Is Food-Tech Headed Towards Its Uncanny Valley Moment?

As today’s agricultural industry evolves and adapts, we’re seeing massive strides taking place at the intersection of food and technology. In keeping pace with these developments in food tech, two distinct camps have emerged. In the first camp, there are the purists who are taking an almost artisanal approach. They want to see a transition towards more whole foods, locally produced, with minimal processing or artificial inputs. Think urban farming enthusiasts growing their own fruits and vegetables and raising chickens in their back yards. Meanwhile, we have an innovation-driven group that sees the potential for technology to reinvent and reimagine foods that we know today, but in a new, healthier form, with reduced environmental impact, improved nutritional value, and perhaps with less ethical compromise. Often these new food technologies are using plant-based ingredients to replace animal-based foods, such as chicken breasts, ground beef, eggs, milk, cheese, etc.

Although both groups are seeking healthier, more sustainable, more ethical ways to eat, each is taking a decidedly different approach. While science can easily suggest that eating a diet consisting of less meat and more vegetables is likely healthier, there remains a question about what the majority of consumers really want to eat and whether we’re heading towards an Uncanny Valley moment.

The “uncanny valley“ phenomenon, coined by famed Japanese robotics pioneer Masahiro Mori, postulates that as facial features look and move almost, but not exactly, like natural beings, they cause a response of revulsion among some observers. This is why so many cartoon characters have facial features that are exaggerated and far from perfect approximations.

In food technology today, there are many companies seeking to approximate animal-based foods with plant-based alternatives. This reflects increased consumer awareness and interest in reducing animal based foods in their diets. The pursuit is noble and could have a tremendous impact globally by helping curb the evolving appetites of the growing middle class in developing countries towards fewer animal based products.

However, the question about exactly how these products emerge remains – do consumers really want a veggie burger that bleeds? Is this too close to a feature that may not be what consumers are actually seeking? Is this food tech’s Uncanny Valley?

It is clear that our global food industry will need to undergo a radical transformation in order to meet the changing needs of consumers in the coming decades. Our current approaches to animal husbandry, unchecked environmental costs, and limited transparency into food supply chains will not sustain. Consumers want access to better ingredients, grown in better ways, at viable price points that come together in products that taste delicious. Technology will no doubt play a critical role in enabling this transformation on a global scale – by both allowing farmers to be more productive and sustainable, but also through incorporating alternative ingredients into finished food products.

But perfection may be the enemy of the good. Perfectly replicated or synthesized animal products may not produce the desired results, instead turning users off just like Masahiro Mori warned nearly 40 years ago. Instead, perhaps there is an optimal point on the curve that is counter-intuitive – providing great tasting, healthy food, in a form that can appeal to the masses as consumer preferences evolve. Will the company that finds this sweet-spot emerge as the Pixar of food tech?

In full disclosure, we are proud investors in Beyond Meat, a company redefining vegetable protein and leading the discussion on our evolving relationship with meat. They are taking bold aim at the optimum point on the Uncanny Valley curve, and we are incredibly excited about their prospects.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, as a consumer or as an entrepreneur, on whether you believe food tech will be subject to the Uncanny Valley phenomenon.