One-third of all food produced worldwide is wasted. More than 2 billion people are obese, yet 795 million regularly go hungry. This is not simply an advanced/developing economy divide: in some of the richest countries, hunger exists in the midst of plenty. When I was growing up in the second half of the 20th century, food banks were unheard of in the UK. Today there are more than 1,000.
Considering that food is, literally, vital to all of us, and that the systems governing it are manifestly dysfunctional, food has proved remarkably immune to innovation. The obstacles are, admittedly, intimidating: corporations, governments, trade blocs, subsidies, tariffs. But vested interests haven't stopped disruption in other fields: often, they are the opportunity.
The trouble with food is that isn't simply a market opportunity. Eating involves at least four of the senses and sometimes five. It is intimately connected to memory, love and pleasure. It is also bound up with ideas of reward and punishment and easily becomes tinged with moral disapproval (think of the judgemental way in which we often talk about obesity, for example, or the self-denying fervour – gluten bad, spiralising good! – of the clean-eating craze). Food is all muddled up with emotions and identity.
Food has proved remarkably immune to innovation
The innovations we have seen tend on the one hand towards the low-fi (slow food, artisanal production, farmers' markets) and, on the other, to the niche (the experimental flavour combinations of chefs like Heston Blumenthal, Ferran Adrià or René Redzepi). All very interesting and life enhancing, but only for a small minority of consumers.
Admittedly, the last few years have brought significant disruption in restaurant food distribution, with businesses like Just Eat, Deliveroo and UberEATS. There have also been some admirable (though still small-scale) social innovations, such as the community cafes cooking supermarket waste, including Save the Date in Dalston and the Real Junk Food Project, where people pay what they can afford.
But it is clear that the food system still has enormous room for innovation. London Food Tech Week, now in its second year, sets out to showcase and promote innovation from farm to fork: in production, transportation, storage, processing, marketing, distribution and consumption. Only two years old, it has just drawn to a close, with 83 events over 30 venues, featuring some 200 startups and a number of bigger players, including Tesco and Jamie's Food Revolution: a week of talks, tastings, workshops, tours and investor pitches broadly organised around themes such as sustainability, digital and investment.
Sign up to our newsletter
With so much going on in so many areas of the city, it was difficult to get an overall picture – contributions ranged widely. There were sessions on blockchain technology as a guarantee of provenance; on packaging innovations that show the real decomposition of food, so doing away with unhelpful 'best before' dates; on ideas for feeding the extra 2.3 billion people who will make the world's population one-third larger by 2050.
I sat in a session in which one enthusiast explained that micro-algae can be grown using 300 times less farmland than beef and 50 times less water and energy, making spirolina and its sisters the future. He was followed by another, rather similar visionary, promoting the eating of insects
Read moreThe future of delicious Sharing plates: fighting food waste Essay: London's food diversity
Micro-algae, enthusiast number one explained, can be consumed in a drink or cookies. (All very well, but I don't like snacks, I like dinner.) Crickets are delicious coated with smoky chilli, said the second.
Call me old-fashioned, but I am instinctively wary of foods that advertise themselves as having flavours that are easy to disguise. I can see that we eat prawns, so why not crickets, but prawns have a lovely, sweet, rock-pool flavour all of their own: you don't feel the need to slather them in chilli.
Generally, the uses suggested for these alternative protein sources imply a rather reduced diet, the regimen perhaps of someone who sees food primarily as fuel, rather than as family and love, carrying meanings of home and faraway places. There was too little gastronomy in Food Tech Week for my taste.
Victoria Albrecht, co-founder of Yfood, the startup behind the event, believes that one of the imminent areas for innovation lies in the developing ability of platforms – Facebook in particular – to aggregate information across a range of apps, so making more personalised foodie recommendations, whether for products, places to go or services.
I'm wary of foods that advertise themselves as having flavours that are easy to disguise
While this is probably welcome for those already consuming high-quality offerings, it bodes less well for those who have poor nutrition and are food-deprived. In politics, the echo-chamber effect of social media has hardened divisions rather than broadening understanding. It would be unfortunate if at the level of the most basic of human needs, personalisation had the effect of entrenching inequalities.
Currently, there is little doubt that convenience is the most profitable arena for food innovation. Some of the most successful startups are aimed at people who either don't want to cook (JustEat, Deliveroo) or shop (HelloFresh). There is no question of consumer enthusiasm for these services. Yet a Food Standards Agency report published earlier this year also revealed that the public is concerned that trends towards convenience, including online shopping, are leading to a loss of connection with the origins of food and a decline in the social and cultural importance of eating.
Eating: that, I realise, is what is missing from Food Tech Week. Not literally – I didn't go along expecting to be fed – but the idea of it. The food that there was – insect tofu and bone broth were two I came across – seemed worthy rather than enticing.
Altogether, there was much excitement about the new, but not much sense of the joy of food. (Compare Friday nights at the massive street food market at Hawker House on the Rotherhithe Peninsula, featuring tastes from around the world, music, rooftop bars and a festival atmosphere.)
London Food Tech Week is doing a good job of reminding us that innovation in the food systems is necessary, urgent and possible. But, in the end, it will only be consumer excitement that demolishes the inertia of corporations and overturns learned eating habits. There is huge potential for food innovation but, first, it has to make us feel hungry.