IFSTAL Symposium: Technology- a silver bullet for the food system?

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By Titi Adebola, PhD Researcher, University of Warwick

© Mim Saxl Photography, www.mimsaxl.com

Royal Veterinary College, London

28 January 2017

‘Technology – a silver bullet for the food system?’  brought together over 90 delegates with a common interest in food systems. The symposium had four plenary sessions which covered a wide range of engaging topics on the use of technology in production, processing, distributing and consumption of food. High profile speakers drawn from academia, industry, public sector and third sector organisations provided informed perspectives on the topics using practical examples. Delegates were asked at the beginning and end of the symposium whether they thought technology is a silver bullet for the food system.


This reveals a decrease in the proportion of those attending who felt that technology was or mostly was a silver bullet for the food system by 10% compared to when the poll was initially conducted at the beginning of the symposium.


Session 1: Production

Chair: Dr Alex Arnall

The first session had four presentations focusing on fruits and vegetables, organic farming, poultry and fishing respectively.

Dr Rosemary Collier, Director of the University of Warwick Crop Centre talked about the role of technology in fruit and vegetable production in the UK, Europe and North America. She highlighted some stakeholders’ demands such as fresh produce, long shelf-life, weather conditions, pests and diseases.  Dr Collier explained that technology could contribute to tackling some of these challenges. For example, new pesticides and application methods could control insects and rodents, and prevent the spread of diseases. She concluded that agro-ecology and technology can co-exist.

Dr Sussane Padel, Senior Programme Manager and team leader at the Organic Research Centre talked about the role of technology in organic farming. She challenged the narrow interpretation of innovation which focuses only on the use of new or significantly improved technologies. Dr Padel explained that organic farmers use technology, and innovation requires more than the use of new technology.

Ian Lowery, Partner Veterinarian, Crowshell Veterinary Services LLP talked about technology developments in poultry production.  He set out the benefits of technology in both egg producing chickens and meat producing chickens.  However, he drew attention to the monopoly in the poultry breeding industry, comprising of only three main companies.

Dan Watson, Head of Design and User Research at SatApps Catapult, talked about Project Trawlight. This involves developing and testing devices that use lighting technologies to aid selective fishing.



Session 2: Processing and Distribution

Chair: Dr Barbara Haesler

The second session had three presentations on the use of technology in processing and distributing food.

Dr Carol Wagstaff, Associate Professor and Director of Food ATP, University of Reading talked about quality management in fresh produce supply chains. She examined four aspects of quality, namely:  appearance, longevity, flavour and nutrition. Dr Wagstaff emphasized that technology has an influence in the food supply chain and on the quality of food, concluding that an integrated approach is necessary for rethinking the role of technology in food systems.

Professor Tim Foster, Director of the EPSRC Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Food talked about designing food’s structure for functionality. He examined two important challenges in food systems: supply chain and innovative food. He highlighted a variety of technological and innovative solutions to food quality and supply such as 3D printing of foods, replacing trans and saturated fat, as well as using insect proteins in clever ways. He concluded that consumer demands in the future would differ from the present, and technologies can be developed to meet these demands.

Julie Brown, Director of Growing Communities in Hackney talked about food systems challenges at the community level. Using Growing Communities, a social enterprise working to transform food and farming  through community-led trade as a case study, Ms. Brown talked about the role of technology in small scale producing, processing, transporting and delivering food. She concluded that a balanced approach to the use of technology should be adopted. That is, appropriate technology should be used depending on the circumstance. However, she pointed out that it is important to avoid the use of technology to create issues that can only be solved by further use of technology.



Session 3: Consumption and Waste

Chair: Professor Corinna Hawkes

The third session had four presentations on consumption and food waste.

Rokiah Yaman, Director of Community by Design talked about a decentralised approach to circular organic resource management. That is, a community-led technology approach to tackle urban food waste. Ms. Yaman explained anaerobic digestion and its beneficial outputs such as fertilizers, and biogas for cooking and power. She explained that technology is neutral, its impact depends on how it is used and what it is used for.  She posed some questions such as:  is the technology appropriate? Does it make sense for the community and for the people around?  She concluded that the ‘silver bullet’ required is examining our mind sets.

Ben Cullen, Community Marketing at OLIO talked about the value of food wasted in homes and local communities. He explained how the OLIO food app helps people and businesses reduce waste by sharing their surplus food. In addition, it helps connect people that would otherwise not have met, sort of the ‘Tinder’ of food.

Alan Hayes, Strategy and Engagement Manager at Institute of Grocery Distribution talked about the use of technology in transforming how consumers shop both online and in stores.  He explained that technology ‘is doing a lot behind the scenes in the online world.’ Similarly, retail outlets use technology to stock their shelves with things people want to buy, and to even organize the shop layout which then influences how consumers shop. He concluded with thoughts about the future- for example, digitally enabled food stores?

Professor Jane Dixon, Sociologist and Leverhulme Trust Visiting Professor, currently based at the Centre for Food Policy in City University of London talked about the trajectory of consumers’ food choices.  She explained different social trends in food, and consumers growing fixation with the nutritional value of food.



Session 4: Panel Debate- is technology the answer?

Chair: Dr John Ingram

The fourth and final session of the day was a panel debate. The panellists outlined below had a stimulating debate about the use of technology in food systems.

  • Professor Erik Millstone STEPS Centre, University of Sussex
  • Dr Ricarda Steinbrecher, Co-director of EcoNexus
  • Simon Baty, Knowledge Transfer Manager, the Knowledge Transfer Network
  • Harley Stoddart, Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board


As one would expect, the debate did not produce simple answers. Rather, many of the concepts raised throughout the symposium were challenged. For example, Professor Millstone asked who the ‘we’ mentioned by many of the speakers and delegates referred to? Also what ‘technology’, ‘sustainability’ or ‘progress’ mean? Notably, he emphasized the importance of the socio-economic dimension of the food system debate. Nonetheless, a unanimous conclusion was that – Technology is not inherently good or bad, it depends on how it is used. The panellists also unpacked how technology is framed or defined, GM food debates, implications for focusing on greater mechanisation in food systems and the use of technology in changing consumer behaviours and diets.

Overall, the symposium was enlightening and created a platform for interesting discussions. Adia Bakayoko, an MSc student at the University of Reading said ‘she likes the idea of pulling together people from different backgrounds that share an interest in food systems.’


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