Feeding the world is no new challenge, but with an expanding global middle class, what has made the problem worse in recent years is a new appetite for rich, resource-intensive foods. The demand for protein is increasing in China and even in mostly vegetarian India, who account for much of the increasing strain on land, animal and water resources. Thus, the global food system must account not just for not only an increasing population, but also a growing class of consumers with demanding palettes and greater purchasing power.
To address food demand, we must depart from the existing methodologies that have served mass production of food so well in the past 50 years. While the “green revolution” resulted in increased grain production to feed hungry populations, the nutritive capacity of our farm-produced food has fallen around the world. In the process of mass processing food to create shelf-stable, low-price products, we have built a reliance on a few core crops that have become the cornerstone of the world’s food supply, failing in the process to cultivate a variety of food sources with the micro and macronutrients necessary for good human and plant health.
Rethinking these issues across the food system, from farm to plate, is a central part of discussions within the food industry today, and was the focus of Larta Institute’s annual Ag Innovation Showcase — a stage every September for food and ag industry leaders to discuss critical issues, and for the next generation of startup innovators to bring new solutions to light.
For the last decade, the Showcase has tracked the arc of innovation in food and agriculture, enabling industry stalwarts and upstarts alike to converge at the Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis. Along the way, we have also showcased provocative solutions, and focused on game-changing technologies for plant health, such as gene editing and waste recycling.
This year’s conversation had a greater focus on sustainability, and for good reason. We are upwards of seven billion people on the planet, and on track to exceed nine billion by 2050. Mid-century farming methods, which we still by and large employ, are proving not only insufficient, but destructive.
Big players adapting to changing needs
One great driver of this transition to a food system that encourages sustainable methods and increased traceability is consumer demand. Mehmood Khan, Chief Scientific Officer and Vice Chairman of PepsiCo, spoke to the “reverse commute” that consumers are taking. As noted by Dr. Khan, today’s consumers are asking for more information about where their food is grown, how it’s produced, and how big companies are transforming the system for a more transparent and sustainable value chain. This experience is increasing consumer preference at the plate itself. Transparency, traceability, preference for organic products, and a focus on macronutrient profiles are having a dramatic effect on how major companies reshape their portfolios and plan for the future.
We learned from Jill Kolling, Chief Sustainability Officer at Cargill, of another change driver: logistics and supply chains. From grain elevators in Indiana to cocoa co-ops in the Ivory Coast, Cargill sits in the middle of the largest commodity supply chains in the world, moving food from where it’s grown to where it’s needed. Kolling’s talk underscored the unique challenges of commodity supply chains, while balancing the need for cost-efficient, traceable food solutions to feed a growing population.
Charlotte Hebebrand, head of the International Fertilizer Association, addressed many of these issues directly, in terms of what we call the “Four R’s” — the right fertilizer ingredients, delivered at the right rate, at the right time and in the right place. And occurrences such as the Gulf Coast’s Red Tide not only cause environmental problems far from the field, they mark great inefficiencies in the use, application and timing of nutrients.
This concern over precision in our approach to plant health and understanding of an increased need for transparency continued throughout the Showcase. We produced a special content session focusing on the widespread impact and opportunity around fertilizers moving forward, whether it be in bettering diagnostic tools to understand rate and timing, or engineering more environmental sustainability towards soil health, with the general understanding that it’s one of our most precious resources and the key to fertility and food abundance.
New players fixing broken systems
Central to the Showcase’s DNA is the opportunity for early-stage innovators to pose new solutions for these very problems, leveraging diverse technologies in bold and disruptive ways.
This year, there were a number of startups addressing plants, plant nutrition and nutritive capacities, both in optimizing plant biology and in the use of naturally occurring beneficial microbes to increase plan nutrition, fend off pests, and act as natural herbicides.
Livestock Water Recycling (LWR) has developed a system equipped with data accumulation sensors to turn the muck of cattle ponds into clean water and valuable nutrients. LWR’s technology is designed to achieve optimized production, maximum crop yields, and a high return on investment while minimizing the environmental impact of food production.
Whereas LWR helps make livestock impacts more sustainable, Planetarians brings new value to crop waste, while producing significant product macronutrients at the same time. The company is tapping unused and overlooked ingredients such as defatted seeds, converting them into a high-protein, high-fiber ingredient; and helps food manufacturers fortify a variety of food products with natural protein and fiber from seeds. Replacing 30 percent of all-purpose flour with defatted seeds doubles the protein and fiber content, while keeping costs the same.
There was also a spate of companies rethinking transportation and logistics, such as FreshSpoke, which makes local food more accessible by providing wholesale buyers with the ability to source directly from local food suppliers, solving the big distribution problem without adding more trucks or warehousing. FreshSpoke’s web and mobile apps now connect over 180 farmers/growers, and food and beverage artisans with 300+ foodservice and retail buyers in Ontario, Canada; and the US Midwest.
Meanwhile, StixFresh has an inventive solution for the food industry in a simple, edible sticker that extends shelf life dramatically (for up to 14 days) for fruits such as apples, pears and avocados.
Karn Manhas, CEO of Vancouver-based sustainable agriculture cleantech company Terramera, highlighted a new technology to eliminate synthetic chemical pesticides. The company has developed a process to make organic inputs up to ten times more effective, making plant-based active ingredients able to outperform synthetic chemical alternatives for the first time.
This year’s Showcase gave a sense that the agriculture and food industries are putting forward leading-edge solutions, turning factors such as consumer pressure and environmental impact from barriers to complementary relationships. Whether through industry leaders rethinking their supply chain and product innovations, or through startup innovators in the burgeoning food tech space, solutions abound.
Yes, tremendous challenges lie ahead. But if the Ag Showcase is any indication, a tighter, more consumer-focused industry — from farm to plate — means a more robust, sustainable, productive and consumer-centric future food system.