The Future of Food

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The Evolution of Agriculture

Food has always and will always be an integral part of society. Over the years, humanity has learned to evolve and industrialize food processes to match growing consumption needs. As such, there have been three agricultural revolutions. The First Agricultural Revolution occurred around 10,000 BC and was characterized by the transition from hunting and gathering to farming. People began settling in fixed locations in order to raise livestock and cultivate the land. Next was the Second Agricultural Revolution, which occurred in the 1700’s. In this revolution, farmers began introducing simple machinery such as manual ploughs into their farming practices, and began rotating crops throughout the seasons. The Third Agricultural Revolution, commonly recognized as the “Green Revolution,” began in the 1950’s and is recognized for increasing the global food supply via new technologies such as genetically modified seeds, chemical fertilizers, and commercial irrigation systems. [1] These genetically modified organisms reduced biodiversity as only a few varieties of each crop were produced in masses to feed the population. These crops were also cultivated to be resistant to chemicals such as pesticides and herbicides. Overall, the Green Revolution created controversy with regard to industry domination and anti-competitive practices by multinational corporations. The resulting monoculture continues to produce and distribute high-calorie, low-nutrient food to consumers thousands of miles away. In the present day, society is experiencing the beginning of another agricultural revolution; food processes are changing to adopt smart, connected technologies that will help make farming more efficient. There are hopes that new farming methods will also decrease the reliance on international crops and allow people to consume more local, organic goods.

Cultivating Food: Vertical Farms

A Vertical Farm Infographic.
Vertical Farm Components. [2]

Vertical farms allow crops to be grown inside of city buildings in beds that are stacked vertically. Crops grow in three dimensions, therefore maximizing the efficiency of the land, as opposed to the traditional two-dimensional farming techniques that have existed for centuries in fields. The enclosed buildings are built to control and monitor factors such as light, temperature, water, and nutrient levels to produce data that, in turn, can be used to produce better crops. Although vertical farms are a relatively new concept to agriculture, they are already being considered superior to conventional methods for reasons such as water conservation, year-round crop production, and land efficiency. [3]


How Vertical Farms Work. [4]

The Importance of Vertical Farms

The current global population is approximately 7.6 billion people, which is expected to grow to 9.7 billion by 2050; this is a 28% increase, in which the population will have to increase its global food production by 28% to meet demand. [1] Approximately 38% of Earth’s total land mass is used for agriculture, and if one was to combine the area of global farms together, they would form a land mass the size of South America. [2] It was also estimated that to create more farms to support the future population, an extra land mass the size of Brazil would be needed; however, this land is not available. [2] In addition to running out of physical space, climate change is acting against farmers, and occurrences such as droughts or late frosts are destroying crops. Vertical farms allow cities to grow food locally and feed the population without the need for transportation. By increasing the efficiency of farming surface area in cities, crops can be produced in higher numbers, closer to where people live.

CEA Technologies

Controlled-environment agriculture (CEA) technologies are used in vertical farms. These technologies include a combination of sensors, machines, and computers, which interplay to produce healthy crops. [3] Hydroponic and aeroponic systems are also implemented to increase automation and decrease water usage.

Sensors

A sensor is a device that detects or measures a physical property. In vertical farms, there are sensors that measure light, carbon dioxide, nutrients, humidity, and water levels for the plants. By having sensors available to monitor these environmental inputs, there is no need for manual or human operators to constantly check that each plant is getting enough light or water.

Machines

Red and Blue LEDs
Panel Composed of Red and Blue Tunable LEDs. [4]

Machines such as fans, heaters, and light-emitting diode (LED) systems are used to regulate the environmental levels monitored by the sensors. Fans help to provide ventilation or dehumidification for the plants indoors. Heaters are used to heat the plant beds and regulate temperatures in absence of heat sources from the sun and greenhouse effects. Tunable 24-hour LED illumination is used as the primary source of light for vertical farms. Apart from their energy-efficiency, LEDs are capable of emitting specifically programmed spectrums of light. It has been determined that plants respond most favourably and notably to the sun's blue and red wavelengths of light, which are used for plant growth during photosynthesis. [5] Plants do not need the sun to grow, so long as they have a source of both blue and red light. As such, farmers are able to select the spectrum of light, such as the blue wavelength, that is optimal for photosynthesis for different types of crops. [1] It is common for vertical farms to have solar panels and wind turbines located on the roof to generate energy for the LEDs and heating systems.

Plants Reaction to the Sun's Light.
Plants Produce Favourable Growth Patterns in Response to Blue and Red Light Wavelengths. [5]

Computers

Special computers are used in vertical farming to ensure the communication and response between sensors and machines operates smoothly and rapidly. Plant “recipes” are derived from environmental data from different countries where crops are local. These recipes allow crops to be grown within cities by creating a climate that represents where the plants would grow locally, therefore eliminating geographic boundaries. Plant growth and overall health are assessed, and if the software recognizes a problem within a certain recipe, the inputs can be altered in real-time. [6]

Artificial intelligence plays a role within vertical farming to find more successful combinations for plant recipes. Ken Tran, Principle Research Engineer at Microsoft Research, stated that “with big data, we use machine learning in the cloud to analyze and produce models with optimal configurations – say for the intensity of light to create better yields, or lower electricity costs, or what is the best ratio of nutrients that we should provide the plant to produce good food and higher yield.” [6] The overall goal of machine learning in vertical farming is to create an open-source library of climate data sets; these recipes will supply the capabilities of cross-linking taste and nutrition in plants to specific environmental variables.

Hydroponics and Aeroponics

Hydroponic and aeroponic systems are crop-feeding methods that work in conjunction with CEA technologies. In traditional farming, soil is used to give the plant structure in addition to acting as a vehicle to transport nutrients. Hydroponic systems deliver nutrients and water to crops without the use of soil by transporting nutrients within a closed system. In a hydroponic system, the plants are statically positioned in a nutrient-based solution, which is monitored using sensors to determine when it needs to be replenished. In an aeroponic systems, the crops' roots are instead misted with nutrients. Aeroponics are generally preferred because they increase the amount of oxygen that is delivered to the plants. Both the nutrient-based solution and mist are collected and recycled after use to promote water conservation. [3]

Hydroponics System.
Roots are Submerged in a Hydroponic System. [7]
Hydroponics System.
Roots are Misted in an Aeroponic System. [8]

Advantages

Year-Round Crop Production

Two of the biggest problems with conventional farming are weather-related crop failures and seasonality. With these problems, farmers cannot achieve year-round crop production. Vertical farming solves the problem of weather-related crop failures as all of the plants are enclosed and protected from any external elements. Seasonality is also not an issue due to the fine-tuned plant recipes that allow farmers to replicate any climate to grow any crop they desire, at any time of the year.

Efficient Use of Urban Space

Vertical farms often make use of old city properties instead of building new ones. Some examples include the rehabilitation of an old laser tag building, and the utilization of a steel mill that was no longer in operation. [9] When considering production efficiency, the plant beds can be stacked as tall as the building is built. The efficiency levels range depending on the type of crop grown, but for example, a 30-acre strawberry farm could potentially be replaced with a one-acre vertical farm, that produces the same crop yield. [10]

Water Conservation

Conventional farms use 70% of the world’s freshwater supply for irrigation. [11] In a vertical farm, because the water is constantly cycled through a closed system, hydroponics use 70% less water than conventional farming. Aeroponics also use 70% less water than hydroponics. As the water is circulated throughout a closed system, evaporation and excess water are minimized and the plants are only given the exact amount of water that they need. [10]

Greatly Reduced Food Miles

The transportation distance from farm to table is reduced by using vertical farms because the plants are grown with the intention to feed people that live within that particular city. For example, crops grown in New Jersey will feed the citizens of New Jersey and are not intended to be transported elsewhere. In conventional farming, food travels an average of 1,500 miles before it reaches the end consumer. [12] By having plants grown locally, vertical farms are able to cut transportation costs as well as carbon dioxide emissions that are associated with moving food long distances.

Disadvantages

Farming Inside is Not Natural

A social barrier exists in which people perceive vertical farms as unnatural because the plants are grown indoors inside factories. [10] The idea of a factory also makes people believe that the food is chemically grown. Proper education and communication regarding vertical farms is essential to avoid this problem; less chemicals are used in vertical farming than in conventional farming because there is no need for fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides.

Intensive Energy Requirements

Vertical farms have intensive energy requirements, considering that these factories require the lights to be on and the water to be pumping at all times. Even though LEDs are energy-efficient and vertical farms are built with solar panels or wind turbines to supply energy, there are still limitations. A 2015 study that tested different building sizes and energy feasibility determined that any building with a floor area greater than 506 square metres would not be feasible for a vertical farm; this is because more solar panels are required to operate the facility than the building can accommodate. [13] A vertical farm can be larger than 506 square metres and produce more crops, however, it would encounter an energy deficit.

Crop Limitations

The vertical farms that exist today only grow certain crops such as lettuce or other leafy greens like spinach, arugula, kale, and strawberries. These crops are grown because they have the highest profit margins and have quick growth cycles. Based on current technologies, it is not economically viable to produce lower-valued crops such as wheat. It would also not be viable to grow taller crops, such as corn, because they would reduce overall production efficiency as the plant beds could not be stacked as close together. [10]

High Initial Cost

It is estimated that one square metre of urban land costs approximately $349, whereas one square metre of rural land costs only $0.40. [1] It is evident that there is a large cost disparity between land values that is only predicted to become a greater problem as this divergence increases. It was also estimated that a vertical farm takes approximately six to seven years to break even. [1]

Example: AeroFarms

Aerofarms Headquarters.
Aerofarms Global Headquarters. [9]

AeroFarms’ Global Headquarters is located in Newark, New Jersey, and is the world’s largest vertical farm. The farm was constructed inside of an abandoned steel mill and is 70,000 square feet in size. Since the first seeding in September 2016, the farm has produced approximately two million pounds of leafy vegetables per year. The organization attributes its success to its patented aeroponic technology, smart lights, and smart data. The organization's plant scientists are able to monitor over 130,000 data points per harvest, which all contribute to “nutrition with razor-sharp precision and increased productivity.” [9] AeroFarms’ produce is sold locally in grocery stores under its brand, Dream Greens, which is sold in New Jersey and New York. Although the organization is profitable now, the venture required a noteworthy investment of $30 million to start up. [14] The farm has also been criticized for being unlikely to significantly impact the global food crisis. [14]

DreamGreens.
Aerofarms' Brand, Dream Greens. [15]

Harvesting Food: Industry 4.0

New technological advancements are currently being implemented to improve harvesting practices on rural farms. Many of these advancements use Industry 4.0 technologies to function.

What is Industry 4.0?

Industry 4.0 is the ability for manufacturing equipment and machines to communicate with each other using modern technology, with the intention of automating as many processes as possible. These technologies are becoming increasingly popular and prevalent in Western societies, and are the driving force behind the Internet of Things (IoT) and Smart Homes. [16] Industry 4.0 is also known as the "Fourth Industrial Revolution," implying that three prior revolutions have occurred previously.

During the First Industrial Revolution, workers saw a shift from manual labour to the adoption of machines powered by steam and water. In the Second Industrial Revolution, these machines became powered by electricity, and the assembly line along with mass production were introduced. Afterwards, automation, computers, and electronics were popularized in the Third Industrial Revolution. Overall, Industry 4.0 relies on connecting the technology from the previous revolution, using technology like digital twins, IoT, and networks. [16]
Industrial Revolution.
Industrial Revolutions overview. [17]

Main Harvesting Technologies on a Digital Farm

Digital or smart farms are conventional farms that use technology to support their processes. Harvesting is the most manual and labour-intensive process on a farm, which is why Industry 4.0 technologies seek to alleviate these challenges. [18] While there is an abundance of technologies that can be used to support a farm’s processes, the main technologies include smart silos and trackers, farm robots, analytics platforms, and the personal devices used by farmers. All four main technologies work towards automation using networked machinery.
Bayer Diagram.
Smart Farm Technologies. [19]

Smart Silos and Trackers

A smart silo on a digital farm has sensors that can monitor the amount of harvested product in storage, so that farmers always have up-to-date stock levels. In a more advanced digital farm, there are sensors and trackers throughout the acreage to monitor soil moisture, crop health, and potential threats such as insect infestations. [19] Due to the vast distance across one farm, all devices must be connected by a Low Power Wide Area Network. [19]

Farm Robots

Digital farms use farm robots to replace much of the physical labour involved in harvesting. These robots use artificial intelligence to function, but get their inputs from their own sensors and cameras, which allow them to perform precise activities. [20] Since this technology is relatively new, each robot can only perform one task. For example, using the same robot to harvest both tomatoes and apples is not possible. [20]

Analytics Platforms

As data is generated from farm robots, sensors, and trackers, it is sent to a personal cloud analytics platform that produces information from the circulating data. Many platforms are available on the market; however, the core function of each is that the platform will be able to organize data, make suggestions, and give predictions related to crop health, maturity levels, and harvesting times. [21] In the future, these predictions will be used by farm robots autonomously. For example, if the platform signals dry soil levels, a farm robot will acknowledge this and proceed to go and water the crops. [20] Currently, these predictions are solely sent to farmers to improve decision making. [21]

Personal Devices

On a personal device, a farmer can receive the predictions outputted by the farm’s analytics platform. Depending on the chosen platform, the farmer can also track the location of his machines or communicate directly with his workers, distributors, or suppliers. [22] Personal devices may include desktop computers, tablets, or smartphones.


Harvesting on a Digital Farm. [23]

Salinas Valley - The World's AgTech Hub

Similar to how the Silicon Valley is the world's tech hub, the Salinas Valley is considered the world's agricultural technology hub. Salinas Valley is an area south of San Francisco that is home to many farmers and innovators. This hub is also home to the Western Grower's Center, which is an association made up of farmers and startups that work on innovative agricultural technology, or agtech. [1] Currently, the Center is home to over 28 different startups, including Soft Robotics and TracMap.

Soft Robotics

Soft robotics are an innovative type of robotics that attempt to mimic the dexterity of a human hand. Soft robotics can be used to harvest soft fruits and vegetables that other traditional robotics cannot work with. These robots have thus far been successful in collecting foods such as eggs, strawberries, peaches, apples, and tomatoes. [2]
Soft Robotics.
Soft Robotics. [3]

TracMap

TracMap is a merger between an analytics platform and a control panel. Its main functionality allows farmers to draw maps using images from Google Earth, and mark hazards and instructions on these maps. [4] Currently, TracMap is mainly used by farms that still operate tractors manually, but when robotic tractors become more prevalent, farmers will be able to use the same platform to track their movements as well.

Advantages

Environmentally Friendly

Data can help create information regarding optimal fertilizer and water amounts, which results in less wasted water and fewer toxic fertilizers in the environment. [5] Not only is the nitrogen in fertilizers harmful to the environment, but it can be harmful to consumers' health as well. [6]

Increased Efficiency

When a farm is automated, less manual labour is required, and therefore a farmer does not need as many workers to care for his land. Farmers are able to track multiple areas and devices at once and send out instructions instantly as a result of improved analytics platforms; this also improves communication. [7]

Lower Long-Term Costs

In the long-term, it costs less to power a machine than to pay hourly wages. [8] Using technology also reduces costs by producing healthier yields and less crops are wasted due to improvements in harvest time accuracy.

Higher Harvest Yields

Crop yields are expected to increase with accurate predictions of harvest times. The information generated on a digital farm pertaining to appropriate levels of water and fertilizer allow for improved crop health each year; research shows that Industry 4.0 technology used in harvesting could increase global crop yields by up to 67%. [9]

Disadvantages

High Upfront Costs

The technology used on a digital farm is expensive, creating a barrier to entry for smaller farms that cannot afford to implement it. [10] Maintenance costs of machines would be an additional cost that human labour does not require. [11]

Heightened Data Protection Requirements

Data protection risks are a concern on digital farms since most of the farmer's proprietary information will be stored on a cloud platform. [12] Information like crop species, watering cycles, and harvest times are part of a farmer's competitive advantage, therefore it is important that this information is secure.

Limited Interconnectivity

As Industry 4.0 technology in general has not yet reached its peak rate of adoption, it can be assumed that Industry 4.0 technology specifically related to harvesting is positioned within the "Peak of Inflated Expectations" phase in the Gartner Hype Cycle. [13] Currently, there are many products and services on the market for digital farms, but most of these offerings are vastly different from each other, meaning that they have trouble integrating. This difficulty poses challenges; for instance, if a farmer purchases a farm robot from one company, and has an analytics platform from another, he cannot be sure that these two products will communicate with each other. [14]

Job Loss

Job loss is an issue that concerns the farmers who are worried about the digital farm revolution. For example, the farm robotics company Harvest Croo is creating a strawberry-picking robot that is able to displace 30 farmers. [15] Although it seems that younger farmers are less worried about this shift in labour, experts say that the solution to this challenge is to train farmers to support the automation of new processes on different farms. [16]

Transporting Food: Smart Containers

New shipping containers that utilize IoT sensors and blockchain technology could disrupt the logistics industry. These containers are being used to meet the growing demand of same-day or next-day delivery of fresh groceries.

The Current Logistics Industry

Centralized Solution.
Centralized Logistics. [17]

Currently, 200 documents are needed or exchanged for just one shipment. 20% of overall transportation costs are processing and administrative costs related to these documents. These activities create large costs that are transferred to end consumers. In addition, $140 billion USD is tied up in disputes over payments everyday, and when money is tied up in disputes, it cannot be used for other investments or betterments. On average, temperature is not maintained in 8.5% of shipments, contributing to a great deal of food spoilage and waste. 29 billion miles are driven by truckers each year with partial or empty truckloads, which is equal to just over one million trips around the circumference of the Earth. [18] This transportation leads to higher costs as well as higher carbon dioxide emissions.

Logistics are efficiency and cost-driven by consumers. For example, consumers want their groceries immediately and at little-to-no extra cost, forcing some companies to forgo their shipping fees. For this reason, companies are profiting less from logistics. To keep up with consumer demand, companies are continuously centralizing operations and utilizing economies of scale; however, attempting to centralize a decentralized industry leads to inefficient processes and document overflow.

What Are Smart Containers?

Smart Containers Group is a Swiss-based tech company that owns Smart Containers, which are web-enabled shipping containers used to transport food and other materials across land and sea. These containers are composed of various technologies to keep food fresh, monitor its conditions and location at all times, as well as have all records and transactions stored on the device itself.

Using Smart Containers, only a 0.1% temperature deviation is experienced, compared to the 8.5% deviation of competitors, making Smart Containers 75 times more reliable. [19] By improving the logistics system, food can be delivered more efficiently and kept fresher, resulting in better tasting food.

Smart Containers Group has two divisions: SkyCell and FoodGuardians. The more mature division, SkyCell, is geared towards pharmaceutical transport. SkyCell is already amongst the top four companies within the global pharmaceutical transport industry. After the success of SkyCell, FoodGuardians was launched in response to the increased demand for food transportation containers, and began its operations in 2018. [19]

Smart Containers have three main components:


  • Insulation: The insulation technology of Smart Containers has the capability to keep food cold and fresh. The insulation of the container is made up of thin, lightweight, fully-recyclable materials, with one of the main components being cardboard. This insulation technology is protected by approximately 100 patents, and over 100,000 hours of research and development have been put into designing it. [19]
  • IoT Sensors: An IoT sensor is a device that detects or measures a physical property and sends and receives data, through its interconnection via the internet. The IoT sensors can virtually mirror the container’s movements, and can monitor conditions such as humidity, temperature, and location. [19]
  • Blockchain:
    Blockchain
    Smart Container Blockchain Technology. [20]
    Blockchain is a digital ledger in which transactions made in cryptocurrency are recorded chronologically, publicly, and permanently. Currently, blockchain is well-known for applications in finance, but not logistics. The blockchain technology used in Smart Containers is known as a decentralized logistics ecosystem called LOGI CHAIN. [19] Using blockchain in the containers allows all documents and transaction information to be recorded on the container itself. There are two sides to the blockchain on the containers: one side is public and uses an open-source blockchain such as Ethereum; the other side is private, and uses a blockchain such as Fabric. Users on the private blockchain need permission to access the information on it. [19]

Benefits

The benefits of using Smart Containers include their free functionality, add-on services, minimal banking charges, reduced shipping times, increased transparency, and that they are fully autonomous. [18]


  • Free Functionality: Using open-source blockchain makes the majority of the functionality free. There is no cost to license the software, and you are able to use solutions from previous developers. Using open-source solutions allows Smart Containers’ developers to focus their efforts on more complex issues that are specific to the company. [21]
  • Add-On Services: Add-on services such as payments and insurance provided through other companies can be paid for using LOGI coin, the cryptocurrency in the LOGI CHAIN ecosystem.
  • Minimal Banking Charges: In the traditional logistics system, companies usually have to wait weeks before receiving payments from around the globe, but by using blockchain, payment is immediate and there are no banking fees.
  • Reduced Shipping Times: Shipments are often routed to one central warehouse, and then dispatched again depending on shipping route complexity. Using a smart logistics system reduces the amount of shipping, in turn reducing costs, carbon dioxide emissions, and manpower.
  • Increased Transparency: Many people are becoming increasingly conscientious of where their food comes from; Smart Containers can show where food is sourced from, who packed it, and when it was packed. Currently, global shipments often undergo numerous checkpoints and are handled by a variety of companies along the way. Blockchain improves this process because it provides a secure and accurate record to all parties. Using this technology eliminates payment disputes because the ledger records all transactions.
  • Fully Autonomous: Having blockchain within the container itself allows it to manage all its own documents and transactions. This benefit solves the issue of document and email overflow experienced by administrative workers.


  • Walmart’s IBM Blockchain Solution for Logistics. [22]

    Walmart’s Food Safety Solution

    While the combination of the insulation, IoT sensors, and blockchain is specific to Smart Containers, other companies are in the pilot phases of using blockchain for their logistics processes. One example of these pilots is Walmart’s Food Safety Solution built on the IBM blockchain platform. Walmart partnered with IBM to mitigate issues in their supply chain related to food recalls. Together, IBM and Walmart created a global tracking system for food-products using blockchain, which allowed them to pinpoint potential issues with the quality of their products and ultimately limit risks to customers. [1]

    Future Production of Smart Containers

    To keep up with consumer demand of same-day or next-day grocery delivery, Smart Containers has started production of one million business-to-consumer units. Smart Containers also just closed their initial coin offering on June 30th, 2018, which sold both a SMARC coin and LOGI coin, together raising nearly $20 million USD. [2]

    Challenges and Criticisms

    If using Smart Containers is significantly cheaper than the alternative methods of delivering fresh groceries, then there would be a huge incentive for grocery stores and retailers such as Amazon to adopt this technology. Despite these incentives, not everyone is comfortable with the idea of using cryptocurrency, yet critical mass is required for blockchain technology on Smart Containers to have a network effect. The more users that participate on the blockchain, the more valuable and secure this solution is. There is also a limit to how many transactions cryptocurrencies can handle, therefore technology will need to advance for LOGI coin or cryptocurrencies in general to scale up and handle the transaction volumes required. In order for the technology to advance, the industry needs very skilled workers; however, technological talent is scarce and expensive. [3]

    Making Food: Robotic Food Services

    Automated food services powered by robots are now becoming available in restaurants and cafes to streamline the food preparation and serving processes. These robots are facilitated by in-store displays set up with interactive apps, which essentially give instructions to the robot on what food to prepare. Customers can select and customize their food and beverage orders and watch them being prepared in front of their eyes. Examples of these services are Spyce, Creator, Tipsy Robot, and Café X.

    Example: Spyce

    Spyce's Woks.
    Spyce's Signature Woks. [4]

    Spyce is Boston Massachusetts’ first robotic kitchen. The restaurant is set up to have customers order their meals from an electronic display, which then begin cooking in a wok. Spyce’s woks are automated by constantly tumbling the ingredients over an induction burner. All meals are guaranteed to be cooked perfectly in under three minutes or less. Because the restaurant saves money on wages, they offer their meals at affordable prices, starting at $7.50. Although the cooking and serving is completely automated, Spyce still requires human workers to be present in order to prep ingredients and finish plating. [5]

    Example: Creator

    Creator's burger robot.
    Creator's Burger Robot. [6]

    Creator is a burger-serving robot startup located in San Francisco. Customers place their orders through a human concierge on a tablet, which begins the robot’s operation. The machine itself utilizes compressed air tubes, vibrating knives, and sauce dispensers to compose a $6 burger in approximately five minutes. CEO, Alex Vardakostas, believes Creator has an advantage over other burger chains that require large kitchen spaces or food preparation areas; at Creator, all prepping and cooking is done within the space of the robot. The company is backed by Google’s GV, and in the future hopes to have their burger ordering app available to customers so they can customize their orders. [6]

    Example: Tipsy Robot

    Tipsy Robot's robotic arm bartenders.
    Tipsy Robot's Robotic Arm Bartenders. [7]

    The Tipsy Robot is a bar in Las Vegas, Nevada, that hosts two automatic bartender “arms.” These robotic bartenders have the ability to mix any drink recipe that the customer desires, as requested by the app. Customers have the option of selecting a drink from the menu or creating their own. There are also large video displays that show the customers’ position in the drink queue, a description of the drinks in progress, the ingredients used as drinks are being made, along with the wait time for all drink orders. Efficiency is maximized as these bartenders are capable of creating and serving up to 120 drinks per hour. [8]

    Example: Café X

    Cafe X coffe kiosk.
    Café X Fully-Automated Coffee Kiosk. [9]

    In San Francisco, Café X serves specialty coffee beverages from robotic coffee kiosks. Robotic baristas are contained behind glass panels and prepare your customized coffee in a matter of seconds. These robots are fully automated; Café X is able to operate with no human employee interaction. Café X claims that by ordering from their app, customers will never have to wait in line at a café again and will never experience a miscommunicated order. [10]

    Advantages

    Overall, the robotic food and drink services are commended for offering faster, more efficient service to hungry customers. As all orders are placed through an app, there are reduced or eliminated errors in order communication and food preparation. Because wait times are decreased through automation, customer turnaround time is quicker, and businesses are able to serve more customers in a shorter period of time. These organizations also benefit from lower costs as robots do not require wages.

    Disadvantages

    It is understood that many customers choose to go to restaurants, bars, and cafés for the social experience, and not just for fast service. The food industry has always revolved around good customer service skills; skills that are now being removed by automation. Backlash has been experienced as both employees and customers demand that the industry must find ways to innovate without losing the human touch. Las Vegas food service employees recently went on strike in May 2018, in fear that they would soon lose their jobs to robots. For now, automation within the food industry is recognized as symbiotic, in which it “it relegates some of the more menial tasks to technology and allows humans to do what they do best.” [11]

    Consuming Food: Virtual Reality Gastronomy

    Virtual reality gastronomy is the act of consuming food in a computer-generated, three-dimensional environment, which involves the altering of flavours and aesthetics.

    Where VR Consumption Started

    VR Cookie
    Using Virtual Reality To Change the Appearance of a Cookie. [12]

    Virtual reality consumption began with a headset that contained tiny capsules full of scents attached to plastic tubes. As users eat their food, the capsules pump scents through the tubes. The brain can be subconsciously convinced that the food being eaten actually contains the flavours being smelled. The VR headset also uses an augmented reality overlay that tracks the food and can replace it with images of other food in various sizes by shrinking or growing the digital rendition in real-time. With the VR headset and scent capsules, the user can experience a variety of flavours or portions without physically changing the food. [13]

    The project behind virtual reality dining is called Project Nourished, which is the product of an LA-based company, Kokiri Lab. Project Nourished was inspired by the character Peter Pan from the film Hook teaching himself to imagine food on an empty table. The organization combines all senses to give consumers the full food consumption experience. [14]

    Currently, efforts are being focused to produce steak, sushi, lasagna, and pie. These foods are being experimented with first because they have simple geometric shapes and large, flat surface areas. For example, food can be printed in layers to mimic the consistency of lasagna. [14]

    Virtual Reality Dining Equipment

    VR equipment
    Virtual Reality Dining Equipment. [15]

    Project Nourished designed six components that all interact within the virtual dining experience. These components include an aromatic diffuser, VR headset, bone conduction transducer, virtual cocktail glass, gyroscopic utensil, and the 3D printed food. [16]


    • Aromatic Diffuser: The aromatic diffuser disapates the smells of the VR foods using ultrasonic waves and heat.
    • VR Headset: The headset allows users to view a simulated dining environment, complete with adjusting the appearance and shape of the food.
    • Bone Conduction Transducer: The transducer produces chewing noises appropriate to the food being simulated, then transmits the sound waves through soft tissues and bones from the user's mouth to their ear drums.
    • Virtual Cocktail Glass: The virtual cocktail glass contains built-in sensors that can simulate intoxication for a user; however details for how this is achieved have not been released by Project Nourished.
    • Gyroscopic Utensil: The utensil contains both a gyroscope and a food detection sensor that create an accurate simulation based on the user's physical movements.
    • 3D Printed Food: The 3D printed food is used to improve the simulated dining experience by providing taste, texture, and consistency. An emulsified, low-calorie material called hydrocolloid is used to print the food.
    • Applications

      There are a number of potential applications for this technology, including: weight loss, allergy and diabetic management, eating therapy, elderly and disabled care, kids eating habituation, remote dining, alternate dining reality, and space food. [16]


      • Weight Loss: People that are overweight or have a binge-eating disorder can learn to eat less.
      • Allergy and Diabetic Management: People who have dietary constraints such as allergies and diabetes can eat without restrictions, forgoing any harmful effects on their bodies.
      • Eating Therapy: Virtual psychotherapy could be used to treat patients with eating disorders to build healthy eating habits.
      • Elderly and Disabled Care: Patients who are unable to chew or swallow food could experience eating through virtual reality.
      • Kids Eating Habituation: Virtual dining would provide a fun method for encouraging children to eat undesirable foods, helping to form healthier eating habits.
      • Remote Dining: Virtual dining could connect people who are geographically dispersed, including people in long distance relationships.
      • Alternate Reality Dining: With alternate reality dining, users could experience foods that do not exist, in imaginary lands, with imaginary characters, such as dining in Narnia or drinking a Butterbeer with Harry Potter.
      • Space Food: Astronauts would be able to enjoy a variety of food while still minimizing the weight of their food cargo.
      VR food
      Virtual Reality 3D Food. [17]

      Disadvantages and Concerns

      VR gastronomy may not succeed in a business-to-consumer market due to all of the pieces required for the full dining experience, and the discomfort of eating with a headset and earpiece. Considering the current price of this technology, VR gastronomy is a very expensive “toy” for personal use. The Oculus Rift Headset is $530 alone [18], and a 3D food printer can range from $1,000 to $6,000. [19] While this technology can be useful in certain highly-funded applications such as healthcare and space travel, this product may not be widely adopted for the purpose of helping children form better eating habits, or solving the issue of long distance relationships. Current technology is not yet able to mimic foods that have irregular shapes, chunks, or fall apart easily. Consumers may be apprehensive to invest in a product where their food selections are limited.

      Disposing Food: Smart Waste Management

      One of of the largest contributors to food waste is food that is purchased but never consumed. Although many countries are adopting composting techniques, a large quantity of food waste still ends up in landfills. The overall goal of smart waste management technologies is therefore to eliminate food waste at its source.

      The Magnitude of Global Food Waste

      1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted per year by consumers, which is enough food to feed one billion hungry people. [20] To put this idea into illustrative terms, leading food waste expert Dana Gunders says, "Imagine walking out of a grocery store with four bags of groceries, dropping one in the parking lot, and just not bothering to pick it up. That’s essentially what we’re doing.” [21]

      Food disposal is largely attributed to factors such as expiry dates, cooking in excess, refrigerator "spring cleaning", and purchasing too much food to begin with. All of these issues are common in North America. [22] Smart waste management technologies have been invented in order to improve the global epidemic of food waste generated by consumers by assisting them in being more responsible with their food waste.

      Smart Waste Management - At Home

      IoT smart fridges are currently on the market and can be connected to other smart devices within the homes of consumers. An example of a smart fridge is the Samsung Smart Fridge, which encourages consumers to use the existing food in their fridge. [23] The fridge has expiry alerts as well as built-in cameras connected to a mobile application on consumers’ phones. This application is used while grocery shopping to save on unnecessary purchases; a consumer can use the application to check inside the fridge to see exactly which groceries are required, rather than purchasing too many food items.

      Samsung.
      Samsung Smart Fridge. [24]

      Smart labels are another innovation that are meant to discourage the disposal of edible food. These items are sensored labels made from gold and silver, that change colour based on time and temperature to advise consumers if their food is getting old. Although these labels may sound expensive to produce, each costs less than a penny to make. [25]

      Smart Waste Management - Within Communities

      A variety of mobile applications exist to deter food waste from within communities. For example, Olio is a free application used to share surplus food. [26] Users can either post food to share, or browse the application to look at food offerings. Users do not pay for the food they acquire through Olio, but an option is available where users can suggest that the receiver makes a donation to charity.

      Olio.
      The Olio App. [26]

      Smart Waste Management - In Companies

      Smart waste management technologies also are targeted towards helping companies, especially restaurants, manage their food waste. A product called Winnow Smart Bins is an example of such a technology; these smart bins are regular food waste bins with scales attached. There is a tablet attached to the scale which prompts the employee throwing away food to input the description of the item being thrown out. From this information, analytics are then composed and sent to the kitchen manager. These analytical reports contain information such as the amount of food thrown out, which type of food was thrown out most, and how much food waste is costing the restaurant. [27]

      Winnow Smart Bins are meant to be used as a reflective tool for restaurants, encouraging them adjust their kitchen processes and menu items to limit food waste. The bins have experienced positive feedback and are widely used; IKEA claims that using these smart bins has saved the company the equivalent of over 350,000 meals in one location. [27]

      Winnow.
      Winnow Smart Bins. [28]


      Winnow Smart Bins Advantages

      Long-Term Cost Savings

      Overtime, using Winnow Smart Bins is meant to save restaurants money as they limit their food purchases. Proponents of the technology say that the bins have eliminated between 40-70% of food waste at establishments. [29] Winnow estimates that it saves the 1,000 restaurants it works with over $20 million USD per year. [29]

      Positive Environmental Impacts

      Less food waste contributes to reduced negative environmental impacts. As food decomposes, it produces methane, a toxic greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming and climate change. [30] Food waste also strains the world's freshwater supply, and it is said that a volume of water three times the size of Lake Geneva is used to produce food that is ultimately not even consumed. [30]

      Winnow Smart Bins Disadvantages

      High Upfront Costs

      While pricing plans for Winnow Smart Bins depend on restaurant size and can vary between locations, the instalment of smart bins will initially cost more than an ordinary disposal bin. [27] The implementation of these devices is only feasible for larger, successful restaurants, as the added expenses of running the company's analytics platform must also be accounted for.

      Steep Learning Curve

      Using smart bins in restaurants is a more complex process compared to simple composting. With each food item disposed, an employee must input the item's description, which uses valuable time in a fast-paced restaurant atmosphere. [31] Winnow states that each bin visit only takes approximately three seconds to compute, and that items are still weighed even if not given a description. Restaurants state that using smart bins take an average of 20 minutes of an employee's time per week, and that the learning curve for using these bins subsides. [31]

      Conclusion

      Earth is continuously under pressure to satisfy the ever-growing demand for food, as the population is rising at an increasing rate. Aside from the burden of the increasing population, society must learn to cope with other environmental factors, such as climate change and decreasing rates of available agriculture land, which all have a negative impact on farming and food culture. Most consumers are only aware of the one food process they are intimately familiar with − eating; however, food should not be thought of by the end consumer as an isolated process. Food is a journey that encompasses six steps: cultivating, harvesting, transporting, making, eating, and disposing. As technology improves, web-enabled tools are being created and implemented across the food industry to help alleviate environmental and societal pressures. Vertical farms are being constructed in major cities to help increase the supply of local, organic vegetables. Industry 4.0 technology is positively impacting labour-intensive rural farm harvesting processes by utilizing farm robots and increasing farm yields. Smart Containers were introduced within the transportation industry to track where food is sourced and to reduce spoiled produce. Restaurants, bars, and cafés are employing robotic food services to prepare food faster for consumers to enjoy. Virtual reality gastronomy is creating unique eating experiences for a variety of needs. In food’s final stages, smart waste management techniques are practiced to reduce food waste created at home, within communities, and in companies. The implementation of these web-enabled technologies will contribute to farming and the overall food industry by making processes more efficient, while at the same time reducing the severity and urgency of the global food crisis.

      Authors

      Rada Pop Miranda Sear Melissa Youds
      Beedie School of Business
      Simon Fraser University
      Burnaby, BC, Canada
      Beedie School of Business
      Simon Fraser University
      Burnaby, BC, Canada
      Beedie School of Business
      Simon Fraser University
      Burnaby, BC, Canada

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