Sweden FoodTech Founder, Johan Jörgensen, Says Hard Data Will Save Food Systems

 

Picture a few happy piglets running around, a rough hand grabbing soil, a cheerful grandmother stirring a bubbling pot on the stove. Are these the images you have of agricultural life? Well, the true picture is a less pastoral dream and more Grim Reaper—a death symbol we have summoned through industrial food processes.

If this sounds dramatic, revisit the numbers:

  • The World Health Organization cites 38 million deaths each year due to chronic disease, primarily caused by poor food habits.
  • Thirty percent of all greenhouse gases come from food production (meat production being the main culprit).
  • Over the last 40 years, rampant soil degradation from intensive farming has diminished arable land by one-third.
  • One-third of all food we produce is wasted.
  • By 2050, two-thirds of humanity will live in cities. We will need to produce 60 percent more food than today, and ship it even longer distances (unless we stop wasting food).

 

Food stands hand-in-hand with climate change as the vital issue of our time. It is hard to know where to begin, but a good start is debunking faux images of agricultural idealism and accepting the realities of the food system we’ve created. Simply buying organic or eating clean does not change the system. We need to get under the hood, understand the machine, and rebuild it. We have the extensive powers of tech and data at our disposal.

To understand the sweeping changes that food will undergo in the coming decades, we need to understand the dynamics underpinning the transformation. For the past 25 years, tech has invaded almost all aspects of life, changing them forever. However, food is a stale industry.

This doesn’t mean the food sector is immune to disruption, just that it has taken more time for tech to get there. Food is, after all, complex. But since the prize is bigger than anything we’ve ever seen before—food accounts for some 20 percent of the global GDP—the pace of change will be frantic now that the transformation has begun. Global-scale problems, a prize worth potential trillions, and a sector that doesn’t recognize its own problems? An opportunity like this merits grand investment, major risk-taking, and intense work.

The food sector is ripe for takeover. On average, a measly .25 percent of food-company turnover goes to R&D, whereas the tech sector is used to 50 to 100 times as much. From the nutritional components of the field, to how the tomato on our plate travelled, to what it will do to our bodies, the game changer will be hard data. There are lots of holes in the data and much of what exists is locked in.

Would price be the number one determinant for what we put in our shopping carts if we understood the true cost to the planet? What if labels included not only price, nutrition facts, and ingredients, but also the labor conditions and CO2 emissions required to produce the product? We can actually eat the planet and ourselves to health—but we need to rely on data and the new solutions it dictates. Data will be to food what broadband has been to media. In the early ’90s we could imagine many of the things we now see, but we couldn’t deliver the solutions due to a lack of broadband. Now, we can envision new solutions for our food system, but we need the data. And the tech sector will get it, in one way or the other.

”We can actually eat the planet and ourselves to health—but we need to rely on data and the new solutions it dictates.”

What does all this have to do with Sweden and the U.S.? Everything. While the U.S. could learn something from the Nordic focus on health and sustainability, both countries are leaders in innovation and technology. Whether through new urban-farming solutions, food products such as Impossible Foods or Oatly, or networks of home chefs, the next generation—change-minded populations ready and willing to reconnect with food in new ways—will focus on food, tech, and innovation in urban environments.

As I write, Swedish tech circuits are turning their focus to food. In the U.S., substantial well-funded activity is underway. Food tech companies are popping up left and right in both nations. We have a mutual understanding of both the problems and potential solutions. The food of the future is not a cuisine; it’s the understanding of what food does to us and the planet, and the use of tech and innovation to solve the problems.

Johan is the founder of Sweden FoodTech (swedenfoodtech.com), a coaching and venture company focused on building the next generation of food-system entrepreneurs. He is also partner of Smaka på Stockholm, one of the world’s largest food festivals. In 2015, Johan headed up the USA Pavilion innovation program on food and tech at Expo 2015 in Milan.

 

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