How can the food industry tackle the climate crisis?

Words by Natasha Burroughs

The Conduit’s Director of Business Development, Natasha Burroughs, shares current trends affecting the industry’s sustainability actions, from farm to fork.

There is global consensus that if we are to tackle climate change, we need to radically reshape our food system. It is responsible for around a third of greenhouse gas emissions, and a significant contributor to related issues of waste, malnutrition, water pollution and biodiversity loss. The ways in which we produce, manipulate, distribute, package and serve our food, as well as the food choices consumers make, all matter for the planet.

Crucially, there is now an unprecedented convergence of influential stakeholders – business, government, entrepreneurs, investors, regulators and activists – who are willing to work together to drive positive change. Within this supportive ecosystem, and with growing momentum ahead of COP26 later this year, companies in the food industry, from production to consumption, have a unique opportunity to reshape our entire system.

Below are four of the trends and potential solutions influencing companies’ climate action that were discussed at a recent dinner at The Conduit with industry leaders.

1. Business needs to embrace innovative models of thinking

Big corporations have proven they are just as capable as start-ups of driving innovation, yet that innovation is futile if executed in a silo. There are ways in which companies can disrupt entrenched ways of thinking and introduce greater transparency in how they are tackling sustainability issues. Unilever’s new 85-million-euro Food Innovation Centre in Wageningen Campus – the ‘Silicon Valley of Food’ in The Netherlands ­– is one example. Located amidst leading academic institutions, start-ups, NGOs and suppliers, it is harnessing the power of the collective to challenge deep-rooted behaviours and foster better collaboration across issues ranging from regenerative agriculture to crop diversification.

2. Disruptors are the new normal

In a more open environment, food businesses are not only disrupting, they are being disrupted. AI, genomics and molecular biology are transforming the industry, enabling companies to analyse the specifics of flavour, aroma, texture and nutritional content to create entirely new products that move away from animal-based protein. We currently have two paths to meat substitutes: meat-mimicking veggie burgers, like Impossible, and lab-grown proteins. In dairy, synthetic alternatives to milk using unusual combinations of ingredients such as cabbage and pineapple are already disrupting plant-based milks. The speed of innovation and the pace at which these novel products can be brought to market is startling. The food industry needs to be both aware of these paradigm disrupters and support their introduction into the market in a controlled way.

3. Investment opportunities deliver both profit and purpose

Disruption is creating compelling investment opportunities in start-ups working on sustainable food solutions, with firms focusing on niche sectors. Revolutionary investment house The Craftory, for example, invests exclusively in consumer-packaged goods brands that can effect large-scale positive change quickly. It is currently leading an investment round into NotCo, a Chilean food tech business that blends powerful machine AI to develop alternative, plant-based replacements for mayonnaise, milk, ice cream, meat and other animal-based products. Katapult, a global impact group based in Oslo, has already launched accelerators focused specifically on food tech and regenerative agriculture.

Businesses can help scale these start-ups by adopting them into their supply chains, partnering on new product development and supporting entry into international markets. Winnow, a company within the Conduit Connect platform, is utilised by some of the world’s largest hospitality and food service companies, including Compass, IKEA and Hilton, to reduce food waste through award-winning AI technology.

4. The hospitality and food service industries can push consumers in the right direction

Ordering in and eating out are on the rise. A UBS report titled ‘The End of the Kitchen?’ posits that by 2030 we could see a scenario where “most meals currently cooked at home are instead ordered online and delivered from either restaurants or central kitchens”. In China, the average person orders takeaway 700 times a year (that’s twice a day). Consumers are also increasingly looking to companies to offer more sustainable food options. Hotels, restaurants and food delivery services therefore have a huge opportunity to drive more low carbon lifestyles, whether it’s consuming local and seasonal produce, reducing single-use plastic and food waste, or eating a predominantly vegan or vegetarian diet. Big chains are already responding with novel concepts, such as Pret a Manger, which has launched a number of ‘Veggie Pret’ branches across London.

The challenges to change

A core challenge to genuine transformation in the food industry is the high price point of many sustainable brands. Low carbon products and experiences, from organic tea to luxury holidays, are still only accessible to a privileged few. We need an AI revolution and development of other technologies to support production of sustainable goods at an affordable price. Even when these products do become cheaper, they will need to have an element of desirability to encourage mass take-up.

There are success stories showing it is possible for brands to be both ethical and desirable. Dutch company Tony’s Chocoloney, a chocolate brand whose mission is to change the cocoa industry, eradicate slavery and stop child labour, is the market leader in the chocolate bar segment in the Netherlands. In the travel industry, several hotel groups around the world are beginning to immerse holiday makers in experiences that imbue a sense of collective responsibility towards local communities and the environment.

Looking to the future

If we are to scale solutions to industry-wide issues quickly – whether it’s on plastics, food waste or low-carbon travel – pre-competitive collaboration will need to happen in a more strategic and structured way. Companies must pool financial, operational and human resources to fund innovation, identify supply chain efficiencies and scale solutions to sustainability issues. We should create more opportunities that put executives from all sectors in the same room to set strong agendas and measure progress.

Although this may present some legal issues for some companies, others are willing to share their IP. Allbirds, the world’s fastest growing sustainable shoe company, publicly urged Amazon to “steal its approach to sustainability” after the online retailer spun a cheaper version of Allbirds’ namesake runners. There is no reason why this can’t happen in food.

We have a short timeframe to transform our global food system. Yes, it is broken, and the challenges are enormous. However, by being open to greater innovation, disruption and collaboration, and by proactively helping consumers to make more sustainable choices, business can be at the forefront of creating a new model of how we produce, consume and dispose of food.

For more information on how your company can partner with The Conduit to drive meaningful change, please contact natashaburroughs@theconduit.com.