better. In view of the looming global water crisis, a chemical-free water filtration system might be a solution in contexts from California to Cape Town. Among urbanizing populations increasingly focused on convenience – including the millions in Asia and Africa – a vending “fridge” selling salad could nudge us towards better health. And in a world beset by climate change, a resilient crop like quinoa can withstand dramatic weather variation, and its increased consumption could offset the environmental footprint of other protein sources, like commercially-produced beef.

But these glimmers of possibility shed light on a broader gap: to truly impact our food systems at scale, we all need to think, act and partner differently at the intersection of technology and development. Rabobank is doing their part: as FoodBytes! founder Manuel Gonzalez put it, “The vision for this platform is to have global impact, but we need to start by increasing the scale and velocity of the most promising startups. To be transformative, we need to take well-measured leaps of faith.”

Such leaps of faith could create a step change for profitable business models, rooted in new technologies, that better nourish our populations while stewarding land, water and forests. For corporations and venture capital firms, that leap means getting more food companies invested in tech, and vice versa. For governments, it means incentivizing tech innovations that advance the social and environmental goals of its populations. And for foundations, international organizations and non-profits, it means recognizing the power of technology – both its promises and risks – and partnering to direct this innovation toward improving the wellbeing of people and our planet.

I came away from FoodBytes! by Rabobank inspired, but vividly aware of the long road from the passions of Silicon Valley’s startup scene to moving the needle on global challenges of our time. May this be some food for thought for the journey.

Lorin Fries is the former Head of Food Systems Collaboration at the World Economic Forum. She works as an independent consultant at the intersection of technology and the Sustainable Development Goals.

About Lorin Fries

Lorin Fries is a results-oriented expert on sustainable business models and inclusive development with experience in leadership roles at the World Economic Forum, Harvard University, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and Save the Children in Uganda. She currently works as an independent consultant with companies, foundations and non-profits, advising on strategy and partnerships at the nexus of technology and the Sustainable Development Goals, with a focus on food systems, climate change and sustainable consumption. Lorin received a Masters in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School.

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