Cologne: 23.–26.02.2027 #AnugaFoodTec2027

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New Food Economy

"Technologies are not an end in themselves. They have to be developed."

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Agricultural robotics, drones, artificial intelligence as well as alternative proteins, vertical farming and cellular agriculture - the food industry is on the move. A New Food Economy wants to change how we produce, process and consume food. But what does it actually take for an idea to find its way onto the market, establish itself and become the new normality? New Food Economy expert Hendrik Haase spoke to us at Anuga FoodTec 2024 in Cologne.

Foodlab Hamburg opening

Hendrik Haase lives for food. And he builds bridges. Formerly between agriculture and consumers. Back then his main focus was on regional food, transparency and sustainability. Today, technology takes centre stage for him, along the entire value chain. After all, the potential and opportunities of our time are huge, he says. But there are still gaps between primary production, trade and consumers. In this interview, he tells us where he sees those gaps and how they can be overcome.

Mr Haase, what exactly do you mean when you talk about the "new food economy"?

I do a lot of travelling in food labs and food hubs. This is where founders come together to work on ideas, technologies and practical services that are otherwise not found in the traditional food industry. For me, that is the core of the New Food Economy. And in recent years, a very vital ecosystem has formed around it. In all the labs and co-working spaces, food chains, food production, delivery, trade and the management of agricultural land are being rethought on the basis of innovative technologies. But I have to say that in the last few years, the classic food economy has also taken this approach. Companies like Fendt have started to set up transformation centres, establish their own start-ups in-house or enter into joint ventures. For me, this is also part of the New Food Economy.

Does this mean that the entire chain from field to table and beyond is really being considered?

Yes, and that's what I find so exciting. The food hubs and labs bring together founders who are working on a wide variety of things. One is creating a new protein product from the fermenter, the other is building AI-controlled agricultural robotics. And next door they're programming an app for personalised nutrition using self-learning algorithms. We think and work in an interdisciplinary way - across this entire chain. That creates synergies. And in my opinion, the industry has so far lacked this ability to look beyond its own horizons. Of course, that makes it difficult to innovate across the board. But I firmly believe that we urgently need these synergies for our future.

The old food economy fed us well for a very long time. Why do you think we should allow the transformation or even actively encourage it?

Because the challenges today are more complex. Geopolitics, climate change, consumer expectations - all of these are influencing the traditional food industry more than ever. We see this not only in the fact that they are now also taking to the streets in Germany. And I'm quite sure: A fundamental change in technology is needed to overcome these challenges. To put it bluntly: It won't be enough to simply think about a new tyre suspensions on tractors. We won't get anywhere if we stick to old technologies and optimise them until the day we die. We have to allow disruptive thoughts. On the other hand, there is of course still a large conservative share. They've always done it that way and that's why they want to keep doing it that way. But we realise in many places that things can't go on like this. And we need inspiration for this. To do this, we need visionaries who think far into the future. We need female founders, entrepreneurs and businesswomen to actively shape this transformation. And of course, I would also like to emphasise that we also need those companies that shoulder the main load.

So the old and new worlds aren't opposing each other per se, but should go in the same direction together?

That's exactly the direction we need to take, even if unfortunately this is often still wishful thinking. In the classic old food economy in particular, these transformation efforts are often dismissed as experiments by some crackpots. I can only warn against this attitude. That doesn't give anyone enough to eat. I believe we need a different culture of innovation, a different way of thinking. And we still have some work to do in this area in Germany. But even in the start-up world, I keep coming across a certain hubris. Some people think: "Now we have the revolution on our plates and everyone will be eating it tomorrow." But in many cases that's not true either. It's important to maintain a certain respect for our heritage. Of course, traditional agriculture still ensures that we all have enough to eat.

You talk a lot about technology when you talk about transformation. Does that mean technology will sort it out?

No, not at all. And in my view, that's one of the biggest challenges. And also one of the biggest dangers. If you simply focus on new technologies, you quickly forget the cultural influence. People forget the social challenges, politics and, of course, traditional knowledge. After all, much of what's been tried and tested over the past decades and centuries isn't outdated per se. That's also what I mean by hubris. You can't just stand over it and expect a new technology to be welcomed with open arms. That requires a functioning culture of innovation. That's because many of the new technologies, like data-driven systems or self-learning algorithms, are really powerful, but also invisible. A tractor is a visible symbol. And every child knows what you can do with it. You can't see an algorithm. And what it entails is often hidden from view. It's difficult to look under the bonnet.

And that creates a field of tension between innovation, society, culture and politics?

That's right. In food labs, at start-ups, at trade fairs like Anuga FoodTec - you meet engineers everywhere who are enthusiastic about their new inventions. Ever smaller sensors, ever smarter algorithms, outstanding image recognition, extensive big data analyses. I share this fascination. The problem arises when you believe that this alone is enough. There are many examples in the history of technology that show the opposite. The Swing Riots, for example. They were riots in England in the early 1830s. At that time, horse-drawn threshing machines were to be used, replacing around ten farm labourers per threshing operation. That led to worries about people losing their jobs. To discontent. And to a counter-movement that set the machines on fire. This means that, on the one hand, the relevance of an innovation must be recognisable to everyone. On the other hand, its consequences for all stakeholders must also be openly discussed. That's because even the most mature technologies need political and social backing. And today we're facing major upheavals; ever better algorithms, ever smarter robotics; biotechnology; and I can already see quantum computers on the horizon. These are serious technologies that will generate insane leaps. But technologies aren't an end in themselves. They have to be developed. If we don't do that, we'll run into problems. Then we'll have modern "Swing Riots".

Where exactly will the difficulties come from?

I see difficulties above all where I don't perceive politics as an active developer. Unfortunately, all too often it's just a player that runs behind the occurrences and tries to regulate something afterwards. Especially in systems as complex as the food industry, this leads to a lack of understanding of innovations in society. They're only confronted with it when it's actually already too late. That's where I see problems, even for innovations that are really very exciting and helpful.

What do these kinds of pitfalls look like for the New Food Economy?

One analysis assumes that the human factor in food preparation, catering, farming, fishing and forestry could be replaced by automation in over 90 percent of all cases. If that really is the case, then we should definitely talk about it a great deal. For example, many farmers today still define themselves through their machines. However, if agricultural robotics leads to serious upheavals on farms, then a new self-image is needed. And that won't happen quietly overnight. The tractor is still the symbol of our agriculture. And has been for 130 years. This cultural aspect is one aspect. Another has to do with our social values and norms. This is because disruptive technologies in particular have a profound impact on the habits of many people. Suddenly, issues such as social security or sovereignty over one's own data are at stake.

Opinions on these topics vary greatly depending on the country and culture. Does this mean that there is also tension between global scaling and local adaptation?

That's right. And that's also one of the major challenges. We're familiar with this from many other areas. In Germany and Europe, we've made ourselves dependent on technologies that have been designed according to different values. Now we're trying to adapt somehow afterwards. The best example is the whole discussion about social media. This is where we're somehow standing up to it. Now it's too late to develop alternatives that really suit Europe. However, I believe that we still have opportunities in the food sector. We can still offer alternatives here. And this is also where our strengths lie. For example, in mechanical engineering. And the innovation locations that we can utilise. This is where we need to take a stand. Otherwise, sooner or later we in Europe will also lag behind in the area of the New Food Economy and will then only try to regulate it.

Food-Blogger Hendrik Haase

Food-Blogger Hendrik Haase



Hendrik Haase