If I asked you how many food technologists it takes to make a healthy meal, you’d think it was the start of a joke, right? Wrong. Today’s food manufacturers, like PepsiCo and Cargill, are paying thousands of food technologists to develop foods that are healthy and more natural. “What is great for technology is that that is really quite difficult,” said Cargill’s president Kerr Dow at the Reuters Food and Agriculture Summit last week. “Today all of our scientists are more interested in how do you take natural materials and make them easy to use in food products, which is just as difficult.” The mission is easy to mock (it’s not that hard to eat an apple and some nuts, after all), but the ultimate question is really whether it’s good or bad for consumers. While technology could make more nutritions foods available to more consumers, we’re skeptical that these companies are really pursuing the right answers to our food problems.
“By 2050 we will need 100 percent more food and 70 percent of that will come from new technology,” said Tim Hassinger, vice president of the Crops Global Business Unit of Dow AgroSciences. That technology covers everything from increasing crop yields to developing soy proteins that can be added to baby formulas and sports drinks, but it doesn’t necessarily include seeking out the most environmentally sustainable methods of providing healthy food. While these companies claim to believe in the good they can do with food technology, they’re not non-profit. “Can we improve the cost structure of healthier products? Can we improve the taste and desirability of healthier products? Can we think about our commodity supply chain and improve the yield? Can we improve distribution?” said Mehmood Khan, the chief scientific officer at PepsiCo. He insists that companies like Pepsi aren’t the only ones who stand to profit from such developments: “All of this is going to have a positive impact, not only on the top and bottom line, but also on consumer and society health.”
Scientists and executives may have far-reaching goals, but they’re also at odds with consumers who oppose genetically modified crops or large-scale farming, insisting that these are “rather inevitable” in the food of the future.