The produce department of tomorrow may not be one.
That’s one perspective given in response to a question I asked members of the Fresh Produce Industry Discussion Group on LinkedIn.
The question was simple: Compared to today, what will the produce department look like in 2050?
One reader offered: “There will be no department stores. Everything will be smart-home generated. It will be like living on a space station. All self-sustaining. Life will be one big order in. I can envisage dial-in kitchens, where they come to your home and cook your meals for you. Uber-Cook?”
The above perspective is even more aggressive than imagining a future where more food is grown where stores are located. Let’s bypass the greenhouse atop Whole Foods and put an indoor farm in our own homes! No need to run to the market; the home is the market.
Still another reader saw a future that combined technology with the emergence of urban agriculture and a return to local and seasonal crops to fill the gaps as fresh food becomes “more expensive and unsustainable” to produce.
I think readers and futurists may be getting ahead of themselves. I don’t see home-based greenhouses or vertical farms making big advances and indoor farms at retail will continue to be quite rare.
Consumers then, as now, won’t have a great desire to find the rhythm of the season and eat only local food. Why give up blueberries in January if you don’t have to?
Surely e-commerce and grocery delivery will grow, but how quickly will consumers embrace the trend? How much will we pay for convenience?
And how much innovation are we ready for? One Dutch company called Upprinting Food now produces 3-D printed snacks made from food waste. The company uses foods like fruits, vegetables, rice, and bread and creates a blended puree that is pushed out of a 3-D printer and then baked.
When I’m 91 will I shuffle off to Hy-Vee, Walmart or Aldi or push an easy button and order groceries for delivery? Or perhaps fire up a 3D food-printer for an afternoon snack?
Perhaps drone delivery of food will become a reality by 2050. Air drones will drop out of the sky to deliver a tote of fresh food.
The future of the produce department can’t be considered apart from the future of America. A recent Pew Research Survey cheerily shows that we are not that sure about the direction America is headed. Asking Americans what they think the U.S. will be like in 2050, Pew found majorities of Americans foresee a country with a burgeoning national debt, a wider gap between the rich and the poor and a workforce threatened by automation.
Americans don’t see George Jetson technology as a solution to our woes.
I think the discount, mid-scale and upmarket produce departments in 2050 will look a lot like those same departments today, with perhaps a few more discounters in the mix. I hope I live long enough to be proven mistaken.
Tom Karst is The Packer’s editor. E-mail him at [email protected].