Future of food: technology meets global needs

ARTICLE

Future of food: technology meets global needs

A growing global population, climate change and animal welfare are catalysing demand for alternatives to conventional animal agriculture. Brad Barbera, Senior Advisor at US non-profit The Good Food Institute, evaluates the impact of next-generation technology on the food industry

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Globally, ecological and food security concerns are driving momentum in the research and development of alternative food sources. Historically, we have relied on conventional animal agriculture, but this is now being challenged by an increasing number of startups and SMEs focused on plant-based and cell-cultivated meat, dairy and egg alternatives.


Celebrities, technology executives, food companies and investors are publicly and financially backing alternative protein-source startups, as vegetarianism, veganism and a general desire to consume less meat escalates. Increasingly, food manufacturers are recognising the rewards of cutting even a small slice out of the global $700 billion processed meats industry.​




Driving force


When it comes to alternative source demand, there are four main drivers. The first is the environment with the significant impact that animal agriculture has on climate change requiring urgent attention. Animal agriculture is responsible for 14.5 per cent of global greenhouse emissions, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, with 65 per cent of those emissions generated by dairy cattle. That amounts to more emissions than from all forms of transportation combined.


A 2019 study, published in the online journal Scientific Reports, found that if the US population replaced one quarter of meat consumption with substitutes such as plant proteins, it would save 82 million metric tons of annual greenhouse gas emissions.


Another recent landmark report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change noted that a shift towards a plant-based diet is critical if we are to adapt to and mitigate climate change. The global body says that simply cutting automotive and industrial carbon emissions will not be sufficient to avert an impending global crisis.


​Global health concerns


Second, there are growing human health concerns associated with overconsumption of meat and processed foods and links to increasing incidences of heart disease and diabetes. Another, less well-known health warning linked to meat consumption is antibiotic resistance. Around 80 per cent of the total volume of antibiotics sold in the US is for use in animal agriculture.


Antibiotics are administered to animals in their feed to improve growth rates and prevent infection, a worldwide practice that has increased dramatically in the last 15 years. There is now growing evidence that antibiotic resistance – which the World Health Organization describes as a ‘serious threat to global health that requires action across all government sectors and society’ – is promoted by the widespread use of nontherapeutic antibiotics in animals.


Food for all


Food security is the third pressing issue. By 2050, global food systems will need to be able to sustainably and nutritiously feed more than nine billion people, while providing economic opportunities in both rural and urban communities. Global estimates, however, suggest that our food systems are falling far short of these goals.


There are currently 800 million people worldwide suffering from chronic malnourishment and in the next 10 years there will be another billion mouths to feed. If we can’t feed the world now, how will we feed the future?


​Growing concern for treatment of animals​


The final driver is growing concern for animal welfare in farming. Mainstream media reports detailing the unsanitary and inhumane conditions in which animals are often kept is painting a negative picture of the factory-farming sector.


It’s worth noting other influencing factors like agricultural expansion, which is responsible for 80 per cent of global deforestation. Freshwater ecosystems are also among the most stressed on the planet, with the vast majority of fresh water we use consumed by agriculture and food processing.


Put simply, it is becoming increasingly difficult for people to ignore how the food on their plate is farmed. While plant-based alternatives have been around for decades, the market for these products has exploded in the last two years, presenting a wealth of new opportunities.​



Looking to the future


Technology is also playing a large role in advancing plant-based alternatives. More and more companies are using technology to grow cultivated meat from animal stem cells; a process with a fraction of the environmental impact of rearing live animals that also removes the need for antibiotics.


While flavour and price will ultimately dictate the popularity of such products, lab-based alternatives are not merely a fad – and the market will continue to grow. The cellular cultivation of meats has improved dramatically over the last five years, and while the meat alternatives industry is still in its infancy, commercial viability is possible within the next three to five years.


Plant-based and cell-cultivated products are becoming increasingly indistinguishable from the real thing. In particular, companies have reset the bar when it comes to an alternative animal product with zero compromise on taste.


Technology will continue to play a greater role as global governments and industries work to address and find solutions to food security issues. Those who embrace the transformative role of plant-based or cell-cultivated alternatives to animal products will potentially reap huge economic – and social – benefits.​


Managing change effectively


As with any critical change, however, comes teething problems. First, it is important to acknowledge the ‘creative destruction’ that comes any time you create a superior solution. In this scenario, the growth of plant-based or cell-cultivated alternatives could lead to job displacement in the animal agriculture sector and, potentially, the need to repurpose farmland.​


There is also an obvious cost element to consider. Until these technologies have been efficiently scaled, alternative products are likely to remain a bit more expensive than their conventional counterparts. Similarly, there needs to be a mindset shift in the way cell-cultivated or plant-based products are perceived by the general public, with some people considering them to have an ‘ick factor’.


But, the same can be said for other advancements in science. Take, for example, the case of Louise Brown, the world’s first person to be born through IVF, delivered at a hospital in Oldham, in northern England in 1978. While the birth brought a message of hope to childless couples around the world, it also sparked a controversial global debate about the ethics of “test-tube babies.”


But look at the situation now. In the past four decades, more than eight million babies have been born through IVF – that’s the equivalent of the population of New York City. No one questions their humanity. It’s become the new norm. And that is what we will see with cellular agriculture in the next 10 years, with products virtually indistinguishable from their animal counterparts. And it won’t just be sausages, burgers and nuggets, but steaks, fillets, and seafood, too.


As well as business and economic potential, a shift away from traditional animal to plant-based and cellular agriculture will have game-changing social benefits. From a net reduction in greenhouse gases, and preservation of endangered habitats and species, to a narrowing of the food security gap, this is a cause worth investing in.


And as people are more and more interested in the food they eat – including where it comes from, how it’s made, and what the effects of eating it are – plant-based foods are increasingly recognised for their health benefits and for their eco-friendly footprint. As a result they’re becoming more mainstream.


It is little wonder, therefore, that investors are finding value in vegetarian and vegan meat alternatives. An emerging business opportunity coupled with social good? For entrepreneurs with a conscience, investing in plant-based alternatives is a recipe for success.​

Topics

  • Food & Beverage
  • Sustainability