Is the future of food already here?
With the world’s population set to swell to 10 billion by 2050, the time to solve the global food crisis is running out. How will we meet the demands of an expanding population? Can technology fix the gaps and flaws in the food system? With a ringside view of the global food supply chain gained from spending long years in food retail and hospitality, leading Australian food consultant Hilary Heslop shares her thoughts on building a more sustainable food world.
When did you realise you wanted your career to be in the world of food?
My grandmother’s chips did it, I guess. She fried them in leftover dripping from the Sunday roast that was always kept in a white enamel bowl with a blue lip in the fridge. The meat juices left in the dripping would turn the fries a very dark brown/blonde hue. They would not pass the sniff test in terms of being vegetarian but were pretty efficient when it came to food waste. My mother was an excellent cook, too. I remember the full set of Cordon Bleu cookbooks sitting on the shelf in our study.
Food played a large part in my childhood travels. I remember eating satay for the first time as an eleven-year-old on the rooftop of the Singapore Hilton. I was not a particular lover of chicken due to an unfortunate encounter with KFC. But that first bite was a revelation as the sauce and chicken pervaded my palate with a smorgasbord of textures and a satisfying chilli heat. The succulent marinated chicken was spicy, sweet, smoky, sour and bitter, all at the same time.
It was such moments that locked me into the joy of food. My first jump into a culinary career was to complete a Certificate in Cooking. A result of all those cookbooks in my parent’s study.
Currently, what areas of food consultancy do you cover as part of your business?
Working in hotels and restaurants in the first part of my career taught me discipline and process and took me on my first international posting. Food retail taught me about the journey of food from farm to plate. The two combined gave me a ringside view of the global food chain.
In food consulting, I cover a broad spectrum from utilising food waste, using indigenous ingredients and developing gluten-free products and plant food. I work on food advisory boards with the Victorian government and am a judge at the Australian Food Awards.
How did you get interested in global agricultural practices and their impact on the future?
Working in food retail did that, and the obvious tensions between consumerism, particularly cheap food, food ethics and sustainability. I remember 15 years or so ago working on cut fruit while living in London. Food miles was the subject du jour, and for six months of the year, our cut fruit was supplied by South Africa and flown overnight to the UK. I knew the SA site employed woman who had been deserted by their husbands. The facility had a creche where they could bring their children. The yield these women could get from the fruit was far better than someone cutting up a watermelon at home as they were highly skilled. It raised some questions. Should we be eating pineapples and watermelons in January in the UK? Conversely, was it right that these women should lose their jobs? These experiences are what first got me thinking about the tensions in the food chain.
What are the biggest challenges facing the global food supply chain currently?
Between 1961 and 2011, global agricultural production has more than tripled. Norman Borlaug is often called the father of the Green Revolution, which started in the mid-20th century. He is credited with saving over a billion people worldwide from starvation. One of his most notable developments was dwarf wheat, which was high-yield, disease-resistant wheat. It allowed countries such as Mexico, Pakistan and India to increase wheat yields dramatically.
But these advances came with unintended consequences. The remarkable gains in yields of the past were accompanied by the degradation of natural resources and pollution of water, air and food by chemical, agricultural inputs. This has negatively affected biodiversity, soil health and our diets. We need to be careful that in fixing one problem, we do not create another. I think our greatest challenge is getting it all right at the same time because time is not on our side.
Will meat-free meat and dairy-free dairy become the norm rather than the exception for diners in the next five to ten years?
I think meat consumption will reduce for no other reason than it is just not an efficient way to produce food. The amount of energy used in its production is just too high compared to other foods. But it is worth noting that other foods can cause problems also. For example, the increased consumption in almond milk is causing issues with honeybees. In California, commercial bees are dying in record numbers. Bees thrive in a bio-diverse landscape, and almond production has become a monoculture. This is causing stress on bee colonies. The food chain is complicated, and finding a balance is critical.
What role do you see technology playing in improving the inefficiencies in the food supply chain — like reducing food wastage, for instance?
Potentially, technology is very important. Food waste is an obvious target, but it is useful to define it. Food waste is characterized as edible material that is discarded, lost or degraded, which is often what we discard at home, whereas food loss refers to the loss in the agricultural system and the onward of supply of food to markets. This applies to food that is lost before the consumer buys it, such as fruit that does not meet the product specification of the retailer. In the US, for example, total food waste has increased by 50% since 1974. And yes, technology could play a large in reducing this number.
Urban farming, on a large scale, is an exciting technology and puts the product where the consumer is. Developing products from a wasted product is another. But I also think we have to value all food more. We have been very successful in the last hundred years in lowering the cost of food, but in doing so, our perception of its worth has been devalued. Our ancestors would not have made this mistake as they worked so hard to acquire it in the first place. Changing this perception on the true cost of food would help significantly in how we manage food waste — arguably even more than technology.
Block chains are generating a lot of buzz these days. Your take?
Well, anything that keeps the supply chain accurate and honest is a good thing. Food fraud is a significant challenge, and I touch on some of those issues in the course I teach on the Future of Food for Le Cordon Bleu. But it is just part of the solution. Eating too few foods and not enough of other foods is causing an imbalance with diet and global resources, so we need to look at the problems holistically to understand the interconnections. If technology can help us with that, then it can only be a good thing, but it is not the silver bullet to fix all our ills.
What’s the one future trend that you are most excited about (next five to ten years) and why?
Well, it’s controversial, but stem cell meat for sure. Could a vegetarian eat it as no animal died in its manufacture? Can it be called meat? Though some way off from being a commercially viable product, it makes for an interesting debate in the meantime.
How can food professionals prepare themselves for the brave new food world?
Understand the whole food chain. Where food comes from and why? Ask what the true value of the food is. Most importantly, keep asking questions.
Enrol in Le Cordon Bleu Future of Food online course
Want to get cutting-edge insights into food’s new frontiers? Enrol in Le Cordon Bleu’s Future of Food: The Business, The Ethics, The Change, taught by leading food consultant Hilary Heslop. This four-week online course is designed to boost your understanding of the global food supply chain. Get future ready. Join now!
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