Sustainability, food security and waste reduction are the keywords of the food startups which Expo Milano 2015 has brought to everyone’s attention. The same priorities are shared by Marco Gualtieri, founder and Chairman of Seeds&Chips
Gualtieri has launched several successful startups: he created TicketOne and was one of the founders of Netcomm, the Italian e-commerce Consortium.
He is also the founder of Milano Cucina
Which parts of the agricultural food chain have the highest rate of innovation?
All the various phases in the supply system are undergoing significant innovatory processes which – thanks mainly to the digital dimension – are changing the way that food is produced, transformed, distributed and communicated. Agriculture is intensely involved in technological innovation. Sensors, software, drones and big data make it possible to limit (often drastically) the amount of water used, but also the amount of fertilizer, herbicide and pesticide. But precision agriculture also makes it possible to take early action in cases of mass infestation… think of the recent case of Xylella which struck hundreds of ancient olive trees in southern Italy, spreading its deadly effects because intervention was too late and too slow. If adequate precision agriculture systems are in place information can be gathered in real time and interventions activated. The same thing applies in the animal farming sector.
What trends are shared by the most interesting startups in the agricultural food production field?
Sustainability, food security and waste reduction are the keywords. These are the challenges which Expo Milano 2015 has set as the central focus of international attention. The good news is that today the instruments exist to tackle these challenges. Technologies, sensors, networks and devices of all kinds have reached an unprecedented level of innovative sophistication and accessibility… and therefore diffusion. Thanks also to Expo Milano 2015, many young innovators have become aware of the vast opportunities involved, meaning that hundreds of new startups exist in the world today. These are just the bridgehead of a much larger system which will grow exponentially. What happened with Internet will also happen to the Internet of Food: the use of the web will make the whole system more efficient.
What are the most innovative technologies likely to transform the world of food in the future?
Along with precision agriculture, certainly the techniques of production without soil (hydroponics, aeroponics and aquaponics), and also the projects of food replicas without animal protein: hamburgers without meat, mayonnaise without egg, etc. Hampton Creek
, the Californian startup which developed and is now successfully selling Just Mayo, the egg-free mayonnaise indistinguishable from the traditional version, is an extraordinary example.
At the same time, I also wouldn’t underestimate the e-commerce platforms (or the information and traceability platforms), new packaging and 3D food printers. Going back to hydroponics, on the other hand, we will see more and more of it and in ever improved versions (again using sensors, networks and big data), but above all the spread of this system to urban contexts. A great example is the solution proposed by Robonica, a Milanese startup which in a few months’ time will start producing the first “home appliances” for producing zero kilometer tomatoes, lettuce and much more. Another Italian startup, Pnat, is moving in similar territory with its JellyFish Barge, a kind of raft that desalinates and purifies water using only sun, wind and wave power, and then uses a hydroponic system to produce fruit and vegetables. Urban farming, feeding the city… these expressions indicate phenomena which will evolve massively in the coming years.
Which do you think is the most promising of these technologies? In what timescale do you see them being massively applied?
The speed of innovation is mind-boggling. Many of the most radical innovations simply didn’t exist a few years ago. The entire food supply chain will be revolutionized (before long, the world’s digital consumers will top the five billion mark). The extraordinary merit of Expo Milano 2015 – perhaps insufficiently recognized or appreciated – has been its skill in stimulating encounters, forums, debates, information, proposals and solutions on the most vital theme of all for our Planet, and especially for humanity. This is why I’m convinced that this particular Universal Exposition will mark an epochal point in mankind’s relationship with food, after which technological innovation will make it possible to reduce waste, support small food producers, and eat food which is healthier, more sustainable and – above all – available to everyone.