The future of food is the future of health. And, the time is now. Innovative companies are already addressing crop innovation, smarter plant-based natural and affordable alternatives to sugar and improvement of sustainable, efficient ag and food manufacturing.
A CROSSROADS FOR THE FOOD SYSTEM
There have been few times in history that provide the opportunities we face today. The global food system is at a crossroads. Rapidly rising global population levels continue to drive agricultural innovations pushing production boundaries – with the United States responsible for the largest contribution to world production, outpacing India and China by approximately two-thirds.
Ag tech innovation to this point has been focused primarily on increasing row crop production through advancements in genetics, agronomics, technology, supply chains, equipment and weather forecasting.
Despite these significant contributions, driven primarily by U.S. innovation, the system remains flawed at a time when the world population is creating the greatest demand as the system becomes increasingly tied to indisputable evidence that it is simultaneously contributing to an increasingly unhealthy population as well.
THE (LITERALLY) DEADLY INTERSECTION WITH HEALTH
While intuitive, academic research is clearly showing us that the food choices we are making are having a substantial, sometimes very negative impact on our health. But, how much choice do we actually have? Nonetheless, the implications of that research are actually very positive – better food equates to better health.
Americans alone spend a trillion dollars a year on food and close to twice that on healthcare with two diet-related diseases, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes accounting for a disproportionate share of that spend.
While innovation has focused on production optimization creating needed supply, this has come at a price – often sacrificing nutrition and taste every step of the way, literally from field to table.
INCREASED CONSUMER AWARENESS
As income and education rise and digital access to information becomes ubiquitous, consumers are both questioning their personal choices and, more importantly, the choices available to them from a system focused on volume, cost and caloric content at the expense of nutrition and taste.
Demand for protein rises, along with demand for fruits and vegetables. And those consumers also become less accepting of quality problems; brand loyalty can be destroyed almost overnight when quality issues arise, and trust can take years to rebuild. Stronger, smarter supply chains are key.
Increased consumer awareness flips farm-to-table on its ear. Food manufacturers and ingredient companies are keenly sensitive as consumers are turning away from entire categories of food, particularly highly processed, packaged food. Growth in the “center of the supermarket” stalled for several years, as consumers began to reject some of the best-selling brands. Nutritionists and bloggers advocated a shift to “clean labels” – products with fewer, more natural ingredients, but major brands, with huge investments in existing products, struggle to adapt to changing consumer preferences.
In addition, new information continues to shape preferences. Research has shifted the “war on fat” to something more nuanced. Recent academic work is clarifying and defending the role of “good fats,” while raising serious doubts about the safety of natural sugar, and sweet alternatives.
DOING MORE WITH LESS
Consumers are paying far greater attention to the sustainability of the food they eat, and are willing to pay more, and to change their diets. Farm-raised, “sustainably sourced” seafood is catching up in quality. Alternative proteins are on the verge of going mainstream. Advances in livestock management may be a key part of the solution to sustainability and climate change.
While the American food system is the most advanced, productive and complex in the world, it is not without its challenges.
Yet nearly a quarter of the fruit and vegetables that we harvest are wasted as a result of spoilage and inefficiency, and it can take weeks to track down the source of food contamination. Existing systems still trade off “fresh and nutritious” for “convenient.”
We need innovative solutions that not only advance a more nutritional, and plentiful, food system but one that improves efficiency and affordability through better resource use, allocation and reuse.
ENORMOUS OPPORTUNITY FOR ENTREPRENEURS
Consumers tend to embrace better food quickly. Yet innovation and speed don’t play to the strengths of food and agriculture incumbents. That is creating an unusually large number of opportunities for smaller, more nimble producers to grow and to build their own brands. Restaurant chains and prepared food providers tied too closely to the wrong food, or the wrong trends, fade quickly.
Convenience has literally reshaped how we buy food, and how we eat it. Online grocers can deliver almost anything in less than a day in cities. Grocers are selling more prepared foods to eat at home, competing with a host of pickup and delivery options offering convenience, quality and freshness.
Consumers have demonstrated that they will pay for convenience and quality, but by far, what consumers want most is food that makes them feel better. As we develop better, healthier food with proven, tangible health benefits, gaining share of the consumer wallet will come quickly.
The economic case for healthier food goes well beyond what consumers will pay. With research now demonstrating clear linkages between the food we eat and these two diseases, better food can be a powerful and relatively inexpensive source of prevention – something the healthcare industry has had little incentive to invest in. The emerging food and ag tech industries have those incentives, and consumers have made it clear that they are willing to pay for food that can improve their health.