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They say data is the answer to sustainable food, but here’s why that might be wrong

Technology, robots and data have much to tell us – but I can’t help thinking big food’s reliance on tech ignores the role and power of food within culture and community, writes Angus Birditt.

I was recently invited to The Spectator’s talk on The Future of Food, with keynote speaker Thérèse Coffey, secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs. 

The discussion was eye-opening and informative. The answers seemed to centre around using ever more technology, robotics and data to tell us the source, production and quality of our food. You could look at it both ways. There are positives in this, such as, identifying future food scares – needed at times like the horse meat scandal in 2013 – and understanding the exact source of our foods on a global scale.

But I can’t help thinking that relying on technology and data to tell us the source and quality of our food will potentially be a huge loss, not only for our own individual involvement in our food journey, but a loss for local community that is so often built around their local food sources.

Will this focus on using technology and data replace the conversation between farmer/food producer and citizen that has been the foundation for communities for millennia? Call me old-fashioned, but for me, there is a joy in becoming totally involved with the food you’re eating, talking directly to its producer and knowing exactly how it was made. 

The event ended with a keynote speech from Coffey, who, if you didn’t know worked for Mars before landing a role in our government. Would she shed any more light on the questions like what is best to eat for the health of people and planet and how to improve our knowledge of the food system? 

She said: “I’m very supportive of having a balanced diet, perhaps eating more fish than we do now, particularly those landed by British fisherman, eating more vegetables all-year round, grown in the soil or in glasshouses, whilst enjoying high quality meat and dairy products, and frankly only advocate the authentic versions of that.” 

I agree to some extent on her comments on eating more authentic food, that is, if she meant moving away from ultra-processed products.

Large corporations and retailers are increasingly basing their decisions on data collected and analysed by big food tech companies.

Then she got onto the subject of the future of our food system and supply chains. Farming was touched on, including the use of artificial chemicals and robotics to improve yield and resilience to diseases. She started off by asserting: “glyphosate is safe.”

Believe what you will, but from my understanding, having spoken to hundreds of farmers, food researchers and scientists, the less artificial chemicals we use on our soils, and therefore transmitted into our food system, the better for both the health of people and planet.

However, it is important to note when raising this issue around the use of glyphosate, we must steer our questions and concerns towards government that are safeguarding the use of these artificial chemicals and not towards our farmers on the ground who are following apparently sound advice, policy and market forces to apply it to our crops and soil, working tirelessly to produce food for our nation. 

All-in-all the discussion was eye-opening. It was one discussed from the top-down, seemingly showing that government, large corporations and retailers are increasingly basing their decisions on data collected and analysed by big food tech companies, deciding the future of our food on data – time will tell whether this is a good idea or not.


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  1. Excellent, if a little disturbing, article. As already said, saying glyphosate is safe when talking about the future of food is clearly worrying. And as for tech, if food is being exploited by the big corporations then they might need technology to run their operations. But isn’t farming becoming more local, regenerative and community based? Wouldn’t it be wonderful for tech to be obsolete as we now talking, communicating and basically liaising with each other like we used to, in order to establish what we can have, want to have and should have, in the future…


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