"There’s no limit to what plants can do": Transforming food systems through technological innovation
Food systems transformation is vital in a world faced with a growing population and food insecurity. Food tech innovation is a key component of feeding the future but it's just one piece of the puzzle.
According to a study by the University of Bonn, in order to feed future populations in a climate-friendly and sustainable way, meat consumption needs to fall by at least 75%. Subsequently, human protein consumption needs a dramatic overhaul, a move that calls for drastic action and the creation of new food systems.
Technological innovations, which are taking center stage in the food revolution, are one of the ways we can transform our diets and there is a range of low-carbon solutions being explored and proposed. As food tech explodes, policymakers and investors are taking notice and a number of legislative changes are in talks to help reduce the red tape around new research areas. Likewise, last year, there were over 90 investors in the foodtech space.
However, not all low-carbon proposals are sustainable - solutions such as methane-reducing feed additives to make cattle "climate-smart", for example, have been labeled as a band-aid fix. Organizations such as IPES-Food have highlighted that food tech innovations are not the solution to climate change and that a more holistic approach is required.
Investment in food tech explodes
Over the last few years, plant-based food tech has seen a wave of investment. A recent report from the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) found that investment in this sector results in more greenhouse gas reductions when compared with other green investments. Food tech investments are no longer niche: according to PitchBook's annual report, in 2021, venture capitalists (VC) invested over $39.3 billion in food tech companies across 1,358 deals. Interestingly, an analysis by Food Dive found that nine of the ten biggest funding rounds for the entire food space in the same year went to alternative protein and tech-enabled food companies.
Alt-proteins specifically received over $4.8 billion in investments last year, and the market is expected to reach $28 billion by 2025.
Anterra Capital is a VC fund that invests in companies that are transforming the global food system. Speaking about the current state of food and ag-tech, Adam Anders, managing partner, said that "technology-wise" it lags around 20 years behind sectors like human health and banking and that biotech advances will play a "critical role" in "making food and agriculture more resilient and less carbon-intensive."
The ProVeg Incubator Accelerator program has also been supporting food tech startups since it launched in 2018. The first of its kind, the Berlin-based incubator is now in its eighth edition and since 2018 has worked with over 50 startups worldwide. Together, those startups have raised over €35 million (around $36 million USD) and are selling products in over 15,000 stores.
Moreover, despite concerns around market saturation, according to Chuck Templeton of investor group S2G, another "trillion dollars of infrastructure would be needed to scale alternative proteins to the expected demand," and there is still an appetite for investment in plant-based food tech, despite some stagnation over the last 12 months.
At the Future Food-Tech Alternative Proteins Conference, Manuel Waenke, director of ventures at FootPrint Coalition, said: "Climate change isn't going anywhere. Health problems aren't going anywhere. So if anything, this is a 20 to 30-year plan. And the problems that we're trying to solve are getting bigger."
Legislative changes and government funding
Technological innovation alone won't transform food systems - politics and policy changes are fundamental in bringing about change. Faced with the ever-increasing gravity of climate change and food insecurity, governments are opening up to the opportunities in food and ag-tech to allow for greater innovation.
The UK government, for example, recently gave gene editing in plants, not to be confused with GMO, the green light, which will allow farmers to grow more resistant, nutritious and productive crops and enable scientists to more easily undertake plant-based research and development, using genetic technologies such as gene editing. According to Minister for Agri-Innovation and Climate Adaptation Jo Churchill, genetic technologies could help us "tackle some of the biggest challenges of our age – around food security, climate change and biodiversity loss."
Elsewhere, the European Commission (EC) recently opened a public consultation on allowing genome editing techniques in agriculture while in the Netherlands, the House of Representatives passed a motion to legalize the sampling of cell-cultured meat.
With regards to government funding, the Danish government recently set up the Plant Fund initiative, a $100 million USD fund that will be dedicated to plant-based food innovation, education, and sales. Likewise, in late January, China's National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the country's main economic regulator, unveiled a five-year plan to enhance China's bioeconomy, specifically prioritizing alt-protein.
Changing the landscape of food tech
There are a number of food and biotech companies making important strides in food tech innovation. Moolec Science, for example, is a science-based ingredient company that is working on upgrading the taste, nutrition, and affordability of alternative protein products while also seeking to create a more sustainable and equitable food system.
In a statement to the GPC, Moolec explained that molecular farming "enables the synthesis of real animal proteins' DNA in any seed crop, carefully selecting each protein for its ability to add value in terms of a targeted functionality trait such as clotting, taste, texture, or nutritional value."
Fundamentally, it allows them to imbibe plants with the properties of animal proteins to create parallel textures and flavors. The resulting food ingredients can be used across a range of applications, something that the company said is required to feed 10 billion people in 2050.
As the company says: "There is no limit to what plants can do."
Meanwhile, Equinom, an Israeli food tech company, has been working on enhancing pea protein. The company has over 250,000 varieties of seeds in its seed vault, which it uses in conjunction with its AI platform to naturally breed higher quality, non-GMO pulses. Moreover, while it had previously achieved an 'industry first' non-GMO pea protein ingredient with a protein content of 70%, it has now beaten that figure, and reached 75%. Alongside yellow peas, the company also works with soya beans and sesame seeds, and is exploring chickpeas, mung beans, cowpeas and fava beans. In a recent interview with GPC reporter Jesse Sam, Equinom outlined that its nutrient-dense crops eliminate the need for much of the costly processing that constrains supply and inflates prices.
Significant progress is also being made in the plant-based beverage market. According to Data Bridge Market research, the plant-based milk market is expected to reach $38.90 billion in the forecast period of 2020 to 2027, growing at a rate of 15%.
However, one consumer concern is the sustainability of crops typically used to make plant-based milks, particularly almond and soy. With its low water and fertilizer requirements, pea is gaining ground as a more environmentally-friendly option. Due to it being largely insoluble in water, it has, for the most part, been avoided. Pressure BioSciences' Ultra Shear Technology (UST), however, offers a solution to this problem. Research published in the journal Food Hydrocolloids from Ohio State University found that UST "successfully created stable suspensions of milk-pea protein blends in microscopic particle sizes," something which is required for commercially-suitable products that are both sensory-appealing and nutritional.
Finding a balance
Innovation in food tech is just one of the puzzle pieces required to transform our food systems. The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES), for example, has warned of an over-dependence on alternative proteins and argued that, when it comes to debates around transitioning the global food system, it's too "protein-centric."
In a recent report, ‘'The Politics of Protein,' the IPES states that "meat techno-fixes" will not save the planet. Indeed, in order to feed the ever-expanding global population, we need cooperation at an institutional level with national governments coming together to prioritize free and transparent trade and working to transition towards diets that are less dependent on animals for protein.
As Phil Howard, the lead author of the IPES report, outlines: "We need to change the system - not the product", a shift in focus from "'protein transition'" to "sustainable food system transition and sustainable food policies.”
Looking ahead, it’s clear that food tech has a significant role to play in creating a more sustainable food system. Considering the huge investments being made in the space and increasing government backing, it’s also likely to be one of the climate solutions that evolves the quickest. That said, it’s important to ensure we don’t neglect more natural, long-term and community-based solutions, such as regenerative agriculture, agroecology, and co-operative farming as well as working to facilitate the global trade of key food commodities. Working hand in hand with these practices, food tech innovation has the best chance at mitigating food insecurity and climate change for a truly sustainable future.