Solving for the Future of Food with Daniel Ruben, Food Tech Advisor

We speak to Daniel Ruben, FoodTech advisor to the Rockefeller Foundation and others, about the future of food. Right off the bat, Daniel points out the consequential role food plays in all our lives. First, he specifies that “today, the number one risk factor for disease, disability, and premature death is poor diets.” This translates to roughly one in five deaths, or over ten million people yearly.

Another main concern for global populations and modern food is the environment. According to Daniel, the current food system utilizes “70 percent of fresh water, half of vegetative land, and is responsible for […] a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions.” To move forward from these pitfalls, Daniel says we must focus on creating a system that is “more nourishing, more environmentally sustainable, and more resilient.”

So what needs solving? In our interviewee’s opinion, these three things: increased productivity in emerging markets, reduction of food waste, and creating diets that are both more sustainable and more nourishing. Luckily, there are a cohort of startups looking to solve these problems.

When asked to name a few, Daniel first mentions Impossible Foods in the US, an initiative to offer plant-based meat proxies. He also signals to work being done optimizing alternatives for animal feed habits, and suggests checking out Netherlands-based Protix for their approach to creating a more circular food system. For a company solving for food waste prevention, he points to Apeel Sciences, also in the US. There are, he says, numerous companies beyond these three hard at work on every facet of the food system.

Daniel’s prediction for the future of food is, in short, technology. He specifies increased automation, more sophisticated AI and data capabilities, and agricultural systems that will incorporate satellites, drones, and more. These tech aspects, paired with cultural shifts in food habits and alternative diets, are on the horizon of our current global food systems.

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Morten Seja
Economic Growth Adviser
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Highlights from this article

When we built the modern food system, it's really all about eradicating hunger and under nourishment and famines. And, we were largely successful. So even though the population increased two and a half times between 1960 and today we increased, food production and yields much faster, but we optimize the food system for cheap calories, meaning that we didn't focus on feeding, nourishing people, but actually feeding people calories. And that's meant that today, the number one risk factor for disease, disability and premature death, is, poor diets. So one in five deaths, 10 million people each year. And that's, cardiovascular disease, high BMI, high blood pressure, certain forms of stroke and cancer, all diet related.

We have all the environmental issues where the food system uses 70% of fresh water, half of vegetative land, it's responsible for maybe a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions. there's the w our relationship with animals, the way we race livestock and animals for food, which, triggers pandemics. So there's a lot of issues with the food system and a lot of innovators and entrepreneurs are trying to solve these through innovation and, leveraging technology, to make the food system more nourishing, more environment, environmentally sustainable, and more resilient.

We need to reduce post-harvest food loss and food waste. So 30% of the food grown in poor countries don't reach the consumers. And in rich countries, 30% of food boxes is discarded, not eaten. And we need to shift diets towards diets. There are more nourishing and more environmentally sustainable.

I'm really excited about what I'm seeing in the alternative protein space and can be anything really from plant-based foods cell-based or lab grown foods, but also alternative animal feeds alternatives to say soy and fishmeal. so one example of course, is impossible foods with our plant-based burgers. And what's exciting about them is that they're doing a very good job mimicking the whole experience of animal sourced meat. So the price that tastes convenience, everything. and there are many other plant-based, companies in the sort of meat, dairy, and egg space that are growing everywhere. Another example, is alternative animal feeds. instead of using soy and fishmeal startups are working on things like algae, single cell proteins, algae as a way of feeding animals and doing so in a more sustainable way.

Protix in the Netherlands. they can source things like food waste, old fruits and vegetables. the insects will eat this and then the insects can be fed to egg laying hands, for example. So you have a more circular, circular food system. In another example, in the food waste space, which is exciting, I think it's, Apeel sciences from California. They developed this, invisible coding around fruits and vegetables. It's organic. It's transparent. It doesn't taste anything, but it increases the shelf life of fruits and vegetables. Two, three, four X. So basically, slowing down the process whereby the fruit or vegetable, dehydrates and stopping air from coming in and thus reducing the need for plastics to protect the fruits and vegetables, and also increased in shelf life.

So we'll see more automation, we'll see, send source, AI and data and machine learning. we'll see a lot more systems that will help farmers to 📍 understand what's going on from satellites to drones, to sensory stick in the ground. Automation and drones that can help, with, reducing, pesticides and herbicides. So that can actually target, the weeds, and also reduce the need for farm labor. this labor is really hard, especially the high touch crops, like strawberries and peppers and so on. can be expensive to have foreign labor. It can be tough work, and also, hard to get farm labor with COVID.

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