Out of “clothing, food, and shelter,” the basic elements of life, “food” is probably the most important to live. Humans cannot sustain life or even move without food.
However, food has a meaning for humans that goes beyond sustenance for life. It is a part of the richness of life, a medicine that maintains health, an expression of values for vegetarians, and an important element that shapes religions and cultures (Fig. 1). In recent years, food, which is so important for humans, has faced various problems. These include food crises in developing nations, food loss, food safety, and a lack of food producers.
In view of the circumstances surrounding food, there is a growing movement to achieve richer and more sustainable food production, supply, and consumption by utilizing the latest technologies. Here, we will explain the technological development movement called “food tech” that is pursuing a new way of thinking about food.
Technological advances are accelerating food production industrialization
Food tech is a combination of “food” and “technology.” When we think of industries related to food, many people think of things such as agriculture, food processing industries, and restaurants. Until now, these industries have tended to be regarded as somewhat alienated from the latest technologies. However, in reality, they have become excellent application fields for technologies such as ICT, robots, and biotechnology. One after another, companies are actively introducing such technology to improve food production efficiency, create functional foods, streamline distribution and consumption, respond to diversified consumer needs, and eliminate labor shortages.
One of the factors that have brought food tech to the forefront is the evolution of technology to treat ingredients and foods as industrial products based on science and technology (Fig. 2). Much of the food handled in the food industry is alive. Naturally, each individual item is different, with a state that changes over time. For this reason, unlike industrial products such as electronics and automobiles, which can be standardized and mass-produced with stable quality, it was difficult for manufacturers to handle them, as their development and production could not be precisely controlled. For example, robots in the past could not even do tasks that humans could easily do, such as grabbing and arranging uneven, soft strawberries.
Advances in information processing technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), which extracts meaningful trends from diverse groups of individuals, technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), which allows us to understand and analyze individual differences, and biotechnology, which allows us to manage and control the properties of animals and plants, have enabled us to take a different approach to industrializing food.
In addition, the enormous scale and continuing growth of the food industry is a factor in the focus on food tech. According to the Policy Research Institute, Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, the global food and beverage market is expected to grow 1.5 times from 890 trillion yen in 2015 to 1,360 trillion yen by 2030. Because the application market is huge and expected to grow further, there is an opportunity to invest heavily in developing technologies that solve the challenges inherent in the market and to create new value. Some countries have established policies that support food tech as a growth industry. In Japan, the Council for Public-Private Partnership in Food Technology was established in 2020 by the government in collaboration with industry, academia, and government to promote food tech solutions and initiatives.
Aiming to eliminate food crises and food losses through food tech
What kinds of technology are being utilized to solve social issues related to food and to create value? The following is a summary of initiatives in two typical areas.
First, measures to combat food crises. In 2050, the world's total population is expected to have increased by about 30% of what it is today. It is clear that the demand for food will increase in line with this. In addition, there are concerns that climate change due to global warming will make it impossible to harvest crops in places that were previously suitable for cultivation. Among the SDGs, the second goal is to “Zero Hunger.”
To solve these problems, biotechnology is being used to develop cultured meat by layering sheets cultivated from animal cells and molding them with 3D printers, and to develop crop varieties that grow under harsh conditions with high yields. In addition, new technologies for agriculture and fisheries, such as plant factories and onshore fisheries that have artificial growing environments, are already being put into practical use. By extending these technologies, we are not only increasing yields, but also unlocking the potential inherent in animal and plant genes to make foods that contain many ingredients that are effective in promoting human health.
The second is the elimination of food loss. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), about one-third of the food in the entire food supply chain, from agricultural production to consumption, is discarded for a variety of reasons, amounting to about 1.3 billion tons per year. In Japan, where food quality is particularly demanding, there is a business practice that promotes loss as a result of what is known as the “one-third rule.” In this rule, the delivery- and sell-by dates are determined by dividing the period from the manufacturing date to the expiration date by three, and the product is discarded after each period. Currently, the Japanese government is working to correct this practice. The SDGs also set the goal of halving per capita food waste at the retail and consumption levels and reducing food loss in the production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses, by 2030.
Advanced food chain management utilizing RFID tags and IoT is the key to solving food loss. The aim is to clearly understand the distribution history of each food product, and to make it easier to respond flexibly by turning it into a raw material for processed foods when the best-by date of fresh foods approaches. If these methods can be implemented, we can also achieve traceability that will help ensure food safety, such as preventing the falsification of places of origin, tracking foreign substances, including additives and allergens, and halal compliance.
To effectively practice food chain management, information sharing across countries, industries, and companies is required. Japan is also making progress in building an information infrastructure that meets these demands. First, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries constructed the information infrastructure “Agricultural Data Collaboration Platform (WAGRI)” that consolidates information for effective and efficient agricultural production. The plan is to build an information system called “smart food chains” (Fig. 3) that aim to improve the efficiency of food chain management by combining information infrastructures that aggregate and share information starting with the smart upstream food chain, to midstream processing and distribution, and then downstream sales and consumption. This will enable optimal management of the food chain across industries and sectors, including the formulation of production and work plans based on consumer behavior, and the selection of optimal collection and delivery routes based on production information, orders, and inventory information.
In addition to the two areas introduced here, there are a variety of other initiatives related to food tech, such as technology that uses expertise in chemistry to control the flavor and texture of food at the molecular level, and robotics technology that automates the production and processing of food by reproducing the five human senses, such as touch. In various areas included in the scope of food tech, the use of cutting-edge technologies such as ICT is expected to continue into the future.