Forget the hair shirts and a return to the Iron Age, sustainability is about the future. And innovation and technology are two critical elements. So, the SRA team here jumped at the chance to learn more at the inaugural London Food Tech Week – attending a number of the key events. As the organisers said: “Food is one of the most important and biggest economies in the world, and technology is its biggest enabler and driver for a scalable, positive global impact.”

It was brilliant to see large and small businesses and organisations from across the food chain, as it were, coming together to tackle the challenges we face in food and agriculture.

The opening event asked how technology is changing the food ecosystem. Just as we highlighted in our Innovation Showcase at this year’s Sustainable Restaurant Awards, with businesses like Grow-Up (that’s some of their produce pictured), there are a number of new growing techniques that offer potential interesting solutions, with some sustainability benefits – ‘hydroponics’ and aquaponics among them. Agriculture tech is rapidly becoming a ‘thing’ with research into the use of robots and drones, and ‘lab-meat’ already being a much discussed topic. According to the panel, using technology to create new plant based foods including ‘vegetarian eggs’ is a very exciting new food trend.

Aga Nazaruk and her team from the start-up company Niwa are calling it ‘a revolution towards a sustainable food and plant production system’. Via a mobile phone app, users can pre-programme the optimal growing conditions for tomatoes, lettuce or whatever else you might want to grow. This micro-scale farming technique could easily be applied in restaurants and schools.

Talking of apps, there are, according to Nick Holzherr, an Apprentice runner-up in 2012, 6,000 new food tech apps – many of them with helping tackle sustainability issues, like food waste – even if it’s just something that helps inspire making best use of leftovers.

More to sustainability than efficiency

We left wondering though, whether a good deal of food tech is really about maximising production using state of the art technology and while that in itself has sustainability benefits, whether it can come at the cost of biodiversity, seasonality and animal welfare.

Next up, an invitation only event at a secret venue (we managed to blag some tickets!). The TEDx Hackney: Future of Food session featured several ‘friends of the SRA’ including Marc Zornes of Winnow Solutions, our FoodSave technology partner, and Arthur Kay, founder of bio-bean – who are turning London’s waste coffee into biofuel. As 92 London businesses know, the Winnow technology provides hospitality businesses with a simple, easy to use system for measuring food waste – the first step, as Marc said, for reducing it.

Perhaps most inspiring of the speakers at this event was Ed Gillespie of Futerra who said: “‘We are all environmentalists three times a day’ – make your food choice count.” He said that meat consumption was the cow in the room that had to be addressed. His call was echoed by Charles Michel, chef and Oxford University Psychologist. He called on his fellow chefs to start putting more meat and less vegetables on their menus.

Look back to look forward

Claudia Roden dragged everyone back to their food roots, insisting that while technology had an undoubted role to play in our future food security, we must not lose sight of the past and the emotional baggage that comes with food.

London’s rooftops, smartphone controlled growing systems, weather data from satellites and drones, were all offered as potential solutions at The Future of Food Production event.

But what of the consumer’s role in all of this? What did the experts have to say about that. That was left up to the final session we attended: Food Sustainability and Technology Trends where Marc Zornes and Arthur Kay were joined by Simon Boyle of Brigade Bar and Bistro and Keiron Blakemore of GeoTraceability. The message from this session was loud and clear: “Consumers will be the king of decision-making. They will expect access to information, and businesses to do the right thing.” Now that’s a powerful takeaway message