Correction Applied Tuesday, June 9.
When you think of food, you probably don’t think of technology. However, technology has played a major role in the food world, whether it was taking farming from oxen-led plowing to tractor based harvesting to today’s discovery’s of natural pest controls to the controversial bioengineering of food. Technology, especially things like social networks and services like Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, Yelp, OpenTable and Table 8 has had a big impact on the food industry and there are thousands of food blogs covering just about any related topic one could think of.
This past week, there was a fascinating conference held at the San Francisco 49ers' stadium called Bite Silicon Valley, organized by Octagon Culinary that discussed the intersection of food and technology. Various chefs and industry speakers on the program talked about the major issues facing the food industry and more importantly, the real concern over how, by 2050, we'll be able to feed a planet of 9 billion people.
The conference was held in Silicon Valley because the food industry and tech industry have started to intersect and companies like Google and Yahoo have major research projects related to the future of food. Many Sand Hill Road venture capitalists have placed major bets on various food technology and services. As a couple of venture capitalists at the event told me, food-related start-ups fit into their sustainability portfolios, alongside solar, energy or electric cars because they have the potential to positively impact our world.
The goal of some of these VC investors is to connect restaurants with food providers, or to create on-demand delivery services from local farms, or ready-to-cook dinner kits. Other goals I have been told about are to invent new foods, like creating cheese, meat and egg substitutes from plants. One of the companies that venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, Bill Gates and Biz Stone have invested in is Beyond Meat. It was there giving tastings of its new plant-based Beast Burgers and beef crumbles. I tasted the Beast Burger and it's one of the best plant-based burgers I have ever eaten. According to Tim Geistlinger, VP of research and development at the company, "the Beast Burger is not trying to be a meat substitute. It is designed to become a new type of protein-rich food product that does not use soy or have any GMO products in them but could be used as a meat substitute for the center of one’s plate.”
Beyond Meat believes there is a better way to feed the planet. Geistliner said that the "mission is to create mass-market solutions that perfectly replace animal protein with plant protein." It is "also dedicated to improving human health, positively impacting climate change, conserving natural resources and respecting animal welfare." This captures well the thinking of Bill Gates and other Valley tech investors who have identified with this vision.
Another company with similar goals is Impossible Foods. This company has raised $75 million from VCs so far and like Beyond Meat. Its quest is to create a plant-based meat substitute with high protein that could be used to feed people all over the world.
According to CB Insights, in 2012, VCs and others invested $350 million into food tech companies or projects, and that amount is rising about 37% every year. With all this Silicon Valley investment, especially in companies trying to create meat alternatives, it seems that this has become one of the tech world’s next holy grails.
The event included two days of tastings from local chefs and as a food event it was spectacular. But the event’s more noble purpose was to get the food and tech world talking about the serious issue of world hunger and the challenge of feeding the planet in the future.
One of the big messages that came from the conference is that there are significant environmental consequences and health issues associated with eating too much red meat, sodium or sugar and sugar substitutes, and while world hunger is a major problem, so is obesity in many places around the world. They had some great sessions about “What are we doing to enable to the planet to feed 9 billion people by 2050," as well as sessions titled "the Challenge of Food Waste" and a “Renewed Debate about GMO’s.”
The keynote speaker at the event was Chef José Andrés, who TIME named to its 100 most influential people in 2012. Andrés has become an activist in the food industry to get folks who work in food to find ways to deal with the world hunger challenge. He has also put his money where his mouth is, investing in the World Central Kitchen. Its website states that "World Central Kitchen is hard at work 'empowering the people' to be part of the solution – with focus on building 'smart kitchens,' training on clean cookstoves, creating jobs, and strengthening local business." Andrés spends around six weeks a year devoted to these types of projects and said he came to this event to challenge Silicon Valley executives to join the food industry’s quest to deal with the massive issue of feeding a hungry world.
Andrés gets very animated and passionate when he talks about one serious problem he sees that he believes we must deal with immediately. He said that at least 3 billion people in the world still cook using stones and wood fires. The smoke from these fires causes all kinds of health issues including cancer, cataracts and asthma and impacts the women and children who do most of the cooking for the family’s daily meal. It also impacts the girls in the family who spend up to three hours a day gathering the wood or fuel for the fire, sometimes in hostile areas where many have been attacked. He has become a chief advocate for what he calls “clean cook-stoves” and has backed the use of solar stoves and less harmful fuels to be used in these villages and towns where people's only form of cooking is fire and smoke.
I spoke with Andrés after his keynote and he told me that “he strongly believes in the power of food as a change agent” and he is devoted to making the food world a serious contributor to being a major part of providing a solution for these particular world problems. While Silicon Valley has some investments in this area, it needs to do more in the way of actual financing of new food tech companies and do extended research in this area with goals that are aligned with Andrés and others who understand the magnitude of this problem and how it will affect the worlds future. Silicon Valley is known for its exceptional problem solving skills and I certainly hope that the tech execs who heard Chef Andrés' plea will join him and others in the food industry to help deal with this massive world problem.
Tim Bajarin is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists, covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Mr. Bajarin is the President of Creative Strategies, Inc. and has been with the company since 1981 where he has served as a consultant providing analysis to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry.
Correction: This article originally misstated the company behind the Beast Burger. It is Beyond Meat.