GFAR blog, Research in society

Embracing the Future of Food on #WFD2018

Mission map
The itinerary of the 60-day Food Innovation Global Mission 2018

GFAR Secretariat welcomed 4 bright young researchers on the occasion of World Food Day to share their fascinating findings on what some cutting-edge food technologies and innovations mean for our future.

Last April, GFAR Secretariat had the pleasure of welcoming, at FAO Headquarters in Rome, a delegation of 16 researchers about to embark on a world tour examining the future of food and food-related technologies—the Food Innovation Global Mission. Their mission took place from 12th May to 12th July, organized by the Future Food Institute (FFI). A Partner in GFAR, FFI is a leader in learning about food innovation, working to inspire and empower individuals, companies and communities to improve economic prosperity, world sustainability and human health by rethinking food.

The young talents who took part in this two-month mission visited major food hubs of the world, including USA, Canada, Europe, China, Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand and India. By exploring the vast international communities of scientists, entrepreneurs, industries impacting culture, economies, societies and environments around the world, FFI student-researchers become better prepared to innovate the food system. The program is a second level international Master’s on Food Innovation managed by UNIMORE, the Future Food Institute and the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto.

From left to right: Julia Dalmadi (Agro innovations in Smart Cities researcher, Hungary), Anusha Murthy (Future of Proteins researcher, India), Simona Grande (Academic Tutor)Future Food Institute, Italy), Ashleigh Forster (Future of Food Services researcher, South Africa), and Elizabeth Yorke (Sustainability and Circular Systems researcher, India)

Today, on World Food Day, some of the young student-researchers returned to FAO to present their findings from their Global Mission in a very stimulating session. They made recommendations on which innovations should be explored further and scaled up, as well as which behaviors and practices need to change, in order to reach a sustainable future for food. 002 Anusha, Ashleigh, Elizabeth and Julia—hailing from three continents themselves—gave very engaging presentations on their respective areas of focus, complete with examples of start-ups, research centers, ‘fablabs’ and producers that are actively innovating in food today. Equipped with a deeper understanding of sustainable nutrition, new technologies and innovations in the food sector, the researchers will contribute their findings to four FFI books, each covering one of the four topics covered during the Global Mission:Food Shapers books

Agro-Innovation in Smart Cities

Julia Dalmadi spoke about what the cities of the future could offer in a world where, by 2050, two-thirds of the global population will be living in urban settings. Recent food movements have been giving rise to various ways of engaging with food, and citizens taking responsibility for the food that they consume.

Hong Kong could grow more food on its rooftops than in its fields!

Recognizing that all cities have unique needs, Julia pointed out that there are some best practices worth noting, which will guide future trends. She spoke to the need for building social capital (education, community building, producer empowerment); engaging in intentional intermediation (digital supply/demand management, connecting farmers to consumers, online farm sales); repurposing urban spaces (multipurpose space use, revitalizing-reusing); reconnecting to the origin (sourcing ingredients from nature, indoor farming, urban farming); and adopting regenerative agriculture (soil regeneration, urban beekeeping, environmental stewardship).

 The Future of Protein

future of protein Anusha Murthy took us on a journey through novel industries all over the world striving to offer alternative protein sources that are affordable, tasty and convenient. From a plant-based egg alternative, to a sushi supplier trying to get that perfect fishy texture, to the “Impossible Burger“, the ways to entice meat-hungry consumers are endless. C-FU Foods is even trying its hand at insect-based bolognese sauce, well aware that the best way to appeal to our palettes is by reproducing the foods we already know.

“Protein is a fuel, but meat is an emotion.”

Anusha also looked at industry transition that could allow us to sustainably raise animals with innovative farming systems and by using alternative animal feed.

Food Service and Food Care

Ashleigh Forster’s research focus led her to the conclusion that food service is about Time, Trust and Communication. Google, known to be on top of the innovation game in so many areas, is also keenly aware that good, nutritious food should be available whenever our busy schedules permit. Which is why at Google, employees can find fresh dishes served straight through business hours. At Soufi’s in Toronto, a restaurant run by Syrian refugees, diners are reassured, “Our family is your family, so come on in and let us take care of you!”


Circular Systems

“Don’t waste your food, or the rice will cry.”

Circular systems are a response to the current unsustainable model of “take, make, dispose”. These systems are designed to minimize waste, energy use and emissions, while maintaining profit margins. Elizabeth Yorke presented start-ups aimed at accomplishing these goals: resilient human networks, processes that reverse the flow of materials and short food supply chains. An intriguing example of this last is Dabbawallas in Mumbai, a lunchbox delivery and return system that delivers hot lunches from homes and restaurants to people at work. The service dates from 1890 and still uses zero technology today: no paper, no high-tech containers, no carbon emissions for delivery. It’s a simple and elegant solution that reminds us that technology may not always be the best option.


Engaging first-hand with entrepreneurs and food shapers working at the small, local scale brought home to Elizabeth the importance of encouraging them to persevere. Often they can underestimate the potential uptake and impact of their innovations, but the future isn’t all about food tech. Especially in developing countries, the simpler the innovation, the easier it is to adopt and expand.

Food Innovation in the context of CFS

After the presentations, Mark Holderness of GFAR invited the researchers and attendees to open a wider discussion, asking what they would tell policymakers in attendance this week at the Committee on World Food Security (CFS). An important question, as scaling up any innovation to the national or global scale requires the buy-in of governments.

The researchers expressed their hope that policymakers would understand the urgency of changing the way we think about food, since environmental and population pressures demand immediate action. Simona Grande of FFI stressed that education is the starting point, the younger the better. Getting school programs in place that teach children the definition of sustainability and respect for food is key. The power of good food to build social capital—to bring us together and provide a shared identity—must be instilled early on. She pointed to the Green Bronx Machine as an excellent example of an initiative that is building healthy, equitable, and resilient communities by going into low-performing schools and educating students about the value of healthy and sustainable food.

Names, tags and labels—whether on the package or the terms we use for a novel food—are also important. This is most apparent in the case of future proteins. If meat eating has been looked upon as a status symbol throughout history, what status will plant- and fungi-based meat substitutes confer? How can we reassure consumers that meat grown in a lab is worth trying and worth buying? Anusha Murthy summed up the issue well: “Scientifically the tissue is meat, but culturally, it’s not.” Regulation of quality controls and packaging will be crucial.005But perhaps the most relevant consideration for policymakers would simply be the potential of future foods to get us to zero hunger. Ashleigh Forster reminded that for most of the world, the priority is getting food on the table at the lowest possible cost. So how can we promote products and processes that are attractive in the developing world and make the right fit in local contexts? How can we make them affordable?

This point triggered a vibrant exchange about the myriad factors to consider when trying to scale an innovation up and out. While the developed world can invest in  impossible burgers and rooftop gardens, colleagues at FAO reminded us that hunger, malnutrition, climate change and conflict disproportionately affect the Global South. These challenges must be addressed in tandem with any attempt to innovate food in developing countries. Smallholder farmers, who make up the vast majority of the 570 million farms in the world, need to be incentivized to adopt new technologies and practices.

A parallel observation is that while cities will be home to nearly 70% of the world’s population by 2050, cities will never be able to become fully self-sustainable. The scale of the task of feeding another 2 billion people is too great to rely either on urban farming or on imports of smallholders’ produce. Sustainable large-scale food production will be an imperative.

As one participant in the meeting highlighted, the future of food and the future of food systems are two distinct visions. Food entrepreneurs start with a concept of the product they want to create, and then work backwards to identify all the pieces they need to create a self-contained value chain to produce it. Farmers generally set out to cultivate crops that they are already familiar with, and must link with a whole range of people to purchase inputs, get advice on when, where and what to plant, and deliver their produce to markets. Then that produce can be processed and packaged into almost limitless food products. This complex food system is more global every day, and makes us all interdependent. In fact, FFI is planning to delve into these questions with their researchers next year, when the Food Innovation Global Mission is expanded further into the Global South.

The extensive GFAR network of partners offers many opportunities for the questions around the future of food to be explored further. One particularly interesting avenue of inquiry is foresighting: Which foods will people wish to consume in the future? What future do farmers and producers themselves wish to see, and can we get there through alternative crops and new food technologies?

One thing is for certain: the future of food is a tantalizing topic!

Blogpost by Charles Plummer, GFAR Secretariat

Further reading (Italian language): Blog post by Sara Roversi, Founder of Future Food Institute and Head of the Food Innovation Global Mission. 

One of the promising young researchers involved in this year’s Global Mission will soon be seconded to GFAR Secretariat, to foster knowledge sharing on advances in food technologies and their implications within the GFAR community.

From left to right: Yemi Adeyeye (YPARD Director), Simona Grande, Ashleigh Forster, Julia Dalmadi, Elizabeth Yorke, Anusha Murthy and Mark Holderness (GFAR Executive Secretary)

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s