How a 1960s cartoon predicted the future of food

Sharon Natoli loves food. Which is just as well when she makes her living as an author and speaker specialising in the food and beverage industry.

At a recent event held by St.George Bank at urban farm, Cultivate, which is based in the Sydney CBD, Natoli spoke about the future of food and some of the challenges processors, retailers and manufacturers face.

Her first point was that the future – in general – is coming faster and faster. The Human Knowledge Curve has shown that in 1900 humanity’s knowledge was doubling every 100 years. In 1945, the rate was doubling every 25 years. By 1982 it was down to approximately one year. Today, it is estimated that what humans know is doubling every day, while deep learning platform IBM Watson predicts that our knowledge will double every 12 hours by 2020. What is driving this alarming rate of change?

“It is around data collection,” said Natoli. “The fact is that every day that we use our laptop, our phone, we buy things, and we click purchase things online. We use our credit cards, that’s data that is being collected all the time. Wearables, sensors – so much technology around us, and so much data to collect. The key is keeping up with the rate of knowledge that is happening in terms at which it is doubling.”

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And with all these changes starting to occur, it is important that food and beverage businesses don’t get caught ‘sheep walking’ – a term that Natoli said is similar to sleep walking, except people are wandering around with their eyes open.

“We have our eyes open and we are conscious, but it is hard to see the future coming at us because we are surrounded by the status quo,” she said. “If we get caught sheep walking, then it is harder for us to innovate and keep up.”

She gives the example of French yoghurt manufacturer Yoplait, who up until 2015 was the number one brand in the United States. Over a few years it lost 33 per cent of its market share, with 23 per cent of that coming within one year. The equated to about $500 million in revenue. What happened? A rival read the future.

“Chobani came along with a better tasting yoghurt, a lower sugar yoghurt – the kind of things consumers were looking for at that time, and so they took a large chunk of that market share away.”

However, one topic that Natoli covered could have consequences for food processors – 3D printing. Back in the 1960s the cartoon television series The Jetsons had the Foodarackacycle, a device that, with the press of a button, would produce food for the family. Fifty years later, similar technology is coming to fruition with the Foodini.

“Foodini is a 3D printer that enables us to serve food, freshly printed,” said Natoli. “It is a smart kitchen appliance using 3D printing technology that enables us to personalise our food. Not only the amount, but a personalised nutritional profile of the food, and we can personalise the way that it looks.

“It is also attractive to health-conscious people because it puts food production in the hands of the consumer. You can print things like crackers, wraps and pizza bases – some of the things you would usually buy prepared from the supermarket.”

With the future fast approaching, it would be easy to put your head in the sand and say “it’s all too much”, especially as Natoli has already stated, our knowledge is almost doubling every day. However, she also said there are three “plates that need spinning” if the food and beverage manufacturers are going to keep ahead of the knowledge curve. They are: what do you need to keep? What are things that these companies need to keep up with? What do they want to create?

When she talks about what companies need to keep, it is more about their legacy, their history – it is about a company’s culture, both past, present and looking to the future.
Probably the most important of the three “spinning plates”, is keeping up with trends, something that could be argued Yoplait failed to do when it lost its market share in the US. There are lots of trends and different businesses need to keep up with them, said Natoli. She said there are three areas of macro trends that will be relevant to the food and beverage industry.

“The first is this rising rebellion,” she said. “What we are finding is that we have the means and the motivation more than ever to stand up for the things we believe in. We are seeing a power shift from organisations and institutions through to individuals. And this is being shown a Colmar Brunton’s Millennium Monitor. What they monitor is Australia’s changing social sentiment. What they have found, is we are moving from an era of conformity where we had trust in institutions and organisations, through to this rebellious era. What we are valuing is empowerment and individual responsibility and taking on change ourselves.”
This is leading some food and beverage brands to adopt a rebellious approach, such as the likes of Soul Fresh, which owns the brand The Milk Thief.

“They’re saying, ‘we’re a movement, not a corporation’. They are saying they are a disruptor of the status quo versus doing what we’ve always done,” said Natoli. “They’re focussed on creating healthier and better foods for consumers instead of focussing on delivering foods and beverages at the lowest cost possible.”

The second macro trend is the idea of getting more from less. This is around the intersection between disquiet about the state of the environment, combined with consumers concern about their personal health. It’s about growing things with less impact on the environment but also being healthy. She cites the example of Mike Lee from US-based Alpha Food Labs, who is looking at the biodiversity of the supermarket shelf. Natoli said he has flipped things on its head. Usually, when it comes to new product ideas, it is marketing or product development people who come up with new concepts and go out and tell the farmers, or the suppliers, to grow this or produce that.

“What Alpha Labs is doing is turning that around and going out to the farmers and saying, ‘what are you growing? What is good for the soil? What is in season?’ and then the company takes that and makes a product from it. It is the opposite of what we would usually do from a food production perspective,” she said. “They want people to see that these products are not just made from wheat, rice and oats, but they are made from things like lentils, fava beans and moringa powder, millet – all kinds of different grains and that is a way to introduce biodiversity into the food chain.”

The final part in the macro trend equation is the expectations that people have when it comes to what they are consuming. Natoli said they have high expectations of food producers as well as high expectations from their food.

“This is where transparency and knowing where your food comes from – who made it, what’s in it – comes in,” she said. “Also the use of technology in terms of things like augmented reality, where you can scan a barcode of a product and find out the story behind it. Also around health and wellbeing and how we can really improve it through what we eat.

“Companies like Habitoir, which is a US company that takes some of the insights around genetic testing, and develops personalised nutrition plans that meet peoples’ expectations around how food can deliver better health to them.”

Natoli also believes that even though there is a lot of automation, robotics, artificial intelligence and augmented reality creeping into the food processing and manufacturing space, there is still room for human interaction. Some companies even make it part of their marketing plan.

“Harris Farm, they often put themselves forward – like one of the brothers Tristan Harris – as commentators,” she said. “They put a face to the brand. It gives it that human element.”
And getting back to her point about the rebellious disruption going on, The Havas Media Group recently completed a survey that involved 300,000 consumer and 1,500 brands across 33 countries. What it found was that brands that are more meaningful outperform the stock market by double over a 10-year period. Being meaningful meant contributing to the collective well-being of society.

“Overall the future is coming at us quite rapidly and we don’t want to get caught sheep walking. We have to be really future ready. If we can spin those three plates together at the same time, then that is going to help us navigate in this decade of disruption. Many a false move was made by standing still, so whatever you do, just don’t stand still.

“It is really great for food businesses to have the opportunity to come together, to network, and connect, particularly over a meal. To create those social connections over food and to share their ideas and learnings.

“I think the way of the future is really about collaboration and so an event like this that St.George has put on is really beneficial for helping to do that.”