Take a Byte! Food-as-Software

“The prevailing production system will shift away from a model, of centralized extraction and the breakdown of scarce resources that requires vast physical scale and reach, to a model of localized creation from limitless, ubiquitous building blocks – a world built not on coal, oil, steel, livestock and concrete but on photons, electrons, DNA, molecules and (q)bits. Product design and development will be performed collaboratively over information networks while physical production and distribution will be fulfilled locally. As a result, geographic advantage will be eliminated as every city or region becomes self-sufficient.”

Rethinking Humanity, RethinkX, June 2020 


Throughout history, technology has been the driving force behind major structural changes to the food system. The plough, fishing nets, irrigation, fermentation, canning, fertilizers, tractors and refrigeration, to name just a few, have enabled us to transition from hunter-gatherers to small-scale farmers to industrial food producers on a massive scale. Each step-change enabling more efficiencies than the last, allowing us to extract more from nature and produce more food to feed an over growing population. Importantly, we have been freed from the binds of providing for ourselves and our families to focus more on activities such as education, manufacturing and recreation, leading to extraordinary wealth creation and massively improved living standards, health and longevity.

More recently, as the pace of technological development has increased exponentially, mechanization of production, food processing, and economies of scale have driven the cost of food down to the lowest it’s ever been. All the while, fewer and fewer people work in food production – today just 1% of US workers are employed in agriculture, down from 60% in the mid-19th century.[1]

Now, we are on the cusp of another even more profound change in the food system, which will change not only the way we produce food, but the way we design, develop and distribute it too. Food can be designed anywhere, developed anywhere, downloaded anywhere, and produced anywhere. The need for the current centralized production system we rely on today will disappear.

We call this new food system Food-as-Software (FaS) and it will have huge global rippling implications. FaS is the next leap forward, driven by technology, particularly information and biotechnologies, it will mean a food system that is more efficient, abundant and distributed with far fewer environmental impacts. The food it produces will be tastier, cheaper, more nutritious, convenient, varied and personalized.

This may sound radical, but the science and technology that underpins FaS already exists – no major breakthroughs are needed for it to scale rapidly and completely disrupt our current food system.

Design & Develop

The building blocks we use for food today were decided for us 10,000 years ago when humans started on the path of the first domestication of plants and animals. Today 75% of the world’s food comes from just 12 plants and 5 animals,[2]  representing a tiny slice of the infinite possibilities now available to us.

The emerging food options are not a one-for-one replacement of the few dozen animal and plant proteins currently in our food supply – using precision biology, we can design a nearly infinite variety of proteins (and other complex organic compounds including lipids and vitamins) with precise specifications, including nutrition, taste, texture, color, and impact on health. A FaS model will allow scientists, food designers, and molecular chefs to develop food like we develop smartphone apps. Individualized nutrition, where specific proteins, fibers, and vitamins are developed on-demand to match our specific genetic, epigenetic, and metabolic makeup as well as lifestyle will become the norm.

This will have parallels with other disrupted industries. Until just two decades ago, news and information were mainly distributed through centralized production and narrow distribution channels of newspapers, books, radios and TV. Technology convergence opened up the possibility for anyone, anywhere connected to the network to communicate directly with anyone else through a multitude of websites, social media and streaming channels. Consumers have become producers, as a model has emerged of infinite supply with bottom-up, distributed, empowered producer/consumers connected via global information networks.[3]

In our report, Rethinking Food and Agriculture 2020-2030,[4] we pinpoint precision biology as the underlying mechanism for this shift towards FaS. In the same way that a computer’s activity is directed by the way it’s programmed through binary code, a cell’s activity is directed by its DNA. The precision biology toolbox includes a set of technologies including DNA sequencing, gene editing and DNA synthesis that allows scientists to read genetic sequences, design, edit and print DNA and insert it into a cell or microbe to program its behavior. Conceptually, programming microbes is becoming as simple as copy-pasting a paragraph using a word processor. Food engineers use this toolbox to take gene data from a molecular database and use it to program microbes to produce the ingredients we need for the products we want. Biotechnology becomes the new information in this model and underpins this shift. DNA is just code and data.

Advances in these technologies means that right now, researchers are busy cataloguing the complex organic molecules that are the building blocks of the natural world. Scientists are isolating the components of plants, animals and fungi to find out which molecules are responsible for each particular function and characteristic – for example, which molecule or compound gives an orange its smell or blood its taste. They are feeding all this information, along with the genes that code for each molecule, into mega-databases. Soon they will contain information on millions upon millions of individual molecules.

Thanks to cloud computing, these databases can be updated and shared by scientists anywhere and in real-time, allowing food engineers to design and develop products in the same way that software developers develop apps for smartphones. This means products can be customized to any specification – be it texture, smell, flavor or nutritional profile. Design is computer-led and on rapid test cycles – think days not years.

One of the benefits of FaS is that individual components can be updated without having to change the entire product. Much like computer software is continually updated and deployed using agile development techniques, food can be rapidly improved as production techniques are refined, new molecules are synthesized, or consumer feedback is received. Simulations can be run quickly to test combinations of molecules, product ideas and designs to ensure product safety.

Think knobs and dials: if you want a patty to have more protein or lower fat you can simply dial the protein knob from 20g to 30g and dial the fat knob down from 8g to 6g. You can also design a milk with a wider diversity of proteins Mammoth protein? Jellyfish protein? Platypus milk protein? This continual iteration means food products can be improved rapidly – just as version 1.0 hits the market, producers will already be working on version 2.0, then 3.0 and so on, with no change to the business model and no surplus stock. Each iteration produces cheaper, tastier and more nutritious food than the last.

These tweaks will happen instantaneously, with recipe updates becoming continuous – just as apps on our phone update, recipes will be updated, with users perhaps not even realizing. You may not even have to stop the production line. You cannot do this with a cow. It would take decades to breed in any changes – and even then, they’re limited to the same old proteins that they produced ten thousand or one hundred thousand years ago.

Food-as-software allows for infinite product iterations and testing at the exponentially improving speed of super-computing – not the glacial pace of animal and plant evolution.

Food engineers, and us as consumers, will soon become molecular chefs – choosing components as you would choose ingredients for a recipe and combining them to create nearly any food imaginable. By reading a person’s exact nutritional needs and designing a custom product to meet them, innovation in sensors and wearable technologies makes a level of food personalization possible that was until now inconceivable.

Production and Delivery

The whole food production system will flip the current system on its head – it will shift from a model of extraction, where we grow plants and animals to break them down into the things we need, to a model of creation, where foods are built up from precisely-designed molecules and cells.

The core technology enabling this system of production is precision fermentation and will enable nutritious food that initially replicates livestock proteins (milk and meat).[5] It will not just be an order-of-magnitude cheaper, but superior in every possible way – the food itself (taste, aroma, texture, mouthfeel, nutrition, and variety), predictability of quality, price, and supply.

Recipes can be downloaded from anywhere in the world and manufactured cheaply and easily in fermentation tanks and bioreactors, literally anytime, anywhere. Anywhere we brew beer we will be able to produce food. We will move from a centralized production system to one that is on-demand across networked nodes, supported by local delivery on a transport-as-a-service model. The result is a fully distributed and decentralized production system where all producers, no matter where they are based, have instantaneous access to up-to-date databases, code, recipes and product information.

Raw input production will rely on high-performance microbes rather than plants and animals producing high volume commodities in fields and feedlots, competing on physical supply-side economies of scale. The current hugely wasteful and inefficient system is replaced by one that is precise, targeted and produces little or no waste at all; a system that is no longer at the mercy of geography, geopolitics and fluctuations in price, quality and volume. This emerging food system will have profound impacts as 70% of agricultural land and water currently used for animals is largely freed up for alternative uses.[6]

The production of FaS enables software-like business and distribution models, which are also – you guessed it – driven by technology. Platforms (i.e. companies that profit from connectivity as opposed to production) already exist in the food system in the form of delivery apps that move restaurant food, groceries, or meal prep kits from local food producers to consumers. In the future, these platforms could connect food producers, or even food engineers and scientists, directly with consumers. Retail stores and brick and mortar restaurants will change the business model, becoming molecular chefs and PF producers adapted to local consumption needs and patterns. Consumer apps incorporating detailed nutrition needs will connect to food retailers to purchase exactly the food they need when they need it. The food pyramid will seem as ancient as the Egyptian pyramids. The food that consumers need varies by the minute. With FaS, local producers will be able to develop and deliver the right food at the right time. Eventually, fermentation tanks/bioreactors will become so cheap and small they’ll fit into the average kitchen and the platform will connect researchers with consumers to provide information on how to create the best food products for them.

Many of the biological technologies developed for food production will also have applications in healthcare, cosmetics, and material production.

Protection and Innovation

Wherever research, technology, and profits intersect in an industry, intellectual property (IP) protocols will undoubtedly arise in order to protect and incentivize innovation. Protecting IP is important in the software industry, which has in turn succeeded in creating orders-of-magnitude more knowledge, applications and content at little or no cost to consumers. Since a similar model can now be used to transform food production, we must ensure the right IP and regulatory regime is in place that allows it to flourish.

When IP is related to food, nature, life, genes and molecules, ethical concerns are raised and rightfully so – who has the right to own life after all? Patents, which typically protect IP, often pave the way for monopolies that slow progress, limit product diversity and increase prices. When needed, patents must only extend to processes or production methods, not to the molecules, genes or life that represent the products themselves.

A transparent, open, permissive supply-side IP regime that encourages international collaboration and competitive networks will succeed and ensure that the benefits of FaS can be enjoyed by everyone everywhere, not just the privileged few. Monopolies or oligopolies, like the ones we currently have – think big ag, big tech or big pharma – will not. There is no room in the new system for ‘big FaS’.

Protections need to be for people, not industry. Consumer health, activity and metabolic data should be owned by individuals, not companies. We also need to prioritize consumers’ right to know.

[1] Worldbank and Our world in data. See a visualisation here.

[2] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Please find link here to latest report on biodiversity. Data sourced from FAOSTAT.

[3] Rethinking Humanity, Framework Box 7: Information: From Extraction to Creation. Page 50. Please find a link to the report here.

[4] Rethinking Food and Agriculture 2020-2030. Please find a link to the report here.

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

3 thoughts on “Take a Byte! Food-as-Software”

  1. Would you please extend footnote #2. A footnote that only say “FAO” is not very good. It does not say anything. If you want to be believed you need to back up your statements with valid, informative, and easy to double check. Please expand and add a link to the specific page/url.

  2. ‘Precision fermentation’ implies tightly controlled bacterial colonies (right?), whereas immunology research seems to be concluding that higher diversity in the microbiome is associated with better health outcomes and that consuming a variety of microbes is a way to reinforce that diversity. Would be interested to hear your thoughts on this.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *