René Lammers is executive vice president and chief science officer for PepsiCo where he leads research, discovery and development efforts across product, package and processing for its portfolio of global food and beverage brands. As head of R&D, René also is responsible for PepsiCo’s quality, food safety and regulatory affairs efforts.
11,000 years ago. That is approximately the last time our global food system saw a profound disruption when grains and animals became widely cultivated for food. Our time for change is up. The same advances in digitization, artificial intelligence (AI) and big data that transformed the healthcare, retail, cybersecurity and financial services industries are about to utterly transform the way we cultivate, produce, distribute and consume food.
As many already know and are concerned by, the food journey the world currently is on is not sustainable. We share a planet currently inhabited by 7.8 billion people. By 2050, it is projected the population will balloon by another two billion. This will require an estimated 50% increase in agricultural production to feed everyone. At the same time as the number of mouths to feed increases, so does food waste and packaging — while fresh water supplies and available farmland are shrinking.
The pandemic has made the speed of this digital transformation all the more urgent. The food system was not prepared or advanced enough to shift and meet demand during this time. However, there is hope: digitization can and will completely transform and impact every link in the food value chain including agriculture, processing, packaging and purchasing — enabling us to be more prepared and ready to face future challenges.
Here are a few concrete examples of how these changes are taking shape.
Disruption on the farm
For millennia, farmers “eyeballed” their crops and hoped for the best — an inexact science. Fortunately, digitized “precision agriculture” has arrived. Drones now fly across farmlands, transmitting high-resolution images, in real-time, that measure color gradations in plants and soil, allowing growers to make near instantaneous calibrations to optimize growth conditions and plant health, while simultaneously reducing water waste, land use and carbon outputs.
Scientists and technology experts across academia, government, NGOs and food companies are collaborating in novel ways to improve the resilience and nutritional credentials of plants. Recently, PepsiCo R&D and Corteva Agriscience announced the first-ever sequencing of the full oat genome. While this discovery may lead to heartier oat varieties, it can also be leveraged to advance the resiliency of at-risk food systems, improving food and nutrition security and farmer livelihoods worldwide. These types of public-private partnerships are critical to advancing farming technologies to secure our global food system.
Not your grandmother’s remedy
We are on the brink of capturing consumer insights at an exponentially faster speed, then quickly translating what we learn into technical briefs that spur innovation. It used to take months, sometimes years, for food companies to realize that people were leaning heavily into, say, açai berries or a certain type of herb. Big data, social media analytics, such as recipe-sharing on Facebook and cooking channels on YouTube, and predictive analytics are changing all of that. Consumer opinion will increasingly inform every stage of the product development cycle — not just at the back end — as literally millions of insights will be sourced, sorted and leveraged in machine-driven digitized ways to anticipate and satisfy demand. With these advances, people can expect to get exactly what they want, how they want it, when they need it.
In addition to the animal-based proteins in our diet, consumers are asking for more plant-based products. Expect to see a lot more foods and beverages that provide functional benefits such as improving mental acuity or providing sustained energy. What we used to treat with supplements we will treat with great tasting foods and beverages. PepsiCo’s R&D team worked extensively on our most recent beverage launch, Driftwell, a functional beverage that contains L-theanine to promote relaxation. You can expect to see more companies launching products pegged to “vitality,” healthy aging and disease prevention, as well as products designed to assist with gut health, bone health and muscle tissue health. And these products won’t be your grandmother’s ad hoc home remedies; their formulations will be sourced from massive databases that draw on medical and academic research and clinical trials to mix and match ingredients based on nutrient density, physiological impact, and optimal flavor and texture combinations.
Currently, the majority of products we eat are “mature.” They have been in the market for years — sometimes decades — and aren’t so much “reinvented” as refined or refreshed via new flavors or ingredients being added or reduced. These legacy products occupy a great deal of most of the food and beverage industry R&D teams’ time.
But with digitization, new formulations, preparation and packaging advances will occur much more quickly. “Digital twin” simulation technologies now allow us to factor in literally dozens of variables that either enable or inhibit speed to market. Digital ingredient and seasoning libraries populated with thousands of entries will be researchable in seconds, and recommend novel flavor combinations, optimal cooking conditions, and the most reliable and sustainable packaging solution. Digital twin technology has already enabled PepsiCo to lightweight plastic bottles, thus reducing carbon emissions and waste.
And with advances in digitization, “stability testing” — which reveals how a food will react to the effects of time, temperature, humidity, light and so on — will soon verify a food’s quality and safety in minutes, not months. Intelligent AI predictive models will sort through tens of thousands of data points about a food product’s internal chemistry, ingredient composition, production and packaging processes to mitigate foodborne illness risks down to as close to zero as we can get. Likewise, foods will be compliant with the literally thousands of rules and safety standards enacted by governments worldwide before leaving production lines, thus improving food safety, traceability and transparency across the entire food system.
The next evolution of food delivery
Drones delivering grocery bags to your doorstep, a novel idea not so long ago, will become the norm. And the content inside the bag or box will change not only the products themselves, but how they’re packaged. Customized innovations for e-commerce will be required and digital technologies will transform packaging —making it lighter and more sustainable, with less waste. A beverage 12-pack may be replaced with concentrated flavor syrup pods for in-home beverage dispensers such as SodaStream.
A new type of talent
A critical part of enabling the changes that need to take place within the food system is ensuring companies like PepsiCo employ people with the technical and leadership skills necessary to thrive in this new environment. Recruitment, redeployment and re-training talent with diverse background and skillsets will be crucial to driving this digital transformation forward. While we will continue to rely heavily on engineers, agronomists and nutritionists in the years ahead, an entirely new suite of skills must be deployed within the next five to ten years to digitize food production. This includes experts trained in medicine, mathematics, data science, computational sciences, nutrition, astrophysics, and the like. We must also transcend traditional STEM expertise and partner with creative colleagues from other parts of the business — from design to consumer insights to commercialization — and become more open to hearing from new and emerging voices inside and outside of our organizations. There is great strength in this type of togetherness.
As French Philosopher Paul Valéry, and later the great Yogi Berra, once said, “The future is not what it used to be.” Everything is about to change. While it is still early in the food digitization journey, the pandemic shook the industry and we must heed the call. PepsiCo and our peer companies need to act now and implement these changes at exponential speed. If, over the next decade, we accomplish only half of what we set out to achieve, our ability to nourish both the planet and the people on it will be unrivaled in the history of foods and beverages, and we can build a better, more digitized and more sustainable world.